On 22 October, alt-rock icons Garbage, fronted by Shirley Manson, will play at the ninth annual We Can Survive concert — part of Audacy’s I’m Listening mental health initiative in support of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — at the legendary Hollywood Bowl.
Among the acts performing will be Alanis Morrisette, Weezer, Halsey, and OneRepublic, but surely one of the night’s highlights will be the set by the 'Only Happy When It Rains' supergroup whose fierce Scottish frontwoman has always been an advocate for the disenfranchised and open about her own mental health struggles.
Ahead of the event, Manson engaged in a characteristically lively, candid, and ultimately inspiring dialogue with Yahoo Entertainment about the loved ones’ suicides she mourned as a young girl, her own experiences with cutting and fleeting suicidal thoughts, why the ‘90s was a groundbreaking era for dark and emotive music, aging in the public eye, and how she’s owning her power at she proudly enters her mid-fifties.
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Yahoo Entertainment: I'll start with the obvious questions, which are what it means to you to play the We Can Survive concert and why it's important to you to support this cause.
Shirley Manson: Well, speaking personally, I've had quite a history of losing people I love through suicides, from a very early age. When I was a child, I lost my aunt. I lost several schoolmates. There was a beautiful photographer and director that Garbage had the joy of working with, and a really great friend of mine who was an artist who killed himself a couple of years ago in a very, very violent way.
This is just something that has played a large role in my life, more than I ever would've expected. And I have become very frustrated over the years by some of the misunderstandings and intolerance surrounding the act of suicide. So, this was an opportunity to get involved in a cause that is interested in trying to smash the taboos that surround the discussion of suicide.
It's still a subject that people find very, very hard to discuss. They get very uncomfortable and want to change the subject immediately. While taboos are taboos for a reason — taboos exist because they are so heavy that most people can't stomach it — I personally have always believed in the destruction of taboos. I think they're very dangerous. I think ignorance and refusal to acknowledge any taboo is really futile.
When you announced that Garbage was playing this event, via your eloquent and candid Instagram, you posted about your aunt’s suicide in quite a bit of detail. You were only 14 at the time of your aunt's death. I wonder how that affected you. And was it discussed in your family, or was it swept under the rug as something taboo?
It was discussed in my household. It wasn't something that wasn't mentioned or explained. My mom in particular was very open about what had happened and how it had happened. But as a young child, it's very difficult to comprehend what it means for someone to end a life. It was very shortly after my aunt that I also lost a schoolmate, who cut his own throat; it was very violent and remarkably shocking. Then shortly after, there was another schoolmate who killed themselves. So, in a very concentrated period of time, I lost three people through suicide, all of which I knew very well. There were different methods in how they chose to end their lives, but they were all equally disturbing and upsetting and strange. It's just something that's kind of haunted me my whole life.
And I've become very irritated hearing people talk about how suicide is selfish, or how suicide is an act of aggression against other people. I just don't believe that to be the case at all. I think if you lose your desire to live, just essentially that realisation speaks of mental health issues, you know? I mean, it's against humans’ survival instinct to end their lives. So, if you are thinking about suicide, then you are ill and need help. I think it's that simple.
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Your equilibrium is completely off and you need help getting back on an even keel. But there's so much stigma surrounding medication for mental health problems. It's like we're all stuck in the Middle Ages. People will take a pill for a headache, but God forbid they take a pill for schizophrenia. It really comes from fear and ignorance and a lack of education about how we can actually help people who are struggling with their mental health.
When you were much younger, did you experience any kind of anger or resentment towards the people you knew who’d taken their own lives? Certainly at age 14, that would be an understandable reaction.
Well, as somebody who has struggled with low-grade depression and feelings of despair my whole life, it’s not perplexing to me at all. I understand how somebody is driven to the point where they feel they need to escape. I understand, having been a former cutter and someone who's suffered from depression, how easy it could be to just take one tiny step left and before you know it, you're in a black hole.
It’s really not very difficult for me to imagine how someone gets into a position of despair. I have a vulnerable, fragile, creative personality, so I've never struggled with understanding where these feelings of self-destruction come from at all. I've always been like, “Oh yeah, it makes total sense that you're in so much pain, and you're so fragile, and you feel so much, that you can no longer stomach even feeling the air on your skin.”
People find it weird that I have fits of depression. They're like, “You've got everything you could possibly want — why would you ever have a depressive thought?” But it's just not that simple or that logical. That’s why I think we really do need more education about suicidal tendencies and depression and mental health struggles, and actually talk about busting taboos and busting bigotry towards medications and science and chemistry — all these things that have been become terribly embattled over the last couple of years, as suicide rates skyrocket.
I think teen suicide is as high as it's ever been in the history of the human race, which is a terrifying thought. And so, we're doing something wrong. And the only thing that I can think of is we're just not really applying our knowledge, our scientific knowledge, our chemical knowledge, to this issue. At the same time, we have a society that's lacking so much in kindness and nourishment. It's all about making money. It's all about capitalism. It's all about success. There's so little about things in life that actually make us feel good. And I think people are lonely. I think they're angry. I think they're scared. And that, I think, is a tornado of pain.
I assume, from what you just told me, that you never attempted suicide or seriously contemplated it — despite your own struggles and your empathy for people who do have such urges?
Well, when I was a teenager, I was very dramatic. I definitely flirted with suicidal thoughts, a hundred percent. And again, I was a cutter — I've been very open about this in my career. I cut myself a lot for a while. So, I know where these urges come from, in a funny way. I was very lucky in that I managed to go on top of them very early on in my life, but sure, I had suicidal urges when I was younger. I was very dark, unable really to control my thinking — until I joined a band, funny enough.
And then things got a lot easier after that. Like, I had other things to think about. I had a way of coping with my spirit, for better or for worse, for good and bad. I had this energy and I didn't know what to do with it, but once I joined the band, I funnelled it into that. But yeah, I definitely had my moments of flirting with suicide, but I'm not sure how serious that ever was. It’s hard to say now when I'm 56 and that would be the last thing I'd ever think of doing.
How did you have the tools to cope so early on? Kids today obviously need such tools.
I was really lucky. I grew up on a very small island. I basically am an island girl. I grew up in Scotland in a very small, very tight community; 1970s Scotland was pretty tight, and organized religion was still had a lot of influence in our societies. We had a lot of community services, which no longer exist now, when I was growing up. And I think that allows a certain flow of information and communication.
Living in Los Angeles now, I really notice the difference. It’s fractured, and I can only assume this observation applies to most of America, because America is a sprawling mass of land and people. I think people are really, really isolated here and really afraid, and there hasn't been enough money plowed into education or community services. I am sounding like a typical lefty, but I really believe these things are important.
You don't see the importance of them immediately. It takes years and years and years to see what happens when you devastate social support, community support. We need to encourage people to have some form of community where somebody notices if you're getting blue, and somebody notices if you're acting strange. Here in America it seems like you can literally walk down the street butt-naked and frothing from the mouth, and nobody will f***ing bat an eyelid. And I find that heartbreaking.
You’re always posting about the state of the world and societal issues on social media, and Garbage’s last album, 2021’s No Gods No Masters, was the band’s darkest and most political record yet. You’ve also seemed in a very reflective and nostalgic mood on Instagram lately. So, I want to ask: How are you doing these days? Are you OK?
God, this is something you and I will have to get into some other day! [laughs] I mean, I think in everybody's life you have moments of ease and then life feels like it's a lot, like it's a load. And as an artist, as a female artist, as an alternative rock female artist at 56 years old, I have a lot to think about and a lot to battle against. And that can cause a lot of reflection. It takes a lot of determination to not be bowed by how society sees us. … I can't say it's been more of a struggle, but with every year that passes, you develop a different perspective. And I want to look straight on at my life. I don't want to pretend I'm young. I have no interest in that.
People who cannot face how old they are, I feel compassion for them. I feel they're missing out on so much. I think there's something really exciting as a woman, as an artist, as a human being, about being able to look at one's lifetime and one's future and one's past. To me, that speaks of a whole lived life. I don't want to move forward in my life with one hand tied behind my back.
I don't want to pretend I'm something I'm not. I want to be absolutely truthful about who I am and what I am, and garner as much knowledge as I possibly can. Because that to me is exciting, and that's liberation and freedom. The minute you start apologising for your age, your wrinkles, your job, whatever it is that people like to ruminate on or obsess over about other people, is just f***ing noise. It's got nothing to do with me or with how happy or unhappy I am. I'm the only one that can make my life great, and there's nothing I can do about getting older. So, how do I ride that f***ing pony into the tent as triumphant as I can?
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We were talking earlier about mental health struggles among young people, but it's also a real concern among people who are aging — probably particularly for women, who are taught that their currency is their beauty, their youth, their “hotness.” I imagine it's especially hard for women in show business. Do you have any thoughts about how aging affects a woman's mental health?
Oh, God, these are big questions, Lyndsey! [laughs] Again, I would go back to lack of education. I mean, I'm pretty shocked that all my friends… we were all talking about menopause, and none of us knew one f***ing single thing about it. We didn't know what to expect, what was coming that way, what it meant, how did we deal with it, what would happen. I mean, it's pretty f***ing outrageous. ... I think we're all shamed into thinking just because we're no longer “f***able,” or we're no longer of child-rearing age, that somehow we're supposed to feel that we should just disappear and basically place ourselves in the garbage bin.
But there's a reason, I think, why society has conditioned women into believing that — because boy, women get dangerous when they stop giving a f*** about whether somebody finds them attractive or not! Women come into their power, and society does not want women in their power.
Speaking of taboos… menopause is still a taboo subject for a lot of people.
Yes, totally. But again, taboos must be destroyed. They're dangerous, and they make people crazy. When you don't have information at your fingertips, your imagination jumps in, and your imagination like is a destructive 2-year-old throwing s*** around their f***ing crib. It's not good. Education is key, always.
Which brings us back to the mission of We Can Survive. But also regarding the subject of nostalgia, Garbage will be joined on the We Can Survive bill by two iconic ‘90s artists, Alanis Morissette and Weezer. I feel the ‘90s was a time when musicians were expressing their darker emotions — their depression, their angst, their anxiety, their rage — like never before. Do you see the ‘90s as a groundbreaking decade in that way?
Yes, I think it was revolutionary at the time. I think it was the first generation to really talk about that stuff en masse. ... And there's a reason why these songs remain potent to new generations. There's a reason why these bands are still around. It’s because they're singing about shit that's real, that we all feel and need an outlet for. Ugly feelings and frustrations and disappointments and sadness are all equally part of the human spectrum, and they need to be visited too. You can't just spend your life pretending everything's pretty and shiny and OK. I think the people that live the most fulfilled lives are those who can look at all the spectrums that exist in what it means to be a human being.
I assume Garbage is going to play “Only Happy When It Rains” at We Can Survive. Obviously there is humor to that song, but do you genuinely find some kind of solace or relief in wallowing in your darker feelings?
Well, see, I take umbrage at the word “wallowing.” Just because you visit dark feelings doesn't mean you're wallowing in anything. You're exercising your mind. You're exercising yourself. And I think there is always humor involved when you couple music with dark words, with dark spirits; there's always a little light sewn into that fabric by its very nature, because you're basically saying, “Yes, things are shit, but I'm still here. I'm still surviving. Here I am. I'm still ready for more life.”
And I think it’s important, that people must not believe life is supposed to be so easy. It's not meant to be easy. It's a challenge. It's difficult for everybody. You're not going to find one single person that breezes through life with no problems. That just doesn't exist. So, let's train ourselves to be able to take a hit, to be thrown down and fail, and be willing to stand back up. To me, that's the essence of life. That's where you live. The most fulfilled version of yourself is when you stumble and you fall, and then you f***ing get back up and life feels joyful again for however long you can make it last. And then you fall into a pit again, and the cycle continues. That cycle is life.
For confidential emotional support contact The Samaritans at any time by calling 116 123 or emailing email@example.com