Q&A: Edwyn Collins On How Surviving A Stroke Forced Him To Write Simpler, Better Songs
"My singing is fluent. Talking is still a long way to go, but my singing is perfect. Listen to me, big-headed."
Edwyn Collins' Losing Sleep (Downtown), which gets its stateside release March 22, is the first record the former Orange Juice frontman recorded front to back since he had a serious stroke in February 2005. (Home Again, which came out in 2007, was a work in progress when he fell ill.) Collins still has speech difficulties, and problems with his right arm prevent him from playing the guitar, but the record is evidence that he remains a damn fine rock singer. A mix of spry pop, Northern soul, and life-affirming love songs, Sleep speaks to the Scottish songwriter's creative adaptability. Though his lyrical minimalism -- "So many ways/So many truths/So much to learn/So much to do," he sings on "Do It Again" -- is a concession to his ongoing vocal recovery, his to-the-point verses lend the new songs a sense of immediacy. If not quite the "scintillating shambles of Byrds and Velvets," as Simon Reynolds described Orange Juice's sound in Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, the new album is nonetheless satisfying on its own terms.
Pic by Lawrence Watson
In advance of his two upcoming NYC shows, we caught up with Collins by phone in Vienna, a few hours before he was due onstage for a show on his small European tour, Because of Collins' speech difficulties, his wife, Grace Maxwell, helped out with the interview.
"Home Again," your last record, came out after your stroke, but it was partially done when you got sick. So this new one is the first record you've done start to finish since you came out of the hospital.
Collins: Yeah. Six months in hospital. I couldn't say a thing.
Maxwell: When he came out of hospital, he came home with a little ditty called "Searching for the Truth." But after that there was absolutely nothing.
Collins: For three years. And when my first song [on the new record], "I'm Losing Sleep," came to me, I woke her and said, "Write this down, Grace."
Maxwell: Edwyn woke me in the middle of the night and said, "Write this down!"
Collins: I did. Sorry about that, Grace.
When was this?
Maxwell: Toward the end of 2008. He continued to have these nocturnal ideas, and then the novelty was beginning to wear off.
Collins: So Grace bought me a dictation machine.
How did the other songs come to you?
Collins: For "Losing Sleep," I had sort of a Northern Soul idea. "What is My Role?" is about my stroke: "Sometimes I'm up/Sometimes I'm down/Sometimes I wonder, what is my role?" It's frustration and all of that shit.
Maxwell: But it's a strangely upbeat-sounding song.
Collins: I like fast songs now, direct songs like "Searching for the Truth" and "All My Days." I wanted to be direct and I wanted to keep the lyrics simple.
Maxwell: You have to, really, don't you? Edwyn has no choice, really, in terms of the simplicity of the lyrics. He often says, "I used to be flowery." Lyrically, Edwyn was quite complex. Now he's forced into simplicity. You're quite happy with that?
Collins: I like it.
What about the song "I Still Believe in You"?
Collins: Maybe it's for Grace: "I'm running through the backwoods/I'm running through the fields/When I'm alone I miss you." [Starts singing] "I still believe in you."
Maxwell: I have to say that over 25 years of working with Edwyn, I don't think he's written many songs to do with me. But I think Edwyn was trying to encourage me somewhat with that song.
Edwyn, you were singing some of the lyrics. I saw a BBC documentary about you that came out a couple years ago, and in that it seemed that sometimes you're more comfortable singing than talking. Do you feel that way?
Collins: Yes, I do. My singing is coming on. My speech is not coming on.
Maxwell: It is.
Collins: My singing is fine, my talking is not fine. My singing is fluent. Talking is still a long way to go, but my singing is perfect. Listen to me, big-headed.
That documentary also showed you doing some pretty grueling physical therapy. Are you still doing that?
Maxwell: Edwyn has a personal trainer now. He doesn't do neurophysiotherapy any more. He's come too far to need to do that. But his trainer puts him through his paces twice a week.
Tell me about "Nature Punk," a new London gallery show of your drawings of birds.
Collins: Thirty years ago I called myself "nature punk" [laughs].
Maxwell: When Edwyn was 19 and working as an illustrator for Glasgow Parks, he used to give tours to schoolchildren. Edwyn, of course, looked quite odd at 19 -- he dressed differently to most people.
Collins: Straight, drainpipe trousers.
Maxwell: And one of the kids said to Edwyn, "Sir, you're a punk." It was 1979. And Edwyn said, Yes, children, I'm 'nature punk.'"
You're right-handed, so you had to learn how to do these drawings with your left hand?
Collins: It was a scribble. I persevered, and I drew a circle. I persevered once more, and gradually I draw with precision.
Maxwell: The way that they hang the exhibition is chronological, so it's a beautiful metaphor for Edwyn's struggle for recovery, the progression from the beginning to where you're at now. It's quite fascinating, I think, for people to see.
I know you've produced a lot of bands, including Frankie and the Heartstrings, who are getting some press these days. You really must have had an effect on Frankie Francis, the singer -- he just got a big shoulder tattoo of one of your self-portraits.
Collins: He's mad!
Maxwell: The first we knew about it was when he put it up on Twitter.
When did you draw that self-portrait?
Collins: When I came out of hospital.
Maxwell: He was drawing that self-portrait guy over and over again. About 60 or 70 versions of it. I said to him, "Do you think you can draw a bird instead, Edwyn?"
You've talked about having a goal of being able to play the guitar again. Do you think you'll do that?
Collins: I can still play with my left hand. I show (bandmates) what to do, what to play.
Maxwell: Even though people say, "It must be sad for you, Edwyn, that you can't play guitar anymore," Edwyn always goes, "I can, sort of, because I can still show you the chords." I think in his head and in his heart, Edwyn will always be a guitarist.
Critics seem to think you're doing some of the best work of your career. What do you think?
Collins: So far it's exciting for me.
Maxwell: Edwyn's not a great self-critic. He just thinks, "This is where I'm at right now, and I'm loving it." Don't you?