Losing Sleep, Edwyn Collins’s seventh solo album, is little short of miraculous. In 2005, Collins suffered two strokes in quick succession, leaving him with considerable brain damage. Yet, beyond all reasonable credulity, he was back performing by the end of ’07, and the record he’d pretty much completed before his illness, Home Again, was released amid much fanfare.
Collins’s songwriting talent, however, which was first unfurled in his teens in the post-punk pop group, Orange Juice, and has sustained through such solo hits as 1997′s world-beating A Girl Like You, took a little longer to return. When it did, it came in a flood of up-tempo, super-melodic nuggets. Thus was Losing Sleep born. Even without the mitigating circumstances of his illness, Collins’s comeback record would be a joy to behold. As things are, it is quite awesomely life-affirming.
For his interview with eMusic’s Andrew Perry, Collins is joined by his wife and manager, Grace Maxwell, who fills in where Collins’s conversational abilities fall short — one of the curious after-effects of his condition is that he finds talking difficult, yet his singing voice has quickly returned to its former baritone glory. While much of our discussion is sobering, it is punctuated by laughter, and even a rousing sing-along of Blackfoot Sue’s wonderfully gormless glam classic, “Standing In The Road”
By comparison with Home Again, your new record is very upbeat. Was that a conscious choice?
Collins: Perhaps you expected something meditative and sad. No, I wanted fast and accurate and to the point. Home Again was kind of like folk, acoustic. Before my stroke, I had different ideas. Slow tempo and fast tempo. This time, I wanted uptempo — simple and direct.
Maxwell: Before, each record was quite a mixture of styles. Edwyn says that, last time, he had perhaps a sense of foreboding. Now, all that is in the past, behind us. I think the new record sounds like that, somebody moving on.
The lyrics don’t seem to be directly about your illness, more about the emotional repercussions, and trying to find your feet again…
Collins: I’m talking about how the stroke came about, how can I cope with it. I’m talking about what is happening to me. All of that. Like, trying to reflect on what I’m doing, almost. What is my role? [sings the album's second track, "What Is My Role?" note-perfect, at normal pace] “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I wonder, what is my role?” I’m talking about the stroke, how it affected me. One song is not about that — Romeo [Stoddart, from The Magic Numbers] and me together — [sings] “The simple life, a simple joy, it dawns on me, reality.” I’m simple now. And possibly backward!
Maxwell: Edwyn really disarms people by saying these things. “Possibly I’m a bit daft. I used to be an intellectual, but now I’m a bit backward!” They’ll say, “Oh no you’re not!”
Collins: I’m improving bit by bit. I like the new album, for example. My talking is generally getting better. It’s a slow process.
Maxwell: But you’re expressing yourself musically.
Collins: With no problem at all. Music is great, my talking is not great. I’m getting there slowly in my talking, but upwards is a really slow business.
Maxwell: In an interview the other day, the guy said, “You feel okay to show yourself to people? Some people who’ve had a stroke tend to hide away. You don’t seem to be worrying about that.”
Collins: About my stroke? I don’t care, not at all. It’s a good challenge. Hiding away? No.
Maxwell: This is the person Edwyn was before. In order for that kind of thing to be an issue, how other people are gonna react, what do they think of me — you have to actually care!
Collins: [laughs] I do care!
Going right back to Orange Juice days, you always had this spiky presence, a kind of outsider artist, sniping from the margins. The new lyrics seem more inward-looking.
Collins: Before my stroke, I was a bit arrogant, I guess. After my stroke, talking about that kind of stuff, it doesn’t interest me at all.
Maxwell: He’s turned into a really nice guy!
Did your songwriting come back in a flash of inspiration?
Collins: Back in hospital, two days before I came out, I’m writing again — “Searching For The Truth” — but Grace thought it was a pisstake.
Maxwell: It seemed like a jokey song. He suddenly started singing it in the car on the way home, and I thought, “Woah, songs again, even though it’s a bit daft.” That was August 2005. There was nothing then until November 2008. Edwyn had been asked to come up with some lyrics for Ashley Beedle. He worked on that a little bit, and I hoped that would spark something in him.
Sure enough, in the middle of the night, he dug me in the ribs and said, “Write this down!” That was “Losing Sleep” [the album's title track]. The idea that Edwyn was lying awake in the middle of the night thinking about songs again — which is something he always did — was a great feeling. I was happy to be woken up. Every night. It became quite a regular thing.
Collins: The lyrics of “Losing Sleep” — I’m angry with myself, frustrated with myself, my emotions are welling up on me. I’m miserable and angry and frustrated. Pressure! Pressure all the time. That’s what it’s about.
Maxwell: Which is weird, because now you don’t really have that.
Collins: No, I’m happy generally. “A Simple Life” — I’m not talking about the stroke. I’m talking about, I’m happy, and positive and content with my life.
Do you remember your favorite records from before?
Collins: From back then, before the stroke, the albums and singles — it’s difficult to recall.
Maxwell: The way I would describe it — you and I have memories, and we know we have them, we don’t actually consciously have to have all that stuff in the front of our brain the whole time. We assume it’s in there and that we can pull it up as and when we need it. We operate under that confident assumption. In Edwyn, that assumption was gone completely, and that confidence in his memory was taken away.
Collins: Yup. Back in hospital days, I was frightened to begin with.
Maxwell: Because when you lose that confidence, you sort of lose sight of who you are. You lose confidence in what defines you.
“Losing Sleep,” the track, and much of the album, is based on a thumping Northern Soul beat. Such have been the backbone of your music, tracing back through tunes like “Keep On Burning” right back to Orange Juice days. Do you now listen to the same stuff you always did?
Grace: Edwyn just had to reacquaint himself. When he was exposed to things that were familiar or well loved from his past, then they were like an old friend. That was one of the early signs of hope for the future, I felt. The first time Edwyn listened to music properly was about ten weeks into it, and he listened to two songs — “Promised Land” by Johnny Allen, the Cajun version, followed by Ringo Starr’s “Photograph,” both of which were on an old compilation CD he’d made up.
Collins: And I burst out crying.
Maxwell: This was the effect of familiar music flooding his brain. I was in floods of tears as well, but even as we were sitting in the hospital room doing it, listening on the headphones, and Edwyn was uncontrollably sobbing, I felt incredibly hopeful about it, because if it could have this effect on him, he had the memories, he just didn’t realize it.
How about your own music from before?
Collins: I like to move on, Andrew. The new album is fantastic!
Maxwell: When he does talk about his old stuff, he tends to say, “I was an intellectual.” Or his favourite is, “I was arrogant, perhaps I was a bit of a show-off.”
Collins: I was! But I’m proud of my albums, Orange Juice especially. I guess I was sneering at the world.
Maxwell: We have a 20-year-old son, and all his mates are always hanging about, and when they hear Edwyn’s earlier music, they think it could almost be something…
It could be argued that you were the pioneer of a guitar-based sound, which became, for want of a better word, “indie.”
Collins: [laughs long and hard]
Maxwell: In the early ’90s, Edwyn was in Kensal Rise [in West London], walking up to the off-licence, and he vaguely noticed there were three black guys walking towards him, muttering to one another, looking at him. As he got closer, in a broad Manc accent, this guy goes, “You’re Edwyn Collins, aren’t you? You invented indie!” Bloody funny.
Nevertheless, for many bands a generation younger than you, you’re a hero. A handful of them appear on the new album. How did that collaborative element come about? Was there something they could bring to the music that you weren’t able to?
Collins: No. “Come Tomorrow, Come Today” — Johny Marr — he asked me, “Write a song!” “‘Yeah, why not, Johnny!” Then, “What Is My Role,” Ryan [Jarman, from The Cribs] is on it. “You want to go in the studio, Ryan?” “Yeah, why not? To come up with a song?” “Why not?!” David Ruffy [long-serving associate, formerly of The Ruts] is on the drums, and that’s it!
Maxwell: We were with Dave, and Edwyn was going, “I’ve got an idea, just see who’s around musician-wise,” and as luck would have it, Ryan happened to phone that day. Edwyn’s association with these guys goes back quite a few years now. They’re friends, so’s Romeo, so are the Franz Ferdinand boys. It goes from them originally having a reverence, to them not being in awe at all — especially The Cribs, they’re like members of the family.
The Drums are obviously young and new. Our son is quite pally with them, and he introduced us. So it was all very easy. Obviously, Roddy Frame [from Aztec Camera] is our old friend. So it’s old friends and new friends.
You have worked for 18 years with the same engineer, Seb Lewsley. Has it been very different for him, this time?
Collins: No. Same. For Seb, it’s relatively easy to do an album. Let’s go, no problem. Start, stop. Start, stop. It’s great, no problem at all.
Maxwell: It all happened at Edwyn’s usual breakneck speed. The two of them have always had a fairly straightforward approach to recording. What Seb really likes about Edwyn is, he’s never been dithery. They don’t like dithery so-called perfectionists — reworking it, and crafting it. They think that’s indecisiveness. Just get on with it!
Collins: Yes, capturing a moment. Momentum is important, keeping everything flowing. Don’t stop, carry on! For example: the verse, the chorus, the verse, the chorus, middle eight, out — it’s easy!
I went to one of your gigs in November 2007, when it was really just about getting up and singing again. Do you feel more confident performing now?
Maxwell: I’m pushing him to do more talking on stage. That’s something he’s still slightly hesitant about. Because his stage patter used to be fantastic. It could be something where you think, “Oh it’s really sad, he can’t do that anymore, he can’t play the guitar,” but there’s so many compensating factors. If the person he is in private came out, it would crack everyone up again.
The great thing about the album is, you really don’t have to make any allowances, as a listener. It’s a just a ray of sunshine.
Maxwell: There’s no quarter asked for, or needs to be given. There’s no special pleading. Edwyn doesn’t go on about it.
Collins: The wallowing thing…
Maxwell: He’s very much not a wallower.
Why do people make such a fuss? It’s verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle-eight and out — easy!
Maxwell: This is the new direct Edwyn, he doesn’t muck about, especially with the bands he’s producing. “The problem with this song, it doesn’t have a tune.” Or he’ll say, “This is not a chorus, this will be a good middle eight, not a chorus. The thing to do is write a chorus…” It could be viewed as harsh.
Collins: Harsh, but fair.