Taking to the stage to give a Keynote address on Thursday at this year’s Sound City Conference, indie icon EDWYN COLLINS serves as a model example of how to carve out a successful, decades-long career in the music industry by operating to your own set of rules.
Jokingly describing himself as “an old hand, a raconteur!” at speaking engagements, Collins’ appearance here at Sound City follows on from the Q&A sessions that formed part of his UK tour last year.
That Collins was able to continue making music at all is breathtaking, given the two devastating strokes he suffered in 2005. In the ten years since the events that rendered the singer unable to speak, read, write or walk, Collins’ recovery has been remarkable. Aided during his recovery by his wife, Grace Maxwell, the only words he was able to form at first were “yes”, “no”, “Grace Maxwell” and “the possibilities are endless”. The latter became the title of a highly-acclaimed documentary, released in October of last year, which followed Collins’ outstanding recovery and return to music.
Created by filmmakers Edward Lovelace and James Hall – who are better known under the moniker DARYL – the documentary was exhibited to a rapturous reception at festivals including SXSW in Texas and the London Film Festival. Featuring Collins’ narration and a soundtrack co-written with Sebastian Lewsley and Carwyn Ellis, The Possibilities Are Endless (which will be screened following Collins’ Keynote session), provides an impressionistic view of the singer stitching his life back together amid his gradual return to music.
The hallowed surroundings of the Philharmonic Hall were the setting for Collins’ last visit to the city, a warmly-received headline show in April 2013, part of which was filmed and included in The Possibilities Are Endless. Intrigued by the candid nature of the film’s depiction of his recovery, I ask Collins what his reaction was when he was first approached by the filmmakers with a view to making the picture. “I wasn’t sure what they wanted to do, neither were they!” he says. “I liked them though; they were young, they listened to me intently, so, what the heck? I decided to trust them completely. I didn’t see it until it was finished and was so impressed. An arty masterpiece! All the credit goes to Ed and James.”
The film followed on from the release of a celebrated LP in 2013, the northern soul-powered Understated, itself a follow up to 2010’s Losing Sleep, which was the first record written and recorded after his recovery from illness. Losing Sleep featured a score of friends and musicians Collins had influenced, including luminaries such as Johnny Marr, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, The Cribs’ Ryan Jarman and Aztec Camera main man Roddy Frame. With a time gap of roughly three years between those two albums, Collins hints that the next instalment may arrive sooner. “I might do an acoustic album in Helmsdale while I wait for my new studio to be completed,” Collins notes. “I’m impatient.” Following their relocation from London several years ago, the rugged backdrop of Edwyn and Grace’s home in the Scottish Highlands provides fecund inspiration.
One of the most memorable lyrics of Collins’ oeuvre – “Too many protest singers/not enough protest songs” – from touchstone 1995 hit A Girl Like You, seems particularly fitting in election year some twenty years since the song lodged itself in the Top Ten. I wonder if he thinks the lyric is particularly relevant, given that many so high-profile musicians are seemingly scared of having an opinion on politics? “Politics? That’s up to them,” he grunts. “For me, it’s the stuff of life, as an international socialist! I have always been polemical in interviews, even when I was young. It got me in trouble a lot but, looking back, what a laugh!”
Something likely to be touched on in Collins’ speech is AED, the outlet for the singer’s recordings which has become a quietly successful venture. Founded by Collins and Rough Trade alumnus James Endeacott in 2011, AED (Analogue Enhanced Digital) Records recently celebrated four years of vinyl production. Issuing all of Collins’ albums since that date, alongside his entire back catalogue, the label also releases for the storied likes of punk/new wave innovator Vic Goddard, and long-term friend Paddy McAloon, who first met Collins when the pair were 16 and 21 years old respectively. Next on the release schedule for AED is the new project from Joe McAlinden, the Teenage Fanclub associate and former leader of Glaswegian indie pop group Superstar.
This is the second time the singer has been instrumental in the creation of a label: Collins was co-founder of groundbreaking indie set-up Postcard Records in 1980. Home to Orange Juice, Aussie ex-pats The Go-Betweens and Aztec Camera, the label, along with Factory Records and Rough Trade, helped to reshape the music industry landscape in the UK.
In Postcard and AED, Collins has the unusual distinction of being heavily involved in two completely separate independent record labels, but I want to know what the secret behind the success of each of them is. “That’s hilarious, I’m glad you think they are both successful!” he laughs. “The only really important thing is, they are both totally independent. No meddling, just good ideas and good music.”
In addition to the handsome vinyl reissues and originals stocked by the label, the outfit carries volumes of Collins’ artwork and screen prints of album art (he was briefly a commercial artist when Orange Juice were formed). “That’s the team’s department, I’m the glamorous poster boy!” he jokes of AED’s additional wares. “The merchandise is quality though, in my view.”
AED is also home to Welsh psychedelicists Colorama, whose lead singer Carwyn Ellis has long been a confidant of Collins’. In addition to an exemplary CV (Ellis has appeared on records by UNKLE, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Paul Weller), he’s a musician with strong connections to Liverpool, having lived in the city for some years before he formed Colorama. “In 2004, one year before my stroke, Andy Hackett [Collins’ guitarist] introduced us,” Collins explains of how he and Ellis came to meet. “What can I say, thank you Andy: Carwyn is God!”
Following this appearance at Sound City, the small matter of supporting treasured influence Brian Wilson on tour takes up most of the autumn for Collins. “What a privilege,” he notes, which is something that we could say about his own appearance here in Liverpool. I’ll wager that, after taking in Edwyn Collins’ talk and film at the Sound City Conference, the words “the possibilities are endless” will prove hugely prophetic for us all.