Later this month (25 March) Edwyn Collins will release new solo album Understated on his own label AED Records. A mix of styles and genres, the record was self-produced with long time production collaborator Seb Lewsley in Collins' own West Heath Studios and features the likes of The Sex Pistols' Paul Cook and Little Barrie in his band. Also an in demand producer, Collins - aided by wife and manager Grace Maxwell - is something of a self-sustaining wing of the British music industry. When you add in his role in the emergence of indie in with band Orange Juice in the 70s and 80s, plus you consider he's still on the mend after suffering two brain haemorrhages in 2005, the Outstanding Contribution To Music honour Collins received at last year's AIM Awards seems like something of an understatement. Reading all that, one might imagine that success could have made Collins arrogant, or his illness and continuing recovery might make him bitter, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Cheerful, humble and passionate about music - Collins often breaks into song while discussing his new album - it seems impossible to spend time with Collins and Maxwell and not be enthused; which is just what a listen to Understated will do too. Q recently sat down with the pair to discuss the new record.
How the devil are you? Edwyn Collins: "I'm fine thank you, how are you?"
How did you go about writing new album Understated? E: "I use a guitar, I can't strum, but I use it for the chords and then on a little tape recorder I sing the melodies and all the different parts." Grace Maxwell: "You were up in the middle of night with [new album track] Dilemma looking for your tape recorder, saying I've got a good idea! He records these ideas one after another on his tape recorder. Then when he gets together with his musicians he plays back what he's recorded, sings to them, shows them chords on the guitar, just gives them loads of information. They work with Edwyn a lot so they completely get what he wants. They might bring something new to the party as they put a song together, but they're very guided by you, aren't they Edwyn? They do your bidding, in a nice way." E: "Yeah. I'm focused on what to do. Especially these days, I'm really focused on the songs. Take [last album, 2010's] Losing Sleep for instance, I was not so confident about what I was doing, I needed help. But for this Understated I was at last clear and it was easy to do. I let the people I work with come up with their parts, but there's a structure of what they have to do. I'm clear about everything. The song is worked out before I get to the studio: the verse, chorus..." G: "He would always work that way even before his stroke. He would collaborate with people but Seb [Lewsley] says Edwyn would always come with a song pretty mapped out. He was up for improvisation, but the structure and the general framework he was already hearing."
Do you think the fact you're also a producer has helped you work this way now? Some people are only performers, whereas you've always had to have a vision for a song in your head. E: "Maybe, it's possible." G: "He's used to balancing a lot in his mind. He always did that and so the idea of holding a lot of musical ideas in his brain isn't new for him. And the more he's done it the better he's got. At the very beginning of Edwyn's recovery it wasn't clear if he'd be able to hold so many balls in the air, so to speak, but with each thing he's done he's got clearer and clearer."
It seems like music has been quite a strong force in the progress you've made in your recovery? G: "Edwyn struggles to this day with things he wasn't very good at before the stroke. He had an occupational therapist at the beginning and she would come in three times a week and would say to Edwyn: Let's go to the kitchen, what would you do if you were going to make a cup of tea? They were worried that he might have a dyspraxia and would struggle to do things in the right order. So she asked him: What would you do if you wanted to make a cup of tea and he just went, Ask Grace!" [both laugh] E: "I can make coffee now, no problem, but at the time, the things I really wanted to get back were my songs." G: "They'd try to talk him through how to pay a phone bill, for example. He hasn't paid a phone bill since 1982! He's focused on things that are important to him. He wanted to get back to working in the studio." E: "You see I like songs, they're important to me. It's songs and my family that matter to me and that's about it! Anything else I'm not interested. I didn't do that trivia before, so why now? I've focused on the important things." G: "Whatever happened in his brain, the important stuff was still there and he's found an amazing facility to express himself creatively. He might not be able to strum a guitar any more, but he's got so many other outlets available to him, he's very philosophical about it."
So while there might be a physical frustration, you're not frustrated artistically? E: "No! I'm pleased with the album, but I want to do more songs. I'm still progressing and possibly in another two years my brain will recover more."
What can you tell us about Understated? E: "It's a collection of country, northern soul, soul and folk even. The song Understated is about me remembering my first job when I was 19. I was a graphic artist for the parks department in Glasgow. It's just me remembering how it felt and what I was like back then - I was shy. Happy memories. I remember having to do nature tours round the park with school groups and them asking me if I was a punk. I'd tell them: Yes children I'm a punk! I'm nature's punk!" [laughs] G: "It's the only paid job Edwyn's ever had apart from being a musician. It was such a jammy job, drawing squirrels! He said to me they'd sit in this caravan that was part of the nature trail and get stoned!" E: "Yep - Quick shut the door! [laughs] It was the Nu-Sonics days. Steven [Daly] who played drums in Orange Juice was the singer. I left my job when it became Orange Juice. I went on the UB40 grant [laughs]. I actually got caught because they saw me in the NME."
And you've also recorded a one-off for Record Store Day? E: "I'm doing a single with The Heartbreaks, the A-side is called What Are You Doing Fool and the B-side is Untitled Melody, an old Orange Juice song. We're covering it together."
You're also very active as a producer. You've just recorded Charlie Boyer And The Voyeurs debut album Clarietta which is out in May, what was that experience like? E: "It's coming together really well. It's a bit like The Velvet Underground. They're brilliant. They were lovely when they came down the studio and we recorded it very quickly." G: "We also forced Danny [Stead] the bassist to model T-shirts for our online shop. I thought he's young, skinny and I like your tattoos!"
Finally, you're also set to head out on the road with Understated in April, how are those dates looking? E: "London is sold out!" G: "We've not had that for a long time. Live Edwyn's always been an unknown quantity. From one tour to the next we've never know if it would be an uphill struggle to sell tickets or one that surprises you. I'm the manager, and I've been doing it a long time, and I can't tell why it's like that." E: "Same here!" G: "At the moment it's good. Also we're forcing Edwyn to put some different songs into the set list this time. Sometimes he's a bit resistant because he gets really good at particular songs." E: "I've got some songs from the new album, and I've got a lot of other songs to choose from now. I'm learning [solo track] Hope And Despair, I'm getting good at that again [sings the first verse] and [Orange Juice's] Dying Day, but that's got a lot of complicated chords." G: "It's easy for Edwyn to sing it, but he came up with some strange chords for that one which he's having to show the band. We're taking out some of the bands on the label [AED] and I think even [their son] Will's band, Bullies, might play in London on a three band bill. They'll be on first, because Paul Cook will be in America so we've pinched Liam Hutton the drummer from Will's band to play this tour with Edwyn! He's such a good drummer." Paul Stokes @Stokesie