Rip it up, start again: the fall and rise of Edwyn Collins

Rip it up, start again: the fall and rise of Edwyn Collins

Back again — Despite suffering from two catastrophic haemorrhages in 2005, the post-punk pioneer is back making music as good as anything he produced before. He talks to writer Jeremy Allen about his road to recovery, Twitter, and the perils of wetting yourself in front of supermodels.

How do you measure success in pop these days when chart placings are irrelevant? Here’s a left-field idea that the streaming-obsessed BPI probably hasn’t thought of: measuring influence by the number of good book titles an artist has inspired. There are three named after Edwyn Collins’ songs that I can immediately think of (there may be more): Rip it Up And Start Again by Simon Reynolds, the pop historian’s celebrated analysis of post-punk; Simon Goddard’s Simply Thrilled, recounting the story of the influential Scottish indie label Postcard Records, famously run from the sock drawer of a Glasgow flat, which Collins played a major role in; and Grace Maxwell’s Falling And Laughing, where Collins takes the starring role, somewhat reluctantly, given the misfortune that befell him.

Edwyn Collins, who was best known for the omnipresent mid-90s international smash “A Girl Like You” – and previously for early 80’s indie soul stomper “Rip It Up” with Orange Juice – became the subject of lots of media speculation in 2005 when he suffered two catastrophic brain haemorrhages that nearly killed him. The strokes left him with an impairment called aphasia, where he was unable to speak but for a few words: “yes”, “no”,  “Grace Maxwell” – the name of his partner and manager – and eventually, “the possibilities are endless”, which became the title of a moving, award-nominated 2014 film made about his experiences.  

It’s impossible to write a piece about Collins without mentioning his health, given how precarious it was for a while, and how much it has affected his life since. But it’s also important to celebrate the wonders of modern medicine, his powers of recovery, and most importantly the brilliant music he’s creating again from his purpose-built studio in east Scotland. After intensive ongoing rehabilitation, and with a little help from his friends, Collins is now making music as good as anything he produced before the dark days of 2005: the snarling punk of “Outside”, the gorgeous bittersweet Mariachi-tinged “I Guess We Were Young”, and Northern Soul-inspired earworms like “In The Morning” and “It’s All About You”. New album Badbea is a showcase of his undimmed talents and a glittering testament to his refusal to give up.

Edwyn has recovered much of his speech, though he’s still unable to play the guitar (Grace, or his son Will, often strum it for him as he makes chord shapes with his left hand). As well as his gift for melody, his sense of humour is definitely intact too, as is his laugh, a veritable mating call of merriment that’s deliciously infectious.

I spoke on the phone with Edwyn and his partner Grace from their home in Helmsdale in the Highlands. He will often let her do the talking, interjecting with beautifully-timed quips. They finish each other’s sentences and are the embodiment of felicity some 35 years on. As Mark Kermode noted when he reviewed The Possibilities Are Endless in the Guardian: “ I honestly can’t remember when I last saw a happier screen couple”.

Hi Edwyn, the new record Badbea demonstrates that your pop instincts are as acute as they ever were.
Edwyn: Thank you very much. Not bad for an old bloke. No, no, a mature bloke.

Grace: A mature bloke with a childish attitude.

“In The Morning” has been following me around all week.
Edwyn: Yes! It’s a good song, but Grace doesn’t like it. 

Grace: He’s exaggerating. I just think I like Edwyn’s more complicated songs or the slow songs, and that’s not either. But my view doesn’t really…

Edwyn: …count. [Laughs]

Grace: They were playing that one on the radio the other day. I’m like ‘eh? What?’ So I’m wrong again. I’ve been wrong about these things for 35 years, haven’t I?

How’s running AED Records compared with Postcard Records back in the day?
Edwyn: It’s just the same actually, but nowadays it’s so well organised. Grace does most of the running.

Grace: But you’re aware of everything. If only you guys at Postcard had had the internet you would have done an amazing guerrilla sort of job. The internet is just a conduit and if you have interesting ideas you can do all sorts. The one thing the Postcard crowd weren’t short of was ideas.

You apparently wrote the Orange Juice song “Blue Boy” about Pete Shelley, who sadly died last year. Were you as much inspired by him as a DIY upstart as you were a musician?
Edwyn: Yes, I was. I remember when the Spiral Scratch EP come out in 1977. It’s fantastic. Even nowadays… it’s rough as fuck but it works. ‘Boredom’ is a great song. They put the price of everything on the back: how much it cost to record, how much it cost to press the sleeves, everything photocopied. Seeing what things cost it set a blueprint. You couldn’t look it up on the internet then. It made you realise that maybe you could release a record yourselves. The Buzzcocks, I must admit, inspired me to do a 7″ single.

I read in Grace’s book that MySpace played a big part in your rehabilitation when you came out of hospital.
Edwyn: Nowadays I’m on Twitter a lot. When I first came out of the hospital, my son was using it. What’s that I said? MySpace. I don’t understand it but Williams does. Six months in hospital, I couldn’t say anything at all apart from ‘the possibilities are endless’ again and again.

Grace: At that point, Edwyn was struggling with all things communication wise. And Will got him using MySpace. With a stroke and aphasia, it completely isolates you. And then Will showed it to you and he said he’d sign you up, and then almost instantly people were piling in to say hello. At that time it was a very big deal being able to reach the world. Edwyn didn’t want to be hidden away.

Edwyn, were you surprised when you had (two) big hits? Or conversely, were you surprised you didn’t have more hits given that you have such great pop instincts?
Edwyn: Well if you take the Velvet Underground, they didn’t have any hits at all, and they had good pop instincts. Lou Reed had a hit with ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and that’s it. I don’t care at all. I just wanted to get onto the next recording, no nostalgia whatsoever. That’s not me at all.

Grace: He doesn’t always come across like this, but he’s always had a strong instinct for work. Work, work, work, work. He doesn’t sit around. We’ve hit a lot of bumps in the road and it’s a case of how do we fix this and how do we get over this, how do we keep going?

Edwyn: Sometimes Grace is despondent but I never am. Come on, Grace, let’s work!

Grace: Sometimes it can be a bit annoying. Leave me alone, I’m in the doldrums. I just want to watch afternoon telly. Ultimately Edwyn would batter me into submission. And then we’d just pick ourselves up and try a different approach. You don’t get to give up around Edwyn. We were really broke until ‘A Girl Like You’.

Did you enjoy the couple of years when you were a worldwide pop phenomenon?
Edwyn: Yeah! I did, most definitely. But I toured around the world for a year and six months doing ‘A Girl Like You’ and I was completely exhausted by the end of it. I was very glad the whole thing happened, but I was also very, very happy to retreat to my studio for a while after that.

I don’t know if you remember this or not, but at the height of Britpop when everyone was partying a great deal, you admitted to one of the big music magazines that you’d apparently wet yourself in front of supermodel Helena Christensen.
Edwyn: Yeah! [Laughs] In the South of France!

Grace: You didn’t wet yourself, exactly. He was doing a television show from the Cannes Film Festival, like you do. And Helena was on it, and then at the club after. You went to the loo and you had these tight trousers on with no knickers. And you’d done a little dribble.

Edwyn: They were sharkskin trousers, and there was a small map of Africa on my trousers. It didn’t phase Helena at all.

Grace: That was Edwyn during his glamorous period.

In 2014 the two of you were split on the Scottish Independence vote. Edwyn, did you vote to remain in the union in the end?
Grace: Edwyn changed his mind only weeks before. What do you feel about independence for Scotland now?

Edwyn: Half and half. I’m really torn, being an internationalist. We have such different political leanings to the people in England, and there’s obviously a different socioeconomic standpoint.

Grace: People less well off in England keep voting to smack themselves in the face. I don’t really get that. During that referendum, we had to watch Labour politicians standing shoulder to shoulder on platforms with Tories. Well you can’t do that in Scotland. At the next elections, Scotland punished them for it. They completely scalped them for it.

What’s the process with the writing of a record now? Do you collaborate with your musicians?
Edwyn: I have an analogue tape recorder which I use to get my ideas down. It’s a mini-cassette where I’ll work out the verse, chorus, middle eight, solo, and chorus. For example, once the chorus and verse are down, I’ll then sing the bass and I’ll sing keyboards, crudely. Then I take it to the musicians and they interpret it song by song. I’ll give them a guide, but I like to let them play around with it.

Grace: Edwyn will have great ideas which he’ll record on these little sonic cassette machines. And you’ll hear him going ‘baritone sax’. And he’ll sing the part.

With the aphasia, was it a case of doing hundreds of repetitive exercises in order to rebuild?
Edwyn: The tunes come very easily; the trouble I have is with the lyrics. I can come up with a catchy chorus, but then I have to work really hard for the verse.

Grace: There’s quite a lot of middle-of-the-night action, where he springs from his bed and goes downstairs. He has ideas and he’s singing into the tape machine in the early hours. He’s worked with a team of people who are trusted friends, people he’s known for a long time, and they know his ways, if you know what I mean.

Edwyn: They come and stay for a few weeks. It’s very easy. We know them like family.

Grace: You’re very lucky, Edwyn. When that team are all here, it’s a lot of fun.

Edwyn: It’s not all about my angst! It’s not like that at all.

Badbea is released on March 29.

Follow Jeremy Allen on Twitter.

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