Stephen Taylor / Special to The Daily Yomiuri
|Edwyn Collins and me at his studio in London on 13th December 2010|
LONDON--"Rock 'n' roll survivor" is an epithet that gets thrown around when describing some of the more over-indulgent and self-abusing characters that occupy the world of popular music, but in Edwyn Collins' case, the phrase is rather too close for comfort.
In February 2005, Edwyn suffered a double stroke that hospitalized him for six months, temporarily restricting his speech to just three phrases. Six years on, the 51-year-old is on the road to recovery and on his way to Japan for the first time since the mid-1990s in support of last year's Losing Sleep, his first collection of songs written since being struck down by his debilitating illness.
"At first, six months in hospital, I couldn't say a thing. 'Yes,' 'no,' and 'the possibilities are endless,' over and over again, but I persevered," Edwyn says during a recent interview for The Daily Yomiuri at his studio in northwest London.
Perseverance has been a feature of Edwyn's career ever since 1976, when he formed the group that would eventually become post-punk pioneers Orange Juice. That band's influence on indie music in general, and groups like Teenage Fanclub and Franz Ferdinand in particular, far outweighed the impact it made on the pop charts, with only "Rip It Up" making a dent on the British singles chart in 1983. Twelve years later, Edwyn finally achieved success as a solo artist with the global hit single "A Girl Like You" from the album Gorgeous George.
And then, a couple of albums later--and with another one already recorded--Edwyn was struck down at the age of 45. Yet Edwyn can see a positive side to the debilitating effects of the aphasia caused by his life-changing illness, which has affected his ability to read, write and speak.
"I used to be an intellectual," he says, adding that music is his motivation these days. "It's not frustrating for me in the least. Now I'm passionate about the songs, but reading a book is too demanding for me...Maybe I'm thick? Maybe I'm not right in the head? But I don't care about that. It doesn't bother me."
Edwyn has not had to face his journey alone, thanks to the care of his wife, Grace, who also helps him in interviews by supplementing his answers when he finds it difficult to express himself. When Edwyn laboriously writes a message on the back of an envelope, he uses a phrase that is familiar to Grace.
"'I'm getting there.' This is one of his phrases he uses," she explains. "He has a book full of much-used phrases that he has used, it helps him enormously but, as you can see, this is quite painstaking."
Edwyn's battle to overcome his illness is an inspiration to musicians and listeners alike, with Losing Sleep packed with a host of talented musicians, such as Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos and Nick McCarthy, and Johnny Marr and Ryan Jarman from the Cribs, and the Sex Pistols' Paul Cook, who has been his resident drummer for the past couple of decades.
"I want immediacy, I want excitement, I want vibrancy, I want spontaneousness, I want atmosphere to capture a moment. I like fast songs, direct songs and positive songs, about what life is all about, and what subjects I can involve myself in," he says, before bursting into song with a couple of lines from "It Dawns On Me" a track from Losing Sleep featuring the Magic Numbers' vocalist Romeo Stodart: "A simple life, a simple choice, it dawns on me, reality."
Says Edwyn: "It's making a statement, I think. A simple statement, a direct statement of intent."
While Edwyn's creative process appears to be up and running now--"I'm writing fast and furious," he says enthusiastically--for nearly four years he was incapable of writing anything resembling a lyric, save for a brief respite about six months after his stroke.
"[The song] 'Searching For The Truth,' I wrote that in hospital, 24 hours before I came back [from hospital]," Edwyn recalls, though Grace chips in with a more prosaic memory of the song's germination.
"You started to sing, 'I'm searching for the truth, I'm searching for the truth,' two days before you
left hospital. And what's funny is that you then proceeded to sing it for the next four hours straight, over and over again, until I was ready to kill you," she says with a laugh.
"I sang it over and over in repetition. I was not well, but now I'm getting there," Edwyn adds.
There is further evidence of Edwyn "getting there" in the drawings of birds that adorn the jacket of Losing Sleep. Ever since he attended art school as a teenager, Edwyn has loved sketching, and this has been a vital part of his rehabilitation.
"I'm passionate about drawing and sketching," he says, adding that he was determined to develop his drawing, in spite of being barely able to write.
"At first it was impossible, but I persevered. I drew a crude circle at first, and I remember the first time I drew a wigeon duck in pencil I was pleased with the results. Mind you, it's crude, but I persevered and nowadays I'm using color. I sit at the table sketching away, it takes me about an hour for a quick sketch. I guess it's therapy for me," he says.
As well as the illustrations of birds that adorn the album cover, Edwyn's drawings extend to dolphins and other animals, with his works already exhibited a number of times over the past 2-1/2 years and collected in a book, Some British Birds, two years ago.
Edwyn's ability to draw is even more remarkable when one considers that he has lost the use of his favored right arm and is unable to use it to anchor the paper as he draws with his left hand. "I have a technique with the paper. I constantly move the paper," he says.
As Edwyn prepares for his seventh visit to Japan, he recalls a previous trip, when he came face-to-face with a dish he remembers as "uni." So is he looking forward to reacquainting himself with sea urchin this time around?
"No. I tried it, it tasted of the sea," he says.
Edwyn's rehabilitation over the past six years continues.
"[It's] a new life, but just beginning. After my stroke, no more headaches. I had taken Solpadeine tablets for headaches eight times in 24 hours, and I wasn't well at all. I constantly had headaches and [I thought]: 'What's wrong with me? My brain isn't working.' Nowadays, I don't suffer headaches no more," he says.
These days, Edwyn is firmly focused on his songwriting with the grit and determination of one who recognized that "the possibilities are endless" so soon after staring death squarely in the face, and when he says, "I want to express myself well and the lyrics are a lifeline to me," one gets the feeling that, for this rock 'n' roll survivor, life is just beginning.
Edwyn Collins will play March 23, 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at Billboard Live in Osaka, (06) 6342-7722; and March 25, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at Billboard Live in Tokyo, (03) 3405-1133. For more details, visit www.billboard-live.com.
(Mar. 4, 2011)