How Edwyn Collins came back from the brink
- Credit: Archant
Having remarkably recovered from two severe strokes, the singer and his wife Grace tell Alex Bellotti about his upcoming Roundhouse show.
Edwyn Collins, as his wife Grace Maxwell notes, has always luxuriated in his use of the English language. In an old interview about his time as the face of ‘80s post-punk group Orange Juice, he attributes their success to acting as a “pseudo socio-politico” art rock antithesis to the “moronic” commercial punk of the Sham 69 crowd. In every sense, this was a singer with a lot to say.
Everything changed, however, when in 2005 Collins suffered two debilitating strokes at the age of 45. Rushed from his then-home in West Hampstead to intensive care at the Royal Free Hospital, his chances of survival were miniscule. Even later Maxwell was told he would be unable to make any meaningful recovery. For the first six months of rehabilitation, he couldn’t say a word, but now – albeit with a slower delivery – he’s regained much of the subtle wit that charmed a generation.
“I struggle – to say the least,” he says dryly of his speech, phoning from his current residence in Helmsdale, Scotland. Beside him, Maxwell is ever-present to fill in any speech or memory blanks that may occur – quickly, though, the set up becomes more akin to a comedy duo, as Collins talks of the music studio he is in the final stages of building in the Highlands.
“The studio’s finished, but the holiday home…”
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“Erm, the artist’s accommodation,” Maxwell interjects.
“Ah yes sorry Grace… the artist’s accommodation.”
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“That’s what it says on the planning application.”
We’re talking because soon Collins will be returning to London to play a one-off show at the Roundhouse as part of the venue’s ongoing In The Round series. The fact that the Scotsman is able to perform again will come as no surprise to fans; since his cerebral haemorrhage, he has released three critically-acclaimed records in the form of Home Again (2007), Losing Sleep (2010) and Understated (2013).
Alongside his work with Orange Juice, Collins is equally well established as a solo act. In 1994, he found worldwide fame with his song, A Girl Like You, and Maxwell suggests his Roundhouse set will comprise a mixture of old and new.
“People really love Orange Juice these days, so there’s quite a lot of Orange Juice favourites in it, isn’t there?”
“Yeah, Blue Boy for instance.”
“Well let’s not give it away Edwyn! But basically you’ve gone for a bit of a crowd-pleaser with a few new songs…”
“Well you have. I’m hoping… the lyrics I’m concerned with. ‘I’m holding you here until you practice’ – Grace said that to me.”
The process of learning to play again means that, having lost control of his right arm, Collins uses an extra-amplified guitar to pick up the chord shapes he makes with his left hand. As the singer explains, the stroke has also seen him have to relearn old songs as well as new, with Maxwell continually pushing him to expand his current reportoire.
Still, the overwhelming feeling is that he is just thankful to be back doing what he loves. While Collins could always remember his early days growing up in Edinburgh, he talks of a period in the hospital where he couldn’t remember what his London home looked like; conversely, he had a clear image of his studio, which, to Maxwell’s faux-chagrin, “showed where his priorities were”.
“A funny story,” he starts. “I was recuperating in hospital and Grace was, of course, by my side. I struggled to talk, but I said, ‘No more music’. Tell it Grace, you remember?”
“In the early couple of months, he didn’t want to listen to anything.”
“But I made him listen. I put in a CD that Edwyn had compiled for the car before his illness; I stuck it in the Walkman and made him listen to it.”
“Johnnie Allan covering Chuck Berry’s Promised Land – that was the first song.”
“I basically bullied you into having a listen, didn’t I? It filled your brain and you fell apart.”
“Yes, lots of tears.”
“The next song was Ringo Starr doing Photograph, and you just carried on bawling your eyes out, didn’t you? I thought, ‘Well what a good reaction’ – I was most encouraged!”
Collins’ road to recovery was captured in a 2014 film directed by James Hall and Edward Lovelace. Entitled The Possibilities Are Endless – quirkily one of the only phrases he could initially say following the stroke – the documentary stormed the festival circuit and picked up a five star review from the Guardian. Nonetheless, aside from agreeing to be filmed, Collins and Maxwell kept their distance.
“The thing with The Possibilities Are Endless is that I can’t watch it because my speech was so bad,” says the former. “It’s cringing to watch.”
“Edwyn just got on well with the directors and trusted them to get on with it,” adds Maxwell. “I thought that too, but I was also aware of the fact that when he was severely ill, I was very desperate for information about what the future could hold. And I only wanted hopeful stuff; I didn’t want anybody telling me that I best resign myself to this or prepare myself for the worst or any of that nonsense.”
“I didn’t find that useful in any way. You want positive stuff that gives you a bit of hope and a bit of information in how to deal and tackle with this, and how to get the best outcomes that you can, and you want to see people with the best outcomes. You need hope!”
Over a decade later, it’s encouraging to see how far hope has carried both Collins and Maxwell. With a new album planned for later in the year, the singer has firmly grasped back control of his musical career, and if Understated is anything to by, it even seems to have given his song writing a more philosophical, life-affirming slant.
‘Love’s been good to me,’ he sings on a track of the same name. And really, who could say it any better?
Edwyn Collins plays the Roundhouse on January 29. For tickets, visit roundhouse.org.uk