Location Helmsdale: Edwyn Collins takes a breather outside his studio, shot by a fellow Scots-based ex-punk warrior (Photo: John Maher)
Badbea is Edwyn Collins’ ninth solo album, and the first since he moved home and studio from North London back to Scotland in 2014.
More to the point, it’s Edwyn’s fourth LP since two major strokes in 2005 that wiped his memory and left him unable to play a single note, read, talk, write or walk, his subsequent recovery a true inspiration to us all.
If you don’t know the story, I heartily recommend BBC Scotland’s 2007 Home Again documentary, and James Hall and Edward Lovelace’s 2014 feature-length film The Possibilities Are Endless, both following the ex-Orange Juice frontman’s slow but sure journey back from the brink.
These days Edwyn works from a studio built from scratch on hills overlooking Helmsdale, Sutherland, on Scotland’s North-East coast, near the home which has been in his family for generations and where he visited his grandfather during school holidays.
It was at the state of the art Clashnarrow Studio that he completed work on Badbea with co-producer Sean Read (Dexys, The Rockingbirds) and long-term musical cohorts Carwyn Ellis (Colorama) and James Walbourne (The Pretenders / The Rails).
Before talking to Edwyn and his wife and manager Grace Maxwell – there to help out, as ever – I revisited the BBC documentary detailing the tale of his slow but determined recovery from two brain haemorrhages 15 years ago.
He spent around six months in hospital, and I don’t think anyone could fail to be impressed by the powers of determination exhibited by both Edwyn and Grace as he underwent intensive physio, speech and many other key therapies, with support from health professionals, friends and family.
Their son William was also a great help, and family clearly means a lot to Edwyn, as possibly signalled on an untitled 13th track on Badbea.
Petrol Head: Edwyn Collins, on the road again, outside a petrol station in Brora.
Edwyn’s new base clearly has an inspirational air of its own, something that came up in my interviews with Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, whose Here album was the second recorded at Clashnarrow Studio (Hooton Tennis Club were the first), and The Farm’s Carl Hunter, who commissioned Edwyn and Sean Read to score his directorial debut, Sometimes Always Never.
When I called there was something of a lull between storms for my interviewees, Grace telling me about the ‘ferocious growing’ and how ‘everything’s like a jungle up here’, not least for a self-confessed ‘dreadful gardener’.
I bet she’s not. Her recent track record suggests she puts heart and soul into everything she tackles.
Norman told me Edwyn was ‘a good friend and an amazing guy’, with the way he dealt with his stroke ‘absolutely inspirational’. And when I told Edwyn this, he replied, ‘Yeah, I love Norman!”
As for Carl and his time at Clashnarrow with Edwyn, Sean and Chay Heney, he was full of praise for ‘three musical alchemists’ who ‘turned out this amazing soundtrack’.
He also gave me something of an indication of his host’s infectious spirit, telling me, ‘Edwyn collects vintage guitars and recording equipment, and it’s an Aladdin’s cave of vintage instruments and electronics. He gets very excited by music, and also playing. There’ll be some instrument we’ve never heard of, and we’ll follow him to his shed and he’ll get something from 1945 or 1950, some bizarre item of equipment, and say, ‘Let’s plug it in!’’
When I repeated that tale, Grace told me Chay was already back, working on his own recording. Is it always fairly busy in the studio?
Edwyn: “Not in summertime, but in the winter, yeah.”
Grace: “We had a little lull before the storm. But it’s fully mental now. Life is full-on busy right now.”
Edwyn: “Sorry, Grace!”
Grace: “That’s alright. I know I’m a pensioner, and shouldn’t be working this hard, but never mind!”
Badbea Architect: Edwyn Collins takes a moment out at his studio, near Helmsdale, Sutherland
It’s tricky to incorporate two answers to each question, but that’s how it rolls with this double-act, and as well as being truly entertaining, bouncing off each other, it’s something of a necessity, Edwyn often struggling to voice what he wants to say, however much amazing progress he’s made.
My friend Jude interviewed him at the time of 2010’s Losing Sleep, and couldn’t believe the improvement judging by a new short film for BBC Scotland, recalling the lengths Edwyn and Grace went then in a bid to answer questions, calling Grace ‘an incredible person – nothing stops her’.
And life clearly goes on, with the latest LP, Badbea, part-inspired by his move to the Sutherland coast, the title track name-checking a dramatically-located, abandoned village on a cliff-top five miles north, its history defined by the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Was the story of Badbea and the clearances something he was aware of from early visits to his Grandad?
Edwyn: “Yes, and I was possibly eight years old the first time I visited my grandfather there, with my sister, Petra.”
Grace: “His grandfather would tell him all the stories. You didn’t need a history book with him.”
Edwyn: “And now there’s a monument there to remind you that people used to live there.”
Grace: “When you look at it on a good day, you think, ‘Wow, it’s amazing’.”
Edwyn: “In summertime, yes, but in the winter it’s horrendous.”
There are dramatic, high cliffs, I gather.
Grace: “Very much so. I think they used to tether their children with a rope to prevent big winds picking them up.”
Home Again: Edwyn Collins’ first album after his illness, released in 2007.
Edwyn, about to turn 60, left Leith, Edinburgh, when he was six, spending time in Dundee, where his father was an art school lecturer, before moving to Glasgow at 14.
Grace: “You lived in the posh bit of Edinburgh, didn’t you?”
Edwyn: “Yeah, but you didn’t!”
Grace: (whispers): “Oh, sod off!”
Edwyn: “Apparently, you’re working class!”
Grace: “The best kind – quality working class!”
But there was always that family link back to Helmsdale.
Edwyn: “Yes, and I loved the place, especially in the summertime.”
Grace: “He’d visit during the summer holidays. One year his Mum and Dad were thinking about going abroad, but he said, ‘You can go wherever you like, I’m going to Helmsdale.”
Edwyn: “In a nice way!”
When I first saw the album title, I thought it must relate to some obscure folk guitar tuning, like DADGAD.
Edwyn: “No! Ha ha!”
When I write ‘ha ha’, anyone who knows Edwyn will realise it’s not quite that simple. He has a truly infectious laugh which needs to be heard to be appreciated, somewhat deep and guttural, as if projected by seals coming to shore on that Sutherland coast, I reckon.
I’d say we didn’t really need any confirmation, but the album’s opener, ‘It’s All About You’ suggests you’ve never lost that art of writing cracking pop singles.
Edwyn: “Well, it was done before my stroke.”
Losing Sleep: Edwyn Collins’ 2010 solo offering used his artwork on its sleeve
Grace: “The tune’s completely brand new, but the first verse was a jumping-off point. When we first moved here, I’d gathered around 30 of Edwyn’s notebooks, with jottings all over them. And when he was writing again, I mentioned how I’d found that first verse. He was always against revisiting anything he’d written before, but I said, ‘I don’t understand what your problem is.“
Edwyn: “What it is, before my stroke I was a little bit pretentious, a little bit arrogant, and I thought all my lyrics were brilliant.”
Grace: “A proper smarty-pants! But when you see something like that, you’ve gotta use it! I mean, ‘The sun was a bright bikini yellow, the sky was a Wedgwood blue …”
At this point Edwyn joins in, the pair reciting in unison.
“The mood was unspeakably mellow, ‘then you came and spoiled the view.”
Grace: “And you think, ‘That’s a great start!”
Edwyn: “A jumping point, yeah!”
I’m not sure if it’s just because of the added saxophone, but …
Edwyn: “The sax! Ooh, what can I say! It’s Germanium EQ, and the sax sounds brilliant. “
Grace: “Watch, he’s gonna go full studio nerd now!”
Incidentally, I messaged Edwyn to confirm I had that right, not wanting to get my terminology wrong. He responded, ‘Yes, it’s Germanium, 1967, Neve 2001 .8 EQ, and it’s the bomb!’
Guitar Man: Edwyn Collins at home in North-East Scotland, working on another great song.
That part was down to Edwyn’s co-producer, multi-instrumentalist Sean Read, and I told Edwyn I could hear Madness covering that track – Suggs and Lee Thompson with a spin on Edwyn and Sean’s delivery, respectively. Could that be part of the EC pension plan?
Edwyn: “Ha ha!”
Grace: “if only! You’ve never really had a lot of covers, have you?”
A lively discussion followed between them about past covers, not least of 1994 big hit, ‘A Girl Like You’, Edwyn disagreeing with his beloved, trying to remember the name of an American band who covered it. I’m still not sure who, but did uncover interesting versions by past WriteWyattUK interviewee Miles Kane and … erm, Rolf Harris. Anyway, we soon got back on track.
You’ve always worn your influences on your sleeve, from the Velvets through to Motown and a hundred points between, and ‘In the Morning’ could well have been crafted by Smokey Robinson back in the day. And that’s before the brass comes in.
Edwyn: “Yeah, yeah! Although it’s kind of like Northern Soul.”
I see that as well.
Edwyn: “Carwyn Ellis did the solo, with no amplifier involved. It’s directly injected.”
You and Carwyn have worked together a long time.
Edwyn: “He’s amazing. And Little Barrie is amazing too.”
Seaside Rendezvous: Bill Nighy as retired tailor Alan Mellor, on the set of Sometimes Always Never, for which Edwyn Collins wrote the title song.
There’s real strength in depth across the record and accompanying singles, where even the B-side, ‘Sometimes Always Never’, from Carl Hunter’s film, impresses. Did you have a private screening of that film’s rushes, or work off a script?
Grace: “Sean and Edwyn were given a rough cut of the film and worked with that in front of them, working on two songs and the score.”
It’s unmistakeably you.
Edwyn: “Thank you very much.”
Grace: “Sean was great as well, and the music really suits the film, doesn’t it.”
You clearly work well with Sean.
Edwyn: “Yes, he was in The Rockingbirds, who were on Heavenly.”
That’s the label Edwyn also featured on back then, its current roster including WriteWyattUK favourites Pip Blom.
Grace: “I think Edwyn recorded his band in ’94. It goes back that far.”
Edwyn: “Sean was a bit shy, first of all. “
Grace: “He can certainly play. He’s a multi-instrumentalist…”
Edwyn: “He can play trumpet, saxophone, keyboards, and he’s a producer …”
Gorgeous George: The 1994 Setanta LP that brought Edwyn major solo success
Grace: “He’s been playing in Edwyn’s band for years, and more recently they’ve been co-producing together.”
You clearly have an understanding between you.
Edwyn: “Yeah, yeah. Sean’s lovely. There’s not a problem explaining to each other ideas.”
Grace: “Verbally, Edwyn has got new challenges …”
Edwyn: “Tell me about it, Grace!”
Grace: “But not with their relationship in the studio.”
Edwyn: “Everything’s cool with that.”
Grace: “There are no issues in the studio. Somehow that all just …”
Edwyn: “It all just gels!”
And this is your ninth solo album, I believe.
But the first you’ve recorded since moving to Helmsdale.
Edwyn: “Yeah, and there was no problem with moving between London and Helmsdale. Badbea involved an easy process. Sean and I work quickly together.”
Kind of effortlessly?
Early Days: Orange Juice’s You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, from 1982.
Grace: “We’ve hauled a few people up to this part of the world, and they think it must be difficult to get to. But it’s really quick, actually. It’s Inverness airport then …”
Edwyn: “The A9.”
It would take me seven hours by car from Lancashire.
Edwyn: “It’s easier on a plane!”
I mentioned a few tracks on this LP, and for me ‘Outside’ is another highlight, where you seem to be channelling Wire and your punk roots.
Edwyn: “Ha! Yeah, I reference it to the Buzzcocks, and my voice is kind of like Iggy Pop.”
I hear that too, and it’s a great song, while I see ‘Glasgow to London’ more indicative of the next phase in your career, reminiscent of Orange Juice days and a successful new wave/dance crossover.
Grace: “It’s got some chord sequences like on your early records.”
Edwyn: “Yeah, and I like the middle eight … like a sitar. Carwyn did that sound. I reference it to him.”
At this point, Edwyn gives me an example, singing me the melody, as he would his bandmate.
Grace: “That’s how he does it.”
Edwyn: “I have a Sony tape recorder that cost me £20. Analogue, not digital.”
Grace: “He sings his ideas into that.”
New Boundaries: Orange Juice’s Rip It Up, also from 1982, brought a major commercial breakthrough.
There are several poignant moments of nostalgic reminiscence on Badbea, something you were keen to avoid around the time of your rehabilitation, if I recall right. Back then, you were focused on going forward. Now you’ve allowed yourself moments of reflection.
Grace: “He didn’t notice until I pointed it out. He’s always been like, ‘No, I’m not looking back, I’m never looking back. Then he made this record, and I went, erm, excuse me …”
Well, it really works.
Edwyn: “Yeah, for one thing, Badbea (the song) is not nostalgic.”
Grace: “But a lot of the songs are reflective. He can’t help that!”
Grace and Edwyn met in 1980, at which point Edwyn was based north of the border, with a view to moving down permanently, sticking around London until 2015. And where was home then? In that BBC documentary you’re by the Thames in Hammersmith.
Grace: “We were in Kilburn, but used to go to Barnes for Edwyn’s physio. That was one of my stop-off points for a walk. I used to walk you back then like you were a bloody big dog!”
Well, it obviously did some good. And you’ve got this run of ‘Outside’ dates coming soon, the tour tagline adding, ‘Hide the biscuits!’ I’m guessing you’re looking forward to those shows.
“Very much so … although possibly Grace isn’t.”
“I’m okay. I’m fine, although I don’t think I relish it as much as Edwyn. But I’ll enjoy it as soon as we’re on the way. And we’re being supported by a brilliant band.”
Edwyn: “Yes, Astrid (from the Isle of Lewis) and Gabi (Garbutt, London-based).”
Grace: “No, your own band, I’m talking about!”
Edwyn: “Oh! Little Barrie on guitar, Andy Hackett on guitar …”
Sutherland Setting: Edwyn Collins feels he is home again since his 2015 move back up from London to Scotland
Andy’s been with you a few years now, hasn’t he?
Grace: “About a million years, yeah!”
Edwyn: “Then there’s Sean Read on saxophone and keyboards, Carwyn Ellis on bass, plus Jake Hutton on drums.”
Grace: “Jakes’s involved with the team in the studio as well. It’s a really familiar crowd, even our tour people we’ve worked with 20 years or more.”
Do you keep in touch with your former drummer, ex-Sex pistol Paul Cook? He played with you for a fair while.
Edwyn: “Yeah, I love Paul. But he’s strictly a London boy.”
Grace: “And he’s been in LA a lot. We’re definitely still in touch with Paul and Jeni (his wife, formerly with Culture Club) though, and our dear friend Vic Godard.”
Edwyn: “Of the Subway Sect.”
Grace: “We met Paul via Vic, because they’re very good friends.”
That link came via Edwyn producing and contributing to Vic’s 1993 LP, The End of the Surrey People.
Edwyn: “I was a little bit shy regarding Paul at first.”
Next Offering: Edwyn Collins’ 2013 album Understated continued the tale
Was that because you saw him as a Sex Pistol back then?
Edwyn: “I suppose I was a little bit in awe of him.”
Grace: “I think as Paul’s very close to Vic, I think he was a little protective of Vic.”
Edwyn: “But I think he quickly realised. I did a couple of numbers with Paul …”
Grace: “And he realised Vic was in safe hands. We’ve all been good buddies ever since.”
Speaking of bandmates, do you keep in touch with your Orange Juice pals?
Edwyn: “Yeah, but with Steven Daly in New York, it’s difficult for me, and David McAlmont is in Australia. But James Kirk is in Glasgow.”
Grace: “I’m twittering away with Steven all the time, and him and his little girl are going to be around at the time of your show in Glasgow.”
Edwyn: “Really? Brilliant!”
Grace: “The good thing is that there were only six people in the different versions of the band. I take care of Orange Juice business as well, and the band own the records – there’s no record company in the way. In this era of streaming and everything, Orange Juice is doing rather well. I get the nice job of circulating dosh around! There’s no barrier between them and that income. Everybody gets paid.”
It’ll be 40 years since those initial Orange Juice shows, although there were a couple of years before as the Nu-Sonics.
Edwyn: “Forty years!”
Grace: “That’s amazing, isn’t it!”
Retrospective Collection: Orange Juice’s marvellous Coals to Newcastle from 2010
When you look back, do you recognise that giggling lad in shades on the sofa with Postcard Records’ Alan Horne and guest host B.A. Robertson on BBC show Friday night, Saturday Morning in 1982?
Edwyn: “Err … no. With the giggling aspect, I suppose I was a bit nervous. I talked incessantly back in the Orange Juice days.”
Finally, while I’m on the anniversary front, it’ll be 30 years since I shelled out on your first Demon Records solo LP, Hope and Despair, and 25 years since everything took a commercial leap with the success of Gorgeous George and big hit ‘A Girl Like You’. Time flies, eh.
Grace: “God, doesn’t that make you feel old, Edwyn.”
Edwyn: “No, not me, Grace!”
Grace: “As fresh as a daisy, aren’t you!”
Edwyn: “I’ve matured a bit. I admit it!”
Biscuits Promised: Edwyn Collins, all set to get on the road again with his band, for a string of UK dates
Edwyn Collins’ 2019 live dates: QMU, Glasgow (August 28th); Trades Club, Hebden Bridge (August 29th), Ironworks, Inverness (September 2nd); Beat Generator Live, Dundee (September 3rd); Boiler Shop, Newcastle (September 4th); Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (September 5th); Arts Club Theatre, Liverpool (September 7th); Gorilla, Manchester (September 8th); Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth (September 10th); Concorde 2, Brighton (September 11th); O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London (September 12th); Liberty Music Hall, Dublin (September 14th); Empire Music Hall, Belfast (September 15th); Trinity, Bristol (September 17th).
Tickets are available via www.seetickets.com (Liverpool, Manchester, Portsmouth, Brighton, London and Bristol), www.thetradesclub.com (Hebden Bridge), www.pclpresents.seetickets.com (Glasgow, Inverness and Dundee), www.boilershop.net (Newcastle) and www.ticketmaster.ie (Dublin and Belfast). For more details and all the latest from Edwyn Collins, follow him via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
With thanks to Carl Delahunty and Grace Maxwell.