The Scotsman Sessions #300: Edwyn Collins and Carwyn Ellis

Welcome to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts sector still impacted by the pandemic, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, for our 300th session, Edwyn Collins revisits Low Expectations from his 1994 album Gorgeous George, with Carwyn Ellis on guitar.

The Scotsman Sessions marks its 300th edition in fine style with a playful performance by one of our most cherished artists, Edwyn Collins, beamed to us from the control room of his Clashnarrow Studio in Helmsdale, Sutherland. Given that one studio control room can look much like another, you will need to take our word for it that Clashnarrow’s rugged coastal location makes for a dramatic music-making setting.

Collins relocated permanently from London to Helmsdale in 2015 but his family have had a house in this fishing village for generations and Collins spent his childhood summers there. “I loved it, roaming, gallivanting, fooling around,” he recalls.

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“When the house fell to us, I couldn’t believe it was going to be part of our life,” adds his wife and manager, Grace Maxwell, who has formed an entertaining interview double act with Collins ever since a serious stroke in 2005 left him with aphasia – though he has expanded considerably on his initial vocabulary of “yes, “no”, “Grace Maxwell” and the very poetic observation that “the possibilities are endless”.

Edwyn Collins and Carwyn Ellis

“After Edwyn’s illness, I had it in my head, I want to be in Helmsdale forever,” says Maxwell.

“You didn’t consult me,” interjects Collins.

“I did talk to you about it all the time,” she chimes right back with good humour, “and you said ‘hang on, I don’t want to leave my studio in London.’ He was so mentally attached to that and it was part of his recovery.”

“It’s my life!” agrees Collins. “But I must admit this studio is better. Magnificent. Tidy. Everything in place.”

“The view up here is a lot nicer,” adds Maxwell. “Edwyn walks about up there when there is nobody around and says ‘I love my studio’.”

Collins divides his time between the “old house” and the “studio house” where he heads to watch TV. “There’s a hundred steps from up there down to us and it’s quite steep and exposed,” says Maxwell. “I have visions of him getting blown over and I don’t even know he’s there ’cos he doesn’t carry a phone on him.”

“No problem,” Collins assures, “the hundred steps I can manage fine.”

“Edwyn does more exercise than me,” says Maxwell. “You can’t go for a walk in Helmsdale that doesn’t involve a hill. Everybody in the village talks about seeing him on the road.”

Collins has been content to have a quiet pandemic, hosting a handful of acts in the studio as restrictions allowed and playing two acoustic shows in 2021, one in Wick and the other as part of the Edinburgh International Festival’s Covid-friendly programme.

He reckons “there was a problem with my singing in the acoustic gigs.” “What?” reacts Maxwell. Collins relents. “Okay, no problem….”

“I do crack the whip about Edwyn practising,” laughs Maxwell, “just to remind him that he’s not there to turn pages and drink water. You’re in showbusiness, mate.”

“‘Get your act together,’ you said. But you’re too bossy,” chides Collins. “It doesn’t bother me - ‘oh, I must play’…I’m too old for that.”

“Edwyn’s a pragmatist, he takes everything as it comes,” agrees Maxwell. “You’re at that stage in life where you don’t feel any pressure, do you?”

“No, it’s quite easy I suppose,” he says.

Collins’ plans for the coming year include hopefully fulfilling his Covid-delayed Summer Nights slot at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Bandstand at the third attempt. Special guests at the show will be Altered Images, pop peers from his early days in the much loved and acclaimed Scotpop trailblazers Orange Juice.

In the meantime, for those craving some Collins’ performance action, there is his Scotsman Session. Collins has chosen to revisit Low Expectations, a gem of a track from his 1994 album Gorgeous George, featuring bonus happy banter with his wingman Carwyn Ellis on guitar.

“It’s a good song,” says Collins of his choice. “Evocative, let’s say. It’s a sarcastic song. It’s a bit sardonic, a bit sad and desperate at times.”

“I think it’s the essence of your songwriting,” says Maxwell, “completely not what people expect in a pop song. It’s you in a nutshell.”

As for new material, there are no specific plans at this stage to follow up his most recent album, the Scottish Album of the Year Award-nominated Badbea, but Collins is working on a couple of songs, including one called Paper Planes.

“Since my stroke, I’ve had difficulty with the words,” he says. “The chorus is fine but the verse is a bit tricky to get myself around the lyrics. What can I say about it, what’s my subject, and so on.”

“In the past, he was more or less always thinking about songs,” says Maxwell. “You never really knew when he would go vacant on you and go off into a corner to write something or speak something into his dictation machine or take the guitar to the bathroom. Maybe it’s a younger man’s thing where you have songs in your head all day, every day. I couldn’t bear it if you were thinking ‘oh this’ll do’, so I have to find a way to help Edwyn to get the best out of himself. He still has an incredible turn of phrase every day, so deploy that please.

“There is a bit of me thinks if you never wrote another song, it wouldn’t matter. But it’s not up to me. Edwyn will always like to work so I want to help him and sometimes that brings us into a bit of conflict but that’s okay because it makes things better in the end. I like to bug him a lot. He does go mad though, he’s not very good at taking criticism.”

How does Collins react to his wife’s feedback? “Badly,” comes the blunt answer. “‘Shut up, Grace!’” And as for the notion of never writing another song… “Grace says ‘stop, please’ but I can’t stop, I must go on and continue.”

Edwyn Collins plays Summer Nights at the Kelvingrove Bandstand, Glasgow on 13 August, http://www.edwyncollins.com/

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