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Music

Edwyn Collins: “I was too frightened to listen to music”

Edwyn Collins on his happy childhood, forming a punk band – and hearing music for the first time after his stroke

I was born in Edinburgh, then I lived in Dundee for a while. Then when I was 16 my mum and dad split up and we moved to Glasgow and I started a band. The Nu-Sonics. A punk group, I suppose. Then I got too old for that carry on. It wasn’t a very good band I guess. But I progressed, and when I was 17 I made myself Orange Juice. 1980 was Falling and Laughing, the first single. My mum was originally from Glasgow. My dad Peter is a painter but he’s retired now. My mum Myra was a cleaner. It’s hard work, cleaning. But she used to be an artist like Peter. A long time ago. I guess creativity runs in my family.

Music was my passion. It’s still my passion. I think, let’s think of an idea, a possibility. And it always comes out as a song. That began a long time ago. I was 14 years of age and I loved David Bowie and Sparks. This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us. I bought their album, Propaganda, and I went to see them at the Caird Hall in Dundee. First it was Pilot, [sings] ‘Woah oh oh, it’s magic, you know.’ Then Sparks. I went to see Bowie in The Glasgow Apollo in 1977. It’s been pulled down now. I was only 15.

I was a happy-go-lucky teenager, not miserable at all. My sister Petra had just been born. We were a happy family when I was a boy. I wasn’t a quiet boy. I didn’t run with a gang but I had friends at the Demonstration Primary School. When we first got a band together Steven Daly was the singer. I was the guitarist. Then I said, ‘Oh! You can’t sing Steven.’ [Peels of laughter]. I was rude, I suppose. So he switched to drums.

I was proud of the first single, Falling and Laughing. But I wasn’t completely convinced by the singing. I was terribly shy. By the fourth Orange Juice album, in 1984, I felt, I can sing now. But Rip it Up [Orange Juice’s 1983 hit], still at that time I wasn’t sure about my voice. Back then it was a job to convince some people. But these were punk days. Some people liked me and some people didn’t. But so what?

For one year and six months I went all round the world. [His solo track A Girl Like You was a worldwide hit in 1994.] The first sign was when the song got to number four in The Netherlands. I was exhausted by the end of it. It was very hard work. [“It was a huge record and it hung around a long time,” says Collins’ wife, Grace Maxwell. “But Edwyn was 35 by then and we’ve always been quite cynical about the music business. So he wasn’t all starry-eyed about being a pop star. He wasn’t madly impressed by the fleeting nature of pop superstardom. He knew it doesn’t last.”] After that The Magic Piper of Love got to number 30. And that’s it.

I’m lost without singing. Without music, what’s the point?

For six months after my stroke I didn’t sing a thing. [Collins suffered two cerebral haemorrhages in 2005.] I just said, ‘The possibilities are endless’, over and over again. And ‘Grace’, my wife’s name. And a few other things. Not much. I was as daft as a brush. It was a hallucinogenic time. The words might flicker but then they were gone, in an instant. It was incredibly hard getting off the floor but I progressed and I did it. Grace helped me. I had to fight. I remember when I was in hospital, I was too frightened to listen to music for ages. Because it brought memories. Then one day Grace put headphones on me and the first song I heard was Johnnie Allan, Promised Land, a song by Chuck Berry. I cried, I must admit… I cried floods of tears. It was emotion, welling up inside me.

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Coming back to myself was very slow. There were sudden breakthroughs. For example, in London, in a crate in the studio garage, I found a sound desk. I’d bought it on eBay. The power supply was there. But no EQs. And I suddenly remembered where I had put the modules a long time ago. And I remembered Phil Oakey was the singer in The Human League. And the name of my sister-in-law’s hairdressing salon, Tangles. In the studio I try to memorise things, lock them inside my head. I still hear music in my head. I have a Sony dictation tape-machine I use to get my words so they don’t get lost. Not a digital. I don’t trust them. I sing all the parts into that.

If I could go back to any time in my life, the start of Postcard [Records] was good but not the happiest. [“Were you fighting with the band too much?” asks Grace. “Exactly,” he says.] I was very happy when I was boy. When I was at primary school in Dundee my grandfather lived in Helmsdale, where I live now. It’s very high up north. John O’Groats is 15 miles away. I spent summers here. We went out walking a lot; me, my sister Petra and my grandfather. Tramping up the hills. It was hard work but I got good at it. I knew all the species of birds when I was 10. That was a very happy time.

Nowadays, what it is, I’m lost without singing. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s a funny thing. I’m lost without music. Corny, isn’t it? I did used to get nervous about going onstage, especially in Orange Juice days. Now I suppose it’s when I feel most confident. I’ve come on a bit since my stroke, at talking. But it’s a bit of a chore. But singing is not a bit of a chore. Without music, what’s the point?

With thanks to Grace Maxwell. Edwyn Collins and band will play On Blackheath festival, London, September 11

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