Falling and Laughing with Edwyn Collins
Before his Belfast performance, meet the man who invented indie music
On the phone to Edwyn Collins, I tell him that in the 1990s my band covered (read: suffocated) the classic Orange Juice track 'Flesh of my Flesh'. He laughs politely (although a little too long for my liking), declining to comment.
Understandably so. As one of the most influential and admired songwriters of his generation – beloved in the past 20 years by floppy-fringed guitar lovers everywhere – Collins must be accustomed to hyperbolic plaudits and clumsy compliments.
The remarkable man, musician and former scourge of the music press performs in Belfast for the first time in nearly a decade, as part of January's Out to Lunch arts festival. Everybody has surely heard of Collins in at least one of his public incarnations. To jog your memory, here are a few of the ages of Edwyn.
If you've looked at the NME over the past 20 years, you’ve heard of Orange Juice Edwyn. He formed the group in Glasgow in the late 1970s, going on to co-found the Postcard record label (creating the indie-music business model for labels like Creation) and to write some of the most influential and brilliant indie music of the decade.
Like the Velvet Underground before them, Orange Juice directly inspired and influenced the generation of musicians that came after. Every guitar band on the spectrum from the Smiths, to Franz Ferdinand, to Belle and Sebastian to Bloc Party and Blur, share musical DNA with Orange Juice.
Many more cite them as a direct influence. They made songs of heart-breaking fragility and arse-kicking wit, becoming the darlings of the music press. The only bona-fide hit Orange Juice ever had, though, was the squelchy, infectious masterpiece 'Rip it Up', the band's only top 40 single.
You may also be familiar with 'Girl Like You' Edwyn. He’s the cool Northern Soul revivalist with the caustic tongue who made quality albums throughout the 90s, which, at times, he found hard to even give away. Until, that is, the global smash 'Girl Like You', which in 1994 made even the dead tap their feet.
Then, sadly, there’s the probably most well-known Edwyn, who had two brain haemorrhages in 2005.
If that wasn’t enough, while in hospital, by cruel chance he contracted the MRSA bug. It was touch and go for a while and for thousands of well-wishers it seemed like he might not make it.
In life as in art, however, Edwyn proved resilient. Though the events of 2005 left him with aphasia (making it difficult to talk - he’s still working on motor and speech function) his progress has been nothing short of astonishing.
Which brings us to the creatively-invigorated-and-kicking-illness-in-the-balls Edwyn. He’s working on a host of new songs with notable musical friends (Ryan Jarman of The Cribs ‘popped in’ to the studio the other week to record a couple of tracks) and more significantly, he’s back on the road touring with his band.
My conversation with Collins is accompanied by his wife, manager and confidante, Grace Maxwell. Among the many battles over the years, she’s recently fought and won the right to allow Collins to include 'Girl like You' – his own song – on his MySpace page.
As somebody on the front line, she has much to say about the music industry and its iniquities. But that’s for another interview.
Maxwell, too, appears on the Out to Lunch stage, reading from her remarkable, funny and moving book Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins, which traces the couple’s struggle and Collins' road to recovery.
He hasn’t lost the wit he was renowned for over the years. Although we share a waspish chuckle about Johnny Marr joining the Cribs like some latter-day avuncular Keef Richards, Collins also adds that Marr is a ‘wonderful guitarist’, admitting that he now feels mellowed out in older age.
‘Edwyn was very withering in his day,’ muses Maxwell, referring back to Orange Juice days. ‘He didn’t play the game and he treated people he didn’t rate with contempt. That was part of the reason that Orange Juice never really got the success they deserved.’
Collins mock-protests: ‘No I didn’t! What came across as arrogance was shyness.’ It’s hard to tell whether he’s teasing or not, but he was unquestionably the literate and pithy music press darling when Morrissey was still brooding in his mum’s spare room.
But that was then. The fact he’s chatting to me about new music and gigging in Belfast is clearly remarkable. And with 40 gigs under his belt in the last couple of years, what’s even more remarkable is that he had to re-learn each of the songs he performs.
‘I had to sit down and learn them one by one,’ he reveals. ‘It was incredibly difficult. I started with (early OJ classic) 'Falling and Laughing'.'
I put it to him that it must be quite an experience rediscovering such a remarkable body of work all over again – songs like 'Poor Old Soul', 'Blue Boy' and 'Consolation Prize' didn’t just define their era, they refined subsequent musical eras and trends. ‘I suppose it is interesting, doing them again,’ he says with a degree of understated but misplaced modesty.
‘Although it’s not what you think about when you’re working and working on the songs - practice, practice, practice. But it’s been worth it. I’m really loving touring again. I’d kind of gone off performing live in the days when I was last in Belfast but now it’s just amazing.’
Anybody who’s caught recent Collins performances live or on YouTube will concur – the set is like a potted history of modern pop perfection, with Collins' singing voice now restored to the splendid booming baritone of yore.
His records didn’t sell truckloads, like some of his lesser peers. As Maxwell points out, Collins' body of work is overdue a critical revaluation. ‘Edwyn was influential but criminally overlooked when it came to record companies and success. He had everything – he looked amazing, his songs were amazing, he constantly creatively progressed through Orange Juice and solo records. But he just didn’t quite play ball.’
Collins is more sanguine and less reflective – preferring to look to the future. ‘The possibilities are endless,’ he says dreamily, quoting, as documented in Maxwell's book, one of the first lyrics he wrote after his illness. ‘The possibilities are endless.'
Before I leave him to go back to his studio, I ask him one of the most impertinent and important questions of my interviewing career: Edwyn Collins, are you the godfather of modern indie music?
For a second, his recently-acquired humility deserts him. ‘I am,’ he says, in a wonderfully matter-of-fact way. It’s not arrogance; it’s just the certitude of a man who knows his true worth.
‘I was walking down Kilburn Road some years back. There were these three black guys across the road all nodding to each other and looking at me. I was starting to get a little panicky as they got closer and kept staring at me and murmuring to themselves. One of them came right up to me eventually and said in this broad Mancunian accent: ‘You’re that guy who invented indie, aren’t ya?!’’