His return to the recording studio was an epic journey for Edwyn Collins, but it was his songs that saved him after a catastrophic stroke, he tells Aidan Smith, ahead of releasing a new album
ON HIS terrific new album Edwyn Collins sings “There was a girl in Denver…” When the next verse goes “There was a girl in Portland…” I’m thinking: this bloke gets around, and there must have been some dramatic, far-travelled changes in his life since we last met.
In fact, the song isn’t autobiographical – it’s a cover of Love’s Been Good To Me by Rod McKuen. But the line “I have been a rover, I have walked alone” – delivered in Collins’ lovely, quivery voice – does have resonance for him. He now negotiates the journey from home to recording studio unaided, and after all that’s happened to him in the past eight years, this amounts to an epic quest.
In 2005, Collins, who might reasonably claim to have invented indie with his band Orange Juice, suffered a near-fatal stroke followed by two brain haemorrhages and a bout of MRSA. The triple whammy left him unable to speak, read or write, to sit up, feed himself or walk. Doctors wondered why he hadn’t died. They warned that if he survived there might be little left of him. But, with the help of his incredible wife, Grace Maxwell, he saved himself and then he saved his music.
The last time I interviewed Collins, four years ago, it was very much alongside Maxwell, who back then had to be with him at all times. Possibly she couldn’t imagine waving him off on a solo trip, as happened for the first time recently. “It was a little victory for Edwyn, a milestone,” she says. “I’d let him walk down to the shops near where we live [in Kilburn, London] if he maybe had a notion for hummus for lunch. Then he started walking to the local taxi firm – Smelly Cabs we call them. But the journey here to the studio at West Heath was going to be 45 minutes, all uphill. It was brilliant that he managed it. Was I nervous? Of course. And, truth be told, I tailed him all the way, hiding behind cars and trees, to make sure he was okay. His sense of orientation was bad anyway. Before his stroke he was always turning left when he meant right. Maybe that’s pop stars for you.”
If Maxwell felt like the anxious mother at the moment her son begins to travel independently to school, then the memory the expedition unlocked for Collins was exactly the same. She says: “Parents wouldn’t allow this now, but aged six Edwyn was going to and from the Royal High Primary in Edinburgh by bus on his own. Once he lost his money and his mother was amazed he’d managed to walk all the way back home to Bruntsfield. He told her: ‘I just asked people to cross me over the roads.’”
Four years ago, Maxwell had to help Collins express what he wanted to say. Today aged 53, amid the cheerful clutter of West Heath, and with a film crew on his shoulder for a documentary feature about how he came back from the (nearly) dead, he stands down his manager/saviour. He shuffles with a stick, he still can’t use his right hand which is curled in a semi-clenched fist, but the improvement in his speech is impressive.
“My songs are the key to me being able to live my life again,” he says. “Before making these albums [2010’s Losing Sleep and the new Understated – his recorded works, post-illness] I wasn’t sure what to do. I was worried, troubled. What to say? How to explain? Now I feel me. Walking down the street with my stick – Oh! – I’m distracted and I’m wondering: ‘Good songs, good songs, good songs.’ I feel me. A me-ness of me!”
For the man who penned Rip It Up, I Can’t Help Myself and A Girl Like You, finding the knack again has been challenging, but he’s getting there. “Writing the music has always come naturally; the words, though, are tough. Choruses are easy and they explain the songs but verses are hard work. You feel you’ve got to fill them with meaning, substance – you know, all that shit.”
His first songs after his illness were simple and direct, with Maxwell wryly remarking that he’d lost his pretentiousness. With customary nods to Northern Soul and glam-rock alongside bursts of Mariachi brass and Joe Meek synth, the new album contains many unvarnished expressions of joy: “I found a reason to carry on… Living in the now, living and working… I’m so happy to be alive.” But Collins urges me to check out the song titles: Understated, Dilemma, Forsooth. He’s proud of them. And there’s a new quirkiness, or a recovered quirkiness, in the latter track’s reflection on how he went from being a graphic designer to “a singer of sorts”. Maxwell, who’s rejoined us, tells him: “You’re remembering the tricks of the trade, reaching out for more interesting words and connecting back to your style of before.”
This remarkable couple have been sustained on the journey to musical rediscovery by two people they’d claim to be even more remarkable. Says Maxwell: “When Edwyn was in hospital Frankie Miller’s fantastic wife Annette wrote to me and was a terrific support. After Edwyn got out she and Frankie came to the house. Frankie put his left arm round Edwyn – just like Edwyn, his right doesn’t work – and said: ‘Thank God.’ The great Glasgow bluesman suffered a brain haemorrhage in 1994.
“As Annette will tell you, Frankie only has about 40 or 50 words,” continues Maxwell. “He carries around a polythene bag containing objects telling the story of his life: a wee medal from juvenile football, a photo of his grandfather who played for Rangers as a Catholic and of course a songsheet.”
At this point Collins and Maxwell lapse into comic impersonations of their friend. “Fran-kay! … Thank-yew!” Maxwell says: “People think it’s tragic what happened to him, and it is, but as he floats through life he’s still got a smartness about him and a wee glint in the eye. We love him.” Collins is in awe of Miller’s spirit, doubting he could match it if he hadn’t been able to resume his career. “When I got my singing back I was so pleased. I’m amazed that Frankie is so incredibly cheerful.”
For Collins, new songs, ever more idiosyncratic, will hopefully keep coming and future albums will be recorded 770 miles away at his bolthole in Helmsdale, Sutherland. Another little victory came three months ago when he flew there by himself. Says Maxwell: “Edwyn was chuffed about that even though he insisted on taking his Elnet hairspray in hand-luggage and it was confiscated.” That’s pop stars for you, even the male ones. Now the couple plan to move there permanently, build a studio next door, with Maxwell also hoping she can get Collins more mobile.
Maxwell: “Tricyles, Edwin – they’re the future. There are really nifty ones for guys like you. I can really see you on the Strath Road.”
Collins, aghast at the idea, for he has a style to maintain: “No, Grace, bicycles. And I bet I could relearn to do a wheelie.” «
• Understated is released on AED Records on 25 March. Edwyn Collins plays Aberdeen’s Lemon Tree on 15 April and Glasgow’s Pavilion on 17 April