“I had a titanium plate inserted into my head, but… so what?”
It’s difficult to find a more inspiring story in music than that of EDWYN COLLINS. In 2005, after years of hard work as a solo artist, Collins suffered a stroke and double brain haemorrhage. The catastrophic attack left him a broken man; his vocabulary cruelly stolen, his memory a blur. His journey forward since, in light of these terrible events, is nothing short of extraordinary: having re-learnt language while picking up the pieces of his fragile mind, Collins released Losing Sleep in 2010, a stunning comeback record that earned him an Ivor Novello award for his inspirational work.
Fast forward to 2013, and Collins is perfectly comfortable with talking about the ordeal. Nevertheless, his account is harrowing. “During my six months in hospital, I was scared as hell that I’d lost myself. Imagine it, losing your intellect, your analytical ability, everything you take for granted.” Collins believes the success of his recovery is down to the drive to pull through being there from the beginning. “All you have to think is, this is a particular life, and it’s a great life. I had a titanium plate inserted into my head, but… so what? It can’t be helped.”
Collins’ incredible recovery has become the subject of a film, In Your Place, In Your Heart, where James Hall and Ed Lovelace explore Collins’ journey after the stroke by piecing together his memories. Moving beyond the realms of a traditional documentary, the directors adopted a distinctive approach. “They only recorded the audio of our conversations, because they wanted my voice to be at the centre of it. It’s sort of a documentary, but they are very much art-house film makers. They’re coming to Liverpool to film a bit of the concert actually.”
The aforementioned concert takes place on 20th April at the Philharmonic Hall. Collins is excited to be playing Liverpool again, having performed at the Anglican Cathedral in 2010. “It was beautiful to play [there]. The acoustics were slightly mad, but during the encore I did a song with Pete Wylie – Purple by Velvet Underground, and it worked really well.” His praise of Liverpool’s renowned venue extends to its people. “Pete’s great – he’s the funniest man in Liverpool, and there’s no shortage of them! Everyone here is lovely.”
Collins will be back in Liverpool to promote his new album Understated, which he describes as an exploration of his earlier years. “It’s about the buildings I worked in, the many people I’ve known… it’s a little trip down memory lane.” Now on his eighth solo album, Collins doesn’t see the experience as routine, but as part of the progression of his recovery process. “It makes me feel like I’m going back to my old self again. I can say to myself, ‘finally, I’m getting creative! The juices are flowing.”
Since his stroke, the one component of music Collins has struggled with the most is writing lyrics. “The chorus comes easy, but the verses aren’t easy at all.” He compares the experience to his teenage years in Helmsdale, where he would walk along the beach and struggle to find satisfaction in his compositions. “When I started writing songs, it was very much punk rock, and I remember thinking ‘well, that’s all very well but it’s not up to scratch.’ I needed to find my own voice.”
This internal debate also included balancing credibility with commercial success, but his determination for the band meant that he found it hard to take criticism. “When Rip It Up got slagged off by NME, I would refuse to go on the tour bus because I was depressed! You can laugh about it now, but back then it was life and death.” Nowadays, that determination is channelled into his long term recovery: “music is one self-indulgent exercise now, and it’s wonderful that the world comes with me, helping me find my way back.”
This “self-indulgent exercise” has expanded into extensive recording work. Collins has always enjoyed taking up the producers’ reins, but his new record label AED Records marks a return to grassroots production, for the sake of creating music rather than selling a million copies. “We were trying to make sense of our studio, and we were recording a lot of bands who had limited budgets. We thought, if we can make the records, it makes sense to help them put them out.”
This is not the first label Collins has set up – his first was in 1980, a local Glasgow label known as Postcard Records – but it feels the most organic, with his enthusiasm for it giving it a raw, emotional edge. Although it only came into being with the help of James Endeacott in 2010, it had existed in Edwyn’s imagination for quite some time. “I’d made up the logos, the straplines, everything… and we never actually did it. So we thought, we know exactly what we want to call it, and everything, so let’s do it.”
Understandably Collins wants to focus on making Understated a presence in the world of music. However, now that AED Records is fully operational, he also wants to help propel as many bands forward as possible. “It’s really anything we fancy. We’re doing a new album with Vic Godard, who’s a hero of my punk rock years, so it’s great to be doing something with him. We’re also working with new artists like Charlie Clark, so we’re continually building the label. It takes a long time to establish a label, but we’re gonna do it!”
Having carefully planned its beginnings, Collins now has an agenda to make the label work. “Think small. Understand who you’re aiming at, and make everything beautiful. We’re very particular on that stuff. We want to give people something that when it arrives, they’ll go ‘well, that was worth it,’ not ‘well, that was a piss take.’ Everywhere you look, they’re trying to squeeze out the music business. Special edition, limited edition… I hate all of it! It’s as if people don’t see that they’re being taken for mugs. We will never do that.”
Collins will be releasing archive material, but the focus will be on making its distribution as flexible as possible. He is also keen to concentrate on vinyl. “It’s a gorgeous format, and you can do shorter runs now, take a lot of care over them. I think even young people are beginning to turn back to vinyl, because it sounds amazing and looks lovely. When you buy the vinyl, we’ll put the actual CD in too, so you have it in every possible format. I don’t need to be Universal and sell half a million; that’s their attitude. I’m happy making it for whoever wants it.”
As we chat, Collins’ wife Grace is close at hand, encouraging him forward when he falters. With her help, it isn’t hard to see why Collins’ recovery has been an unprecedented triumph. His determination for his life to be led to the full is emulated by her, making him feel at ease. This attitude can only ensure a continued success; it’s something we need to see, a beacon of hope in a case of mind over might. Collins talks of Understated as reminding him of the old days, of getting back in the game; the progress he’s made, it’s like he never truly left.
By Jack Graysmark / @ZeppelinG1993