Edwyn Collins brings a touch of the Scottish Highlands to the south coast as he plays The Wedgewood Rooms
The release of Edwyn Collins’ new album Badbea earlier this year could be said to mark a new era in the remarkable singer-songwriter’s career.
His first since 2013’s Understated, it is also the first he has released since moving back to his family's ancestral home of Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands, only 50 miles or so south of John O’Groats.
He made the move with his wife (and manager) Grace Maxwell after more than three decades in London.
The former Orange Juice frontman and A Girl Like You hitmaker has also had a state-of-the-art studio built there, Clashnarrow, to replace the one he had in London
Badbea is Edwyn’s ninth solo album, and perhaps more incredibly, his fourth since he suffered two near-fatal brain haemorrhages in 2005.
When speaking to The Guide from their home, with Grace by his side, his speech remains slow and measured. But if you were to listen to the new album without being aware of his past, you would be none the wiser.
This part of the world is clearly special to both of them – Edwyn particularly recalls coming there as a child to visit family in the summer holidays: ‘I absolutely adored the place.’
And when asked why they decided to move there Edwyn replies simply with a laugh: ‘Grace prompted me.’
Together in conversation the two are an engaging double-act. They chide each other, jump over each other's sentences, and tell each off, before demonstrating the affection that can only come from having been through the best and very worst of times together. They laugh often.
After the strokes, the only things Edwyn could say were ‘yes’, no’, ‘Grace Maxwell’ and rather curiously, ‘the possibilities are endless.’
The rehabilitation has been long and difficult.
Grace picks up the story: ‘After Edwyn’s illness, when we were working on his recovery, in the back of my mind I was also working on a masterplan to get him up here permanently. We already had the old family house at that point, we’d had that since the ’90s.
‘But since the illness – when you were getting better, I was trying to figure up a way to wrap up the studio in London and create one here.
‘It’s a long story but we were able to do it, and build that beautiful place that sits above us on the hill behind us.’
‘It’s been the project of our life.
‘Without a recording studio Edwyn would be lost, and a huge part of his life and his recovery, so in order to entice him to where I wanted to be for the rest of my life, I had no choice, I had to build him a studio!’
Since the studio opened for business it’s had ‘loads of people in’ says Edwyn, with visits from David Gray, Teenage Fanclub and Hooton Tennis Club among others.
Production work has long been another string to Edwyn’s bow.
‘We don’t really run it as a commercial studio,’ adds Grace. ‘We don’t advertise, it’s about things Edwyn fancies working on, or that are happy to come and work here as projects, but it’s been pretty full on.’
The new album, Badbea is an eloquent and contemplative document of his remarkable and on-going rehabilitation.
‘It’s all about looking forward, I guess,’ Edwyn reflects. ‘I’m happy. Content with life.’
When he sings on the title track: ‘A ruined monument to life / And death…/ Lean towards the wind, a fight for breath,’ you can’t help but wonder if he's singing about his own experiences.
The album was inspired by something Grace found in one of his pre-stroke notebooks, which he refers to as being by ‘old Edwyn.’
‘I found a verse in one of his old books,' says Grace, ‘and I said: “Why don’t you use this as a jumping off point?” I think there’s a lot of good stuff in these old books, but you weren’t keen on that at first.
Badea is a former clearance village just up the coast from Helmsdale – its ruins have been kept as a tourist attraction.
‘There’s going to be a few more visitors to Badbea now, I think’, Grace jokes.
The difference between Edwyn’s spoken and singing voice is startling.
‘I practice daily at my singing voice to get it right,’ he admits. ‘My speaking voice isn’t perfect, but it’s coming on.’
Grace continues: ‘We measure everything against how it was at the beginning, and it’s just tremendous where he’s been able to get to, it’s amazing.
‘From Edwyn’s perspective it stops him from having any regrets – no self-pity or sadness, all he sees is the massive progress he’s made. He’s back doing everything he loves.’
Edwyn adds: ‘Some people falter with their speech after a stroke, but I persevered.’ Serious for a moment: ‘I think Grace was frightened for me too.’
Grace says: ‘The other thing, I think that makes us both fortunate, is the lack of misery in Edwyn.’
He interjects: ‘Some people get very depressed.’
She says: ‘But he’s just relentlessly cheery and optimistic. You love your life don’t you?’
‘Full of joy and happiness!’ he deadpans and they both chortle.
And last Friday he celebrated his 60th birthday. ‘How do you feel about that Edwyn?’ his wife asks with a hint of mocking.
‘I don’t care,’ he cuts back.
Rehab was hard work, and as Grace admits: ‘I’ve been an horrific nag to him over the years.
‘It sort of works, you know, we’ve got our own method of getting there. He’s dependent on the nagging.’
‘Yeah…’ he replies in a manner that suggests otherwise.
‘I was so vulnerable near the start after my stroke. For six months after my stroke, in hospital, I didn’t know what was going on.’
While they know that every brain injury is different, they hope Edwyn’s story can help give inspiration to others.
Grace: ‘Here we are 14 years later, and it’s really good for anyone who’s going through this – it’s not always possible to make this progress, a lot of different circumstances can inform that, but we like to think that you can say…’
‘Don’t give up!’ Edwyn finishes.
‘No-one’s got a crystal ball, so just keep trying, and Edwyn still improves all these years later’, says Grace.
The new tour, dubbed Hide The Biscuits…It’s Edwyn Collins Outside got underway in Glasgow on Wednesday.
How does he cope with the rigours of life on the road these days?
‘At the end of the last tour, I was exhausted. But I think it’s worth it.’
Grace steps in: ‘Edwyn’s like Prince Charles, he just floats about, he doesn’t do any of the heavy lifting.’
‘But I can’t!’ he protests.
‘Metaphorical heavy lifting I’m talking about,’ she replies. ‘You don’t need to do the worrying about anything. You just float around and when you walk in everyone goes: “Oh isn’t he marvellous, isn’t he wonderful”,’ she cackles.
But she admits that the affection towards her husband is a joy to see.
‘People are incredibly generous towards you, there’s no negativity around you, it’s lovely.’
One effect of his strokes was severe memory loss.
‘I can’t remember things. It’s coming back, but Grace can remember.’
But she undercuts him: ‘Ach, even before the illness, I’d ask you: “Do you remember this?” And you’d say, “Oh, it’s all a blur”.’
Trying to tap into those old memories has been part of his rehabilitation.
‘At first he didn’t even recognise our own house,’ says Grace.
‘I recognised my studio of course,’ he laughs, ‘but I didn’t really recognise my house!’
And when it came to his music, as with so much else, it’s been about repetition and practice.
‘I don’t think you listened to it for quite a wee while,’ says Grace, ‘but when you did, you did recognise it. As far as remembering the words, that took a lot longer – that took years actually.’
‘I’m okay with the choruses, not so much the verses,’ says Edwyn – and he does keep his lyrics in front of him when he performs.
Grace adds: ‘When you see Edwyn perform, they say: “Wow, that’s amazing”, because he’s a little stumbly with his speech, but he sings so fluently, and it comes so easy, but really it doesn’t. It comes with enormous amounts of practice.’
They recall his first post-stroke appearance at London's Dingwalls in late 2007.
‘Coming back to performing that first time was the most nerve-racking night of my life,’ says Grace.
‘And mine!’ he adds with a hint of exasperation.
But it seems you can't keep a good performer down.
Grace starts: ‘Edwyn’s always been a…’
‘Ham?’ he quickly adds.
‘Yeah, you’re a ham. Exactly,' and they both howl with laughter.
Edwyn Collins is at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea, on Tuesday, September 10. Doors, 7.30pm. Tickets £20. Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.