'I DON'T SHY AWAY. I SAY, 'HERE I AM,' WARTS AND ALL.'
Interview Natalie Hardwick
Photography Asher Penn
As recording studios go, to say that of Edwyn Collins was akin to a living room would be an understatement. It is tucked away on a leafy residential street in North London. Upon arrival, Edwyn’s wife Grace greets me warmly, then shoos away their teenage son, who is slumbering on the sofa in front of a video game. She gets to work on presenting coffee and biscuits, then proceeds to launch into a story about Edwyn’s drummer going missing in New York on their recent U.S. visit, her rapid Scottish brogue going 10 to the dozen.
Grace has quite literally been by Edwyn’s side every day since his double cerebral hemorrhage in 2005. This caused aphasia, meaning the Scottish musician had to learn how to read, write, and talk from scratch. His speech is improving by the day, his vocabulary increasing with his confidence. Grace sits in on the interview and provides respite, but Edwyn himself is engaging and sharp-witted, dismissing Grace’s occasional attempts to step in.
Edwyn’s journey from the early ’80s Glasgow post-punk scene as former Orange Juice frontman and ambassador for Postcard Records is nothing short of astounding, and his solo career is still burning bright. His seventh album, Losing Sleep (Heavenly Records, 2010) has just been released in the U.S. Songwriting was a big part of his recovery, as was the sketching of birds. Although these illustrations were recently exhibited in London, they were only ever intended as a therapy tool. In a manner befitting of our afternoon together, he and Grace send me off with a hug and a signed copy of his artwork for my parents, who profess to being original Orange Juice superfans.
You’ve just got back from the States. How was it over there?
It was pretty full on, but it was fantastic. I played New York twice and Austin something like seven times, but they all went well, like a dream.
Nine gigs in a week is impressive by any standard. Where do you get the energy?
For me it’s easy, as I just turn up on stage, but not so much for Grace as she has to do all the organizing for me and get things flowing. She works on my behalf. But I maximize my rest. Have a couple of beers, then head straight off to bed. Basically by behaving myself.
Do you need to psych yourself up for gigs?
Not really. After my stroke I played Dingwalls in London, about four years ago. I was nervous, especially playing [early Orange Juice hit], “Falling and Laughing”, but it all worked out. Since then I’ve played about 70 gigs.
You seem to have a good dynamic with your backing band. How did you find them? Presumably it was an important decision, as you can no longer play guitar yourself.
I can play a bit. My right hand doesn’t work, but my left hand still plays the chords, but only offstage. On the song “Losing Sleep” I can play piano, but again, not onstage. The band are amazing. They all put their trust in me. I’ve known them for a long time so we already have good relationships. I’ve known them for donkey’s years. I basically have a small pool of people I can work with.
I saw you play at ATP in December. You pulled a lot of your collaborators on stage, such as Alex Kapranos and Ryan Jarman. What is it about these particular new bands that make you want to work with them?
I remember that gig. I enjoyed it immensely, everyone did. Ryan came on and sang the verse for a couple of songs, while I did the chorus. Then Alex and Nick from Franz Ferdinand came on. I know Ryan from producing the Cribs’ second album The New Fellas (Wichita Recordings, 2005). The Cribs are like family. They’re always popping into the studio. Through them I met Johnny Marr and started working with him. After my stroke, I like music that is fast-moving, and that which conveys a message of hope and love and all of that shit. Those bands encapsulate that, but really it’s all very laid back and informal. They were just people who hang around the recording studio. But it was good to have them all on stage at ATP, it was a good gig. My talking was still a bit dodgy to say the least, but my singing was okay.
I have to say it was pretty moving to see you struggle with your speech but then still have such a powerful baritone singing voice.
A lot of people do get quite upset at my gigs. It’ll be the first time they’ve seen me since my stroke and it’s hard for them. For me, I’m over that stage, but the fans are clearly not so over that. They become upset.
Does it bother you that people get upset?
No, I don’t care. It’s nice to see I have such an effect and that people can appreciate what I’ve been striving for. People don’t realize how much I’ve come on. If they could have seen me in the early stages of my strokes they’d understand. Interviews are really helpful for me to develop my speech. My interview technique is now much more fluent. Grace is sitting in now, but she doesn’t really need to, whereas a couple of years ago she would have to speak on my behalf. At first I had very, very little speech. But now it’s improving all the time, as I get more confident.
You say you like fast-paced music since your stroke. This must be symbolic in some way.
Yes, I like emotional and fast songs, and want to interpret this as best I can in the finished sound. I suppose now my music is simpler in the language I use, as well as simpler chords and song structures. It works for me well enough to convey the compassion. My collaborations since my stroke definitely demonstrate this. We work with the kind of unofficial shorthand language that musicians use between one another, especially when we know each other or admire each other. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not gushy or anything, it just makes for a very easy and happy time. They all get right into my head, and say, ‘We’ll just do whatever you want, Edwyn.’
At what point in recovery did songwriting return?
A couple of days before I left hospital I came up with “Searching for the Truth” while I was in the car. I just came up with the lyric ‘I’m searching for the truth, some sweet day, now I’ll always be lucky in my life.’ It’s a simple song but to me it’s effective and direct and the message is clear. It’s about truth and hope, and after my stroke it conveys meaning for me. It was weird as I had very little speech then, and I just came up with those lyrics, then absolutely nothing for two years. Then in 2008 I actually turned my mind to being a songwriter again. I wasn’t well enough at first. I was conscious – it’s hazy to recollect – but I wasn’t very clear on things. Nowadays I’m getting there. My songs are there but my talking is not so clear. It’s a long way from the first steps of my recovery.
How did you communicate at first?
I had no problem, but Grace had difficulty understanding exactly what I meant. Sentences were impossible; it would be one word at a time. A lot of ‘oh, oh’ sounds, and Grace would have to piece together what I was trying to say. Occasionally I’d come up with a beautiful sentence that was completely out of context that just floated into my consciousness. When it came to songs I’d mostly come up with a chorus idea. Then the verses were more complicated, as structure-wise it’s more difficult to convey the meaning. Before my stroke I always wanted to show off by using flowery language and big words in my songs. But now I throw a different slant on it and use more precise language. For instance, ‘What is my role? Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down.’ It’s direct.
How about reading?
It was impossible at first. I had to start from scratch. But I taught myself using Ladybird books, books for children. Then I got to a level for teenagers, so novels but with simpler language. Grace stumbled upon some specialist books with large fonts, which helped. Then I remember progressing onto George Orwell’s 1984, which I’d read before my stroke, and tackling it with great difficulty. I don’t mind that I had to start with baby books. It had to be done to get on with my life. I’m not ashamed or proud. I’ve had to be practical.
You must have felt a lot of frustration.
Yes, I did. Grace would always get cross with me as I’d start trying to read, then I’d go, ‘Stop now.’ I’d get fed up with it and Grace would nag away. I’d never feel sorry for myself, I’d just want to jack it in and watch TV. Watch shit programs like Deal or No Deal. That and David Dickinson [Ed. note: A famous British presenter who is known for his bargain hunting TV shows], and any of that rubbish. I’d watch more highbrow things like Question Time too. But it was all good fodder for my brain. It’s good therapy for me to enjoy spoken language once more. I do feel lucky with how far I’ve come. All the doctors said that the active and adventurous life I led in Orange Juice gave me a boost with my recovery as I’d experienced so much. I compare myself with Frankie Miller. He’s a Scottish singer, he supported The Eagles, really old school. He had a stroke, poor guy. And he didn’t manage to get his singing voice back. He can understand what you’re talking about, but he has very little speech. I’ve been very fortunate.
You’re very open about the whole thing. A lot of other people may feel uncomfortable talking so frankly about illness.
I don’t see why. The music business is full of glamour and celebrity, people wanting to emulate this so-called perfect life. Everybody wants to be a rock ‘n’ roll star. What’s happened to me is the opposite of that. It’s real life and it’s a struggle. This is what happens in real life. It’s nothing unusual. I don’t shy away. I say, ‘Here I am,’ warts and all. People can take it or leave it. It’s not going to stop me doing what I want to do. I want to live life again. Playing in New York and Austin is amazing to me. It just shows how far I’ve come.
How about the illustrations? At what point in your recovery did they come along?
Early on. It was only pencil drawings at first, although now I’m using color. At first I had no control over the pen when it was put in my hand. Then I kept on drawing the same cartoon guy. Every day it’d be the same thing. Then after about 60 or 70 of them Grace interrupted and said, ‘Will you draw a bird please, Edwyn?’ This was about six months after my stroke. I drew a female wigeon duck and saw the possibilities. It was very simple, just lines at first, but then after three or four drawings I could see improvement. I have drawn every single day since then, always progressing. My drawings have become very elaborate since then. It’s now a very soothing process for me and comes naturally. After a day of running around with therapy appointments, I can come home and unwind by drawing.
Why birds? Is there a meaning behind them?
I suppose it’s just because they are the animals I know most about. I remember when Grace and I had first moved in together and I’d do bits of art. I said that when I retired from music I’d like to create a collection of drawings of British birds, as a complete set has never really been done before.
What was life like in Orange Juice? I heard you’d give out a cup of OJ on the way to gigs. All sounds very quaint.
Oh yeah, we used to do that. Mind you, I think that was our guitarist James Kirk’s idea. Like arriving at a wedding when you get a glass of champagne. I stopped it, as it was too expensive. We were a very polite band. Steven Daly, our drummer, his manners were impeccable. I think the point when everything took off for me was between 1980 and 1982. I spent all my time in London and lived in the Columbia Hotel in Bayswater. All the bands at the time were staying there. I used to call it the Class of ’82. Soft Cell, Simple Minds, ABC, the Cure. Endless bands. It got to the point where it was pointless me living in Glasgow, so I moved down. I lived on Hackney Road at first, which was considerably more dodgy than it is now.
What were you like as a person back then? I think of you in your coonskin hat being really flamboyant.
(Laughs) I never had that hat off. I eventually gave it to the music journalist John Savage after he stayed with me in Maida Vale. I got it from a terribly posh shop in Edinburgh. Back then in the Orange Juice days I suppose I was quite trendy. I used to have a whistle on stage, sometimes two bells. I used to wear motorcycle trousers and bootlace ties. I got that from the Factory guys, Andy Warhol. I put an enormous amount of effort into my clothes. I had about 12 immaculate ’50s suits from charity shops. I still to this day can’t pass a charity shop. I had 35 white shirts, all from Saville Row and the like. But I ruined all my clothes. I wouldn’t wear boxers and they’d rot at the crotch. I’d carry all these suits around in a bin bag on tour. They’re long gone now.
Do you have any messages to give to people who may be going through a recovery period such as your own?
Don’t give up hope. Keep on with things and stay positive. I did therapy for a long, long time. It has to be done and you have to keep going. Another thing that kept me going is my complete lack of embarrassment. After my stroke people would stare as ask, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ But it doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve always had a sense of superiority I suppose (laughs). I think the album Losing Sleep is a milestone, to say, ‘I’ve done it. What’s next?’