The changing face of Shirley Manson

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Now in her 40s, the former grunge pin-up is showing symptoms of a mid-life crisis – even considering plastic surgery – but she’s convinced that her best days are still to come. By Mike Wade

THERE IS a catch of emotion in Shirley Manson's voice when she recalls the first time she heard her mother singing in public. It might have been a wedding, or a party - Manson was only a little girl, and some of the details have dimmed with the years - but the vivid image in her mind's eye is of her mother Muriel up there on stage, crooning an old Frank Sinatra song.

"I thought it was beautiful when I saw her," says Manson. "I have a real, strong memory of her, believing every single word she was singing, getting lost in it, thinking, Wow, my mum's in love with this person she's singing about'."

She might be about to cry. Instead, Manson pulls herself together and announces: "She was my complete inspiration. I've got one recording of her on an old 78, performing some weird Scottish song."

There is an extraordinary paradox about Manson. Here she is in Edinburgh's Harvey Nichols, the posh person's department store, promoting Muriel's favourite charity. Her love for family shines through and her intelligence and sensitivity are as obvious as her flaming red hair. Yet the publicity machine which blazed her name across the world at the end of the 1990s insisted that she was a Gothic foulmouth, crude and outspoken, whose public pronouncements habitually veered into the luridly sexual. Her band, Garbage, may have turned the trick of creating a sound which twinned grungy disaffection with worldwide commercial success, but it was the backing track of Manson's outrageous lippiness that kept them in the papers.

"Nobody could out-rude me," she admits, laughing. Steve Marker, the band's guitarist, has said that when Manson joined Garbage she told "really disgusting stories which would make a sailor blush". One interviewer, musician Pat Kane, left in a cold sweat when Manson told him that she was "a great believer in pornography". And for the man from Q magazine, Manson was even more specific. Interviewed in Edinburgh's Doric wine bar, she broke the ice by declaring: "I once f***ed a guy in that toilet." Blue Plaque society, take note.

These days, a rather different Manson projects herself. Last year, dressed demurely in gold and black and arm-in-arm with her doting parents, she was welcomed into the Lord Provost's parlour, and granted a civic reception for services rendered to the City of Edinburgh. Family pride oozes out of the photographs from that occasion. Earlier today, she told a lady from a local paper that she had lovely shoes, just to make her feel more at ease.

None of which means that Manson has suddenly morphed into Miss Jean Brodie. She still laughs like a drain, and spatters her conversation with the F-word. She is aggressively childless - "I can live with the decision, for God's sake" - and used to having her private life picked over on websites and in the press. But at 41, and with a failed marriage behind her, she has a hyper-real sense of time slipping away and is so painfully aware of growing older that - as she soon makes clear - she has been toying with the notion of plastic surgery.

Put it all together and you can't help wondering whether Manson is in the grip of a mid-life crisis. It's a notion she falls upon gratefully, accelerating through her symptoms. "I wasn't really aware of suddenly stumbling into a new passage of my life," she says. "But I feel that since I turned 40, it's almost as if the shades have lifted. And I see everything differently. There's a real urgency that I didn't feel before, and ..." (she pauses, before carefully picking her words) "an awareness of mortality."

That bad? "Really. It has been a very strong sense of ... Oh my God, I'm not young any more.' I'd come off the road many times over the years, but last time it was like I had been hit with a baseball bat.

"I don't think I feel frightened. The only thing that I don't like, that I really find painful, is living with the face and the body ageing. I find that hard. I don't like looking at it. But at the same time, I feel very opposed to plastic surgery and cheating myself in that regard too."

This is not a new obsession. Growing up, Manson suffered from body dysmorphic disorder, a condition that makes sufferers obsess about some aspect of their appearance and believe they are ugly, whatever evidence there is to the contrary. Evidently it can be hard to shake off completely - even for a woman who has modelled for Calvin Klein and reputedly turned down Playboy.

"I have a certain sense of who I am," she says, with what Rowan Atkinson might call "a certain degree of uncertainty". "I know that even if I did get something fixed it is not going to last very long and I am still going to be back to square one, and I'm going to have to face myself in the morning. So ..." she lets the sentence hang. And then, as if it were necessary, she sets off on a political explanation for her reluctance to have surgery. "I don't want to set an example for the younger generation of women who come up and think they have to fix their faces. I don't want to pass that on to other girls. I don't want to be responsible for that."

This vulnerability is accentuated by doubts over Manson's professional future. Her band's 2007 album was a "best of" compilation and Garbage have almost certainly enjoyed their last original hit. Butch Vig, the producer and drummer, who brought the singer on board, is now 53. It's not old in the upside-down world of rock, but to be frank, should Garbage reform for one last US tour, Martin Scorsese probably won't sign up to direct the film.

Compounding this sense of drift is the singer's relationship with her record company. The spotty adolescent boys who blu-tacked Manson's image above their beds have grown up. Their successors, she acknowledges, have latched on to Lily Allen, the Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie and a new generation of sex symbols. It's not good news in a business where success is measured by shifting product.

"Record companies like to get on the radio and sell records, and they have no time for anything which isn't geared to that," Manson acknowledges. "There are tons of girls who want that, and there's a place for it - but it's just not me." Instead, two years ago she was reportedly on her way to meet Paul Buchanan, the man behind the Glasgow art rockers the Blue Nile, one of a number of predicted collaborations which suggested her debut solo album might be worth the wait. Now, despite talk of a release next month, it seems no closer.

The problem, Manson says archly, is that her material is judged "a little too noir" by the record company executives. "I took that as a huge compliment, but realised as I came away from a meeting that it hadn't been intended as such. It's not happy-go-lucky pop music - but as I was explaining to them, there are some difficult things in my life that I want to talk about, and they are not necessarily radio-friendly topics. I want to write about things that are actually happening, things to do with my parents, with mortality, identity, those kind of ideas. I don't want to write about feeling sexy and going to a club.

"I look at someone like Madonna and it mystifies me how she can feel fulfilled at 50 writing pop music. I've got no interest in that, it's just not me, it would be totally bogus." She lets go a gale of manic laughter. "I just want to do it on my terms - I'm not desperate enough to play somebody else's game."

Manson was born in Edinburgh and brought up in the Stockbridge area, which, with its delicatessens and coffee shops, is the natural home of the city's shabby genteel and would-be bohemians. While her mother brought up Shirley and sister Lindy, her father, Mitchell, was a research scientist at Edinburgh University where he worked in the department which cloned Dolly the sheep. Over the years, the publicity machine around Manson has made much of her supposed rebellious streak, but she concedes that her childhood was idyllically happy until she hit her "pretty fraught" teenage years.

The stories from those days are legion. Manson was teased for her "bloodhound" eyes (she laughs at that memory), broke into Edinburgh Zoo, smoked, drank and pretty much lived her early angst-ridden years to the full. But before she gave up on the academic life, her musical skills had been teased out at Broughton High - the city's specialist music school - where she first stepped into a recording studio and caught the bug for performance.

At 16, she took a job at Miss Selfridge and stayed there for five years, even after she had joined a succession of local bands. The best known of these, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, almost made the big time but, after nine years, disbanded in a cloud of bitterness and tax bills. A spin-off act, Angelfish, fared little better.

By then, Manson had moved out to South Queensferry where her friends and neighbours were a strikingly talented group of writers, including Andrew Greig, the poet, Iain Banks, Duncan McLean and Alan Warner - "a true original", she recalls. Greig, she credits with saving her career, a debt she tacitly acknowledged by quoting a line from his long poem Western Swing in the Garbage single Breaking Up The Girl.

She remembers events in her late 20s as follows. With her life apparently all washed up, she had taken to her bed with depression. "It was Andrew who came by every morning and knocked on my door. He forced me out of bed and dragged me along the beach. He'd say, If you just keep going along the beach you'll get back on track.' He kept me moving. And I did get back on track. Very shortly after that, I got the call to go and join Garbage."

Vig had already produced albums for Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth, but was forming his band when he was suckered by the image of Manson in an Angelfish video. What happened next depends on your point of view. For aficionados, Manson signed up, rewrote the songs and helped to create a succession of "thundering, stripped-back records", including Only Happy When It Rains, Stupid Girl and Queer, and culminating in the 1999 theme song for the James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough. For those of a more jaded disposition, Garbage were "the Goth Monkees", a cynical creation, devised to cash in on a highly commercial sound.

Whatever the truth, the band's attractive, crude but articulate singer - so overlooked in Edinburgh when she was prancing around on stage in the Chambers Street student union - was a gift to the American music press, who helped propel her towards international stardom, more than 10 million record sales and four platinum discs.

If it sounds like life was a riot, it wasn't, insists Manson. Well, not all the time. The record company was on her case even then. "They'd say, You're not selling enough records', You're not in Paris long enough', How many dates in New York?'", she complains. "Everybody was moaning, groaning and all the time you think you're failing. It's only with years and perspective that you think - F***ing hell - we sold how many records? We played how many shows? We were playing two shows a day at one point - and you're thinking, what the f***, this was like slave labour."

All of which helps explain why she doesn't want to turn back the clock. "I don't expect the kind of success and press attention that we got with Garbage. And I am quite happy with that," she insists. "I couldn't live the way that somebody like Amy Winehouse is living. With that kind of pressure, that media attention, I wouldn't be able to handle it any more."

Instead, she is trying to look beyond her current difficulties. She has been talking to Talking Heads' David Byrne about a potential collaboration, and to Ray Davies, the man behind The Kinks. "They're heroes of mine. I feel honoured and flattered - we'll see what happens," she says.

"I still think there can be a place for me if I ... want there to be. Maybe I'm delusional. I'm not saying I'm right, but I still have that hope that I can continue to make music - and I have done. I've made more music in the last two years than I did in the last 10 years, in some regards. So there is a way for me to continue to be creative and that's all I really ask for."

For now, she makes do with the things around her. There's a boyfriend at home in Los Angeles ("I'm absolutely not going to tell you his name"), and the pull of her parents in Edinburgh, where she keeps a house in Joppa, overlooking the sea. And, of course, she is still "rock royalty", dutifully fulfilling the public relations round for the record label when required, and for Waverley Care and the cosmetics company which has funded the charity to the tune of £100,000.

She's good at it, too, effortlessly launching into a spiel about the importance of corporate giving. And she really does use the products, she insists.

So. All those publicity shots with the dark alluring eyes. Does she ever go out without make-up? "All the time," Manson protests. "You've never seen me without make-up, but my face just disappears. It's all blonde on my eyebrows and eyelashes. I've got no face. There's nothing, nothing there."

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