It’s certainly been a long interval but Scottish post-punk troubadour Edwyn Collins will finally return to Australia this January. Collins’ only previous visit to our shores was way back in 1995, shortly after the release of his seminal record Gorgeous George. That album’s northern soul-invoking single ‘A Girl Like You’ widely permeated the pop music sphere and, speaking on the phone from London, Collins (recovering from serious illness) and his wife Grace Maxwell can recall Australian audiences being immediately attracted to the track.
“Australia was right at the beginning, I think it was a hit in Australia first. I remember being completely shocked,” says Maxwell. “I remember being quite amused at how many radio stations you have in Australia. I feel as though Edwyn visited about 25 radio stations in three days. It was crazy.”
Collins first gained popular recognition fronting the Glasgow-based post-punk group Orange Juice, who are best remembered for their 1983 chart-tickling track ‘Rip It Up’. In the mid-’80s he embarked on a solo career, which reached its apex with 1994’s Gorgeous George. In the ensuing decade he released two more well-received albums, before things took a devastating turn in early 2005. In the midst of recording his sixth solo record, Home Again, Collins suffered two cerebral haemorrhages and was bedridden for the remainder of the year. The haemorrhages seriously threatened the subsistence of his music career, and Collins explains how harshly depleted his prospects became.
“Six months in hospital – I couldn’t say a word, [except] ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘the possibilities are endless’, over and over again. Slowly I recovered my speech. No problems with my singing of course. My talking is still a bit dodgy, to say the least.”
After an intensive rehabilitation program, Collins returned to the stage in 2007 and managed to complete and release Home Again that same year. Any lingering physical debilitation certainly hasn’t halted his creative drive, and he has issued two further records of new material – Losing Sleep in 2010 and this year’s Understated. The latest record is sure evidence of Collins’ regenerated lyrical abilities, something he is very pleased about. “I’m playing around with the words a bit. For example, ‘Understated’ the song – ‘The years go by and I’m feeling my age as the story unfolds / I’m a singer of sorts’.”
Indeed, the album is characterised by an existential self-awareness. Lines such as “I’ve got music to see me through” from ‘Baby Jean’ or “I feel alive, I feel reborn” in ‘Forsooth’ are delivered as defiant realisations, completely free from contrivance.
“Edwyn’s confidence as a lyricist is growing each time,” says Maxwell. “At this stage in his life, everything he does is not a question of searching for fame and glory. It’s a sort of personal quest for Edwyn now, for his own –”
“Sanity!” Collins exclaims.
“Yeah – and satisfaction,” continues Maxwell. “And also a relationship with people who like his music. It’s not about what people normally expect you to be going after; hitting targets.”
Collins’ three Sydney Festival performances will see him backed by regular onstage accomplices James Walbourne and Carwyn Ellis. Maxwell doesn’t hesitate to commend the strength of the trio. “This lineup has had a bit of practice. It’s quite well-oiled, so you’re in for a treat,” she says.
Collins agrees that Walbourne and Ellis are an asset, but admits he’s still working to allay the impositions of his illness. “James and Carwyn are fantastic musicians. I’m relaxed about James and Carwyn, but I must practise. It’s called dysphasia – I can’t remember the songs. But I’m getting it for Australia, slowly.”
Understated is teeming with striking slices of heartfelt pop-rock, and thankfully for Australian audiences the album is fresh in Collins’ memory. A number of its songs will feature in the setlist. “I want to do five songs [from the album]. Of course the song ‘Understated’; ‘Dilemna’. I want to do ‘Too Bad, (That’s Sad)’ [and] ‘Forsooth’ – the Velvet Underground rip-off,” he laughs.
‘Forsooth’ is not the first time Collins has unashamedly displayed his affection for the music of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. Orange Juice were often noted for melding the Velvets’ sound with the likes of Chic, and Collins admits that Reed’s passing in October was deeply emotional. “On Twitter [I was] reminiscing on Lou Reed. [The record] is called Live ’69 – ‘Over You’. Amazing, to me anyway.”
Collins is referring to a bootleg Velvet Underground recording, and he proceeds to sing the song’s opening line – “Here I go again…” – before adding, “It’s sad. Tragic, actually.”
The lines from Reed’s ‘Wagon Wheel’ – “You’ve got to live your life as though you’re number one … Make a point of having some fun” – fittingly apply to Collins’ renewed life perspective, and much like Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson, Maxwell clearly provides Collins with solidarity and creative confidence. She will again make the trip out to Australia with him in the New Year, and she jokingly summarises their relationship. “Edwyn’s like Prince Charles and I’m like his valet.”
“Yes, it’s true,” Collins confesses.
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY
Understated is out now through AED/Universal Music Australia. Collins performs for Sydney Festival at The Spiegeltent, Hyde Park on Sunday January 19 and Tuesday January 21. Collins is also playing The Lennox, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta on Saturday January 18, and is a guest vocalist at Big Star’s Third, Enmore Theatre, Thursday January 23.