Edwyn Collins is frustrated. It might not come through in his day-to-day life, once he starts writing and singing, it’s all there. And, unlike most of us, he has a very good reason to be filled with impatience. The victim of a stroke in 2005, another five days later, and a staphylococcal infection following the highly risky operation to insert a titanium plate in his head, Collins has truly earned the right to sing about life. For weeks after the operation the only words uttered were ‘yes’, ‘no’, the name of his partner ‘Grace Maxwell’ and the phrase ‘the possibilities are endless’.
Six months later, he left hospital and has been regarded as a medical marvel ever since, despite having to learn to talk, read, walk and – of course - how to play his own songs all over again. “Before the strokes I wanted to get things done, now I want to get things done right now!’ he says slowly but emphatically. Throughout the interview, Maxwell completes his sentences; ‘I’m Edwyn’s other half’, she says ruefully of helping with his dysphasia, a lasting symptom of his brain damage.
“There’s more urgency and in his approach now,” she explains. “Making music with Edwyn, it’s not like making music with bands like My Bloody Valentine where they take five years to make a record and scratch it and start all over again. Edwyn will have none of that, he’s a taskmaster,” she says with his laughter audible in the background. “A very hard taskmaster,” she says joining in.
“Yeah, I like fast songs,” says Collins of the new album, Losing Sleep that has already become his second-highest charting album in the UK. “My new songs are more simple and direct, this is my time to achieve, and to do it I had to go far and work hard. I like the songs very much.”
Collins’ previous album Home Again was recorded before his strokes and mixed following his release from hospital making this his first album to reflect on his current state. “The album is mostly up-tempo,” Collins begins. “He records at breakneck speed,” Maxwell continues. “The other musicians are used to going slower but Edwyn is all: ‘OK, let’s get on with it!’”
“That’s deliberate,” he continues. “I like spontaneity. We try to get that energy live, the gigs are a joy, I love them,” he says of his glowingly reviewed return to the stage. Maxwell proceeds, “well it doesn’t hurt to have Paul Cook [Sex Pistols] on drums, he’s not exactly a boring drummer,” and as A Girl Like You revealed, quite a competent vibraphone player too. “[Guitarist] Barrie [Cadogan] is often on tour or working with Primal Scream or with his own group [Little Barrie]. We have a pool of musicians that Edwyn works with,” Maxwell says with gentle understatement. This ‘pool’ also includes Johnny Marr, Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame, members of Franz Ferdinand, The Magic Numbers, The Cribs and his 20 year-old son William.
“I’m not writing any songs at the moment, I’m touring now,” says Collins. “Just doing interviews and recording other bands. Right now, I’m working with The Cribs and The Heartstrings, they’re from Sunderland – we resume with them tomorrow. I’m working with this new young German band called The Kennedys - all these youngsters.”
“This has all happened in 2010,” adds Maxwell. “It’s been a very hectic year, it really is an insane schedule,” she says slightly exhausted. It seems Collins would have it no other way.
With all this work and a lengthy discography both with post-punk pioneers Orange Juice and under his own name, is it annoying to be known for just one song, the magnificent A Girl Like You? This question elicits simultaneous, contradictory responses before both laugh uproariously. “I suppose it’s known all around the world isn’t it?” says Collins, “A Girl Like You is no problem at all.”
“Well, it’s more famous than you isn’t it?” says Grace.
“If the song is in the charts by itself, no one really knows who makes it,” he replies, laughing in agreement.
“It gave you financial security didn’t it?” she asks.
“Yes, yes…I’ve no regrets,” he replies quietly before talking about the process of hearing his own music for what was, effectively ‘the first time’. “After the strokes I cried constantly when I listened to A Girl Like You and Home Again and the older stuff. It was very emotional hearing my own music, but it’s not anymore, I like it. There was a time when it was very hard, I couldn’t perform or write or record. It’s a heavy sadness knowing I’ll never be that person again,” he pauses. “Well, it was. Now it’s OK.”
Maxwell continues; “Edwyn was asked if he hadn’t been able to get back into music, if he hadn’t played music for so long, would he be happy, would everything else in life be enough? And the answer is…”
“No,” Collins breaks in “It wouldn’t be enough. I want my life back with these songs. I’m passionate with these songs, thank God I’ve got these songs. I’m starting all over again."
The role of music in his recovery has doctors and researchers intrigued. “I’m not a medical marvel,” he disputes, though Maxwell disagrees. “Edwyn has a distinct advantage for having music in his DNA. It’s helped so much having a job he’s passionate about and says a lot about the rest of his life that he’s managed as well as he has.”
“It’s impossible for me to live without music,” Collins intones deeply. “Life would have no meaning. There is a lot of pain and frustration in those songs of course and it all builds up; I’m angry all the time.”
Maxwell continues, “on the outside he seems very patient and doesn’t appear to be feeling that, but then when the lyrics come out…”
“It’s 50/50,” resumes Collins. “Like in the song [It Dawns on Me] “It’s a simple life, a simple choice / That dawns on me, reality / That makes the world a better place / For us to share” he sings. “It’s about that, and being with Grace.”
Like many people with dysphasia, Collins finds it easier to sing than to talk sometimes and it’s impossible to listen to the songs without thinking of the story behind them, as on the album’s title track: “I must believe, I must retrieve / The things I know, the things I trust / The things I treasure, the things I need / Are the things I miss most about my life”.