Interview: Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell

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(Photo credit: Elaine Livingston)

This interview originally ran as the cover feature of the Herald Magazine on November 1st, 2014.

Helmsdale is not a place you can forget. The old fishing port on Sutherland’s east coast is welcoming and bright and calm: a quiet locale with a colourful past. Its castle ruins are long destroyed, but you can still trace its memories, presence and ghosts, while the river’s gilded tributaries hint at residual treasure from a past gold-rush. Row upon row of permanent cormorants gleam along the harbour wall, and the clatter of fishing boats echoes a time when Helmsdale spearheaded the herring boom, as chronicled in Neil Gunn’s Silver Darlings – a neighbouring tale of uprooted people, and lives hard won.

Edwyn Collins forgot about Helmsdale. He forgot about everything. His memory was wiped as a result of two catastrophic strokes in 2005 that also left him unable to walk, talk, read or write. Collins had no recollection of his legacy as a Scottish pop iconoclast – as Postcard Records’ beautiful poster-boy; Orange Juice’s bookish arch-frontman; the dapper, quiffed harbinger of 1990s classic ‘A Girl Like You’. Nor could he recall his home in London, his Dundee upbringing, his days as a young musician in Glasgow, or indeed his childhood summers (and adult retreats) on his clan’s Helmsdale croft. He had no idea who he was.

Collins’ remarkable, gradual recovery, and rediscovery of his beloved Helmsdale, is now the subject of an exquisite film by Edward Lovelace and James Hall, entitled The Possibilities Are Endless, which is one of only two phrases that Collins could utter in the wake of his illness. And the other phrase? Well, that suggests that although Collins came back from the brink as a man without moorings, bearings, a map – a man at sea, and in the dark – he never completely lost sight of his north star. At first, he could only say, “Grace Maxwell” – the name of his wife, manager and mother of their son. “Maybe she is my life,” he ponders in the film.

What’s most incredible is not that Collins recovered his memory, rebuilt the ruins of his mind, reanimated the ghosts of his past, or even returned to create some of his career’s most precious work. Rather, it is the fact that he is still with us at all. In Maxwell’s remarkable book, Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins, she writes that she feared Collins had died, and was advised to prepare for such an outcome. His uprooted life, too, has been hard won.

With all of this in mind, it is joyous, and unexpectedly moving, to climb the winding hill to their Helmsdale croft; to see them both standing there waving and smiling, calling and laughing, on top of the world.

Maxwell never left Collins’ side as he recovered, and among countless rehabilitative feats (“she set me free,” Collins says in the film), she encouraged him to finish her sentences, as a way of easing his ongoing aphasia – a stroke-related wrestle with language. As we settle round their farmhouse kitchen table, it quickly becomes evident that while Collins’ speech is much improved these days – his responses are characteristically flamboyant, archaic and whip-smart – the pair still operate as a double-act. Their tales of a life shared are told as such, with sentences passed like baton relays, and their conversations are directed at each other as much as they are toward us.

They’re a hugely welcoming, amiable couple, and it is a rare treat to spend time in their company, as they settle into home and working life in Helmsdale (they’re building an incredible-looking recording studio in their garden), after three decades together in London.

“Ah, London,” Collins muses, tucking into gingerbread, clad in plaid and vintage denim, ever the indie-pop rodeo Elvis. “I like London a lot. But Grace is bored with it.”

“It’s not so much that I’m bored of London, Edwyn,” interjects Maxwell, passing the sugar. “It’s just that I really love being here. And for me, that feeling of really, really wanting to be completely in Helmsdale meant I felt my life slipping away with every year that I wasn’t here,” she explains. “I was resenting it.”

“Oh yes, she really was,” Collins nods. “In London, Grace is – let me say – she’s cross,” he offers with a laugh. (He laughs a lot.) “But in Helmsdale? She’s not cross.”

“Aye, I’m not so bad-tempered here,” Maxwell concedes. “But what I did understand is that for Edwyn, work is everything. Especially since he’s come back from illness. He never likes to be away from work for very long, do you? It’s been so much a part of your recovery. Your continued improving. And you’re still getting better. So, as long as Edwyn has his work, and we can be in Helmsdale, then we’re all happy.”

Edwyn smiles and shrugs. “Yeah – why not? And I love Helmsdale too.”

The Helmsdale croft has been in Collins’ family for generations. A picture of his great-grandmother hangs in one room; a portrait of his grandfather, painted by his father, overlooks another (Collins’ parents were both artists). And you can’t help but notice a windowsill cluster of dodgy-looking ornaments that call to mind the tartan-kitsch aesthetic of Postcard Records. “Oh yeah, they’re Edwyn’s,” Maxwell groans. “They’re fairings – you used to get them free at the shows. That one, Burns and His Mary, that’s the worst.”

“I am an artiste, Grace, and that is to my taste, even if it is a load of shit,” Collins pipes up.

“Aye, you’re the interior decorator alright, Edwyn,” she fires back. “You do the fancy-dancy stuff. I deal with the septic tank.”

You wonder how much of the couple’s sparky dialogue is a result of Collins’ illness: there is a sense from their humour, and mutual warmth, that they’d be like that anyway. And they have lived and worked together for decades. In her book, Maxwell recalls the first time they met, in 1980, after a friend asked her to put Collins and fellow Postcard mastermind Alan Horne up for a few days in London.

“They looked great, particularly Edwyn, dressed in an old-fashioned and out-of-step-with-the-times tweedy style,” she writes. “They had brilliant manners and a brilliant way with an anecdote … a deadly eye for the absurd in every human sketch.”

We have no such account of what Collins made of Maxwell back then, however. What does he recall of their nascent encounters?

Collins is atypically sheepish. “Well, maybe I fancied Grace,” he says with a conspirational chuckle.

Maxwell is incredulous. “Early on? I don’t think you did. Did you?”

“No. Well, I don’t know, Grace.” More sheepish laughter.

“Certainly, Edwyn fancied me before I fancied him,” Maxwell offers.

Did Collins have to indulge in some romancing to win Maxwell over?

“It was more like wheeling and dealing,” he quips.

Maxwell: “Aye, he had to give me a job. He asked me to be his manager.”

Collins realised she was a practical woman and he had to woo her in a practical way?

“Yes, exactly!” Collins says with a laugh. “That’s what I had to do.”

“And before we knew it, we were here, decades on. Decades!” Maxwell proclaims. “What’s amazing to me, when I think back on now, is that you were 24 when I started working for you, in 1984 – and you were about to complete your fourth album. You’d already had your own independent label, a major record deal, the band was about to split up, and you were ready to start your solo career. You were a seasoned cynic by that stage.”

“Yes, I was,” Collins nods. “I managed to alienate, in the Orange Juice days, many people. Many people. And Polydor Records,” he adds with a laugh.

Maxwell: “There were loads of folk you managed to alienate, Edwyn, with your smart-alecky patter and mockery.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact that Postcard Records, Orange Juice, and Edwyn Collins, had on pop. They challenged stereotypes of punk, rock, masculinity and Glasgow; upset and undermined the London-centric music industry; paved the way for The Smiths, Franz Ferdinand and almost every independent record label since – and all from the erudite confines of a tropical pop hook, a knowing wink and an impeccable quiff.

“I was terribly arrogant, back in Orange Juice days,” muses Collins. “But also quite shy. It’s a dilemma, being shy and arrogant at the same time. And maybe I had ambition.”

“Quite a lot of ambition,” Maxwell agrees. “But you worked hard at it. You still do. You need to be so tenacious to have a 30 year career like Edwyn’s. You have to completely fight for your art. It’s not for the faint-hearted. I do see how hard you’ve worked Edwyn, and how determined you’ve been.”

Collins feigns surprise; emits an arch and deadpan drawl. “Really, Grace? Go on…”

“And there are times when I’ve been lazy…” sighs Maxwell.

“Yes…” Collins sniggers.

“And off the boil…” she continues.

“Yes…” He is in hysterics under his breath.

“And Edwyn would have to really kick me into action and spur me on, because I’d feel a bit defeated at times,” she recalls. (It is impossible to conceive of Maxwell being remotely defeatist, it must be said.)

“I like hard work,” shrugs Collins. “Try, try again. If that doesn’t work – oh well. Next move. I like pushing barriers. I like writing songs. That’s driving me forward.”

Since his illness, Collins has lost the use of his (dominant) right hand – not that you’d know it from the beautiful, intricate pictures of birds he now draws with his left one – so he records song ideas onto cassette, or hammers out chords with an amped-up guitar. “The songs, the notes, are easy, but the lyrics are hard,” he says. “It’s not like back then, before I had a stroke. Losing Sleep, the [2010] album, let me say, it’s direct. Some people say it’s simple. But Understated, the album – I’m happy with the lyrics,” he says of his 2013 long-player, which was shortlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year Award.

“Take for instance the title track,” he suggests, and then he sings: “As the years go by / and I’m feeling my age / as the story unfolds / I’m a singer of sorts.” His voice resonates throughout their farmhouse. “I’m happy with those lyrics,” he nods. “It’s twisting the lyrics. Wordplay.”

His latest record is the soundtrack to The Possibilities Are Endless, which is out now via Collins’ AED imprint. From glimmering psalm ‘Quite Like Silver’ to an instrumental of ‘Leviathan’ (originally from 2007’s Home Again), it is a wonderful album – evocative of landscape, nature, the sea, home: Helmsdale.

What could Collins remember of Helmsdale when he was ill?

“I don’t know,” he says. “My memory was destroyed. Back in the hospital, I couldn’t even remember where I lived. But it was weird, I could remember my studio.”

Maxwell chastens him in mock offence. “Yes, Edwyn. You could remember the recording studio but not your own family home. There you go. It’s funny the things you could remember. It was fragmentary,” she says. “If you thought about Helmsdale, it wasn’t a whole picture, but if I zoomed in on something, you’d remember that. So I just told stories, which is what we’d do anyway – we’d relive all our life together – and you’d pipe up with the bits you remembered. Like when I talked about you and [Collins’ sister] Petra being up here in Helmsdale, in this house, making a comic as kids, you could remember that.

“That’s what’s been weird over the years of your recovery,” Maxwell continues. “Edwyn will have a door open every now and again, and a rush of memory will come back…”

“It’s like a eureka moment,” Collins adds. “It’s quite a good feeling. There used to be a lot of tears. But not so much now. It would sometimes … overwhelm me. It was like a huge part of me coming back, in a flood. And sometimes that was hard. Sometimes even with Helmsdale.”

“I think your experience of Helmsdale before the stroke was a really freeing thing,” Maxwell says quietly. “And maybe one of the sadnesses now – and you really don’t dwell on very much sadness – was remembering this place, or coming here and realising that you maybe can’t run up that hill the way you did before. That put it into sharp focus, what had happened to you, a wee bit to begin with. But we get around, don’t we?”

Collins smiles. “Oh yeah! I walk. Or I just about walk.”

Maxwell’s sense of home is clearly embedded in Helmsdale too. “Absolutely,” she nods. “I got the bug for this place when I first came with Edwyn in 1985. I fell completely under its spell. A lot of that was because of Edwyn and his stories of being here, and being taken to his childhood haunts by him and his grandfather. It was bewitching. We didn’t have anything like that growing up in working class Lanarkshire. And it was amazing to see you bounding up the hills Edwyn, because you’re not a fitness fanatic – at all.”

Collins looks outraged. “Pardon me! After my stroke it is of course an impossibility – but oh, how I was,” he wryly drawls. “My grandfather, I’d be eight or nine years old, and I’d be puffing away on the steep hill, and grandpa would tell me, ‘Och, you’re an awfy wee nuisance man! Come on! Be a man!’ So I puffed away. And I got stronger day by day.

“And then there was granny – she was, shall we say posh,” continues Collins, his voice raising an octave. As we wind down to the harbour to take photographs, he tells a childhood tale about his grandmother running him ragged in a scullery, coaxing him to find a mouse that didn’t exist. “Granny was a wee monkey,” he smiles.

“And you are her grandson,” Maxwell adds gently. “Of all the members of Edwyn’s family, I’d say there’s no-one he took after more in terms of his sense of humour, and his mischief, and his turn of phrase, than his granny.”

Maxwell turns him toward her at the harbour. “Now look at me Edwyn,” she orders. “Smile for the camera. Try and make it look as if we actually like each other.”

Collins doesn’t miss a beat. “No.”

There’s a scene in The Possibilities Are Endless, in which Maxwell recalls the grave days with Collins. “I was standing beside him, frozen to the spot, he’s deep in a coma and it was clear that his life was ebbing away,” she says in the film. “And I would go up close to his ear and say, ‘this will pass, love. This will end. And we’ll go to Helmsdale.’”

We leave them walking on a beach dappled with fossils and memories and treasure; admiring the airborne cormorants and robins, marvelling at their birdsong chorus, and they never seemed so free. They never sounded brighter.

Monorail Film Club presents The Possibilities are Endless at Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) – with acoustic set and Q&A – on November 2. The film is on general release from November 7.

Related article: Harry Papadopolous: What Presence! (The Herald, December 2011)

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