Having released his ninth studio album earlier this year, Collins discusses his creative journey and his drive to keep making music
'The album is nostalgic really, looking back to the Orange Juice days,' says Edwyn Collins of Badbea, his ninth studio album, and fourth since brain haemorrhages suffered at the beginning of 2005 nearly took his life. For those who don't know their Scottish pop history, Orange Juice was the mould-breaking indie group on Postcard Records which he fronted in the early 1980s. '[The song] 'Glasgow to London', it's about being on the train for the first time to London, a terrifying thought. Steven Daly, our [Orange Juice's] drummer, he wrote that, in 1979, Glasgow was a city lit only by fire.'
'I left Glasgow in 1980,' says Collins' wife and manager Grace Maxwell, also a Scot, who conducts interviews alongside him in order to mitigate the effects of the aphasia he still suffers, and which causes his words to come in short, sentence-long excerpts. Despite it all, though, there's an easy and quick humour between the pair; surely one of the most enjoyable-to-interview double acts in music. 'I didn't know Edwyn at that time, but there wasn't a lot going on in Glasgow. I tell you what, though, for somebody who says he's not nostalgic, there's a lot of looking back on this record.'
'It's true,' concedes Collins. The title of the album itself refers to an abandoned village (pronounced 'Bad Bay'; 'It's near the sea… ghostly…' he says) just up the coast from where the couple now live and have a studio in the northern Scottish village of Helmsdale. While they don't run it as a serious concern – Maxwell says the studio business isn't so strong these days – it houses the Edinburgh-born Collins' collection of vintage equipment, and as well as recording his own music, it's hosted friends including Teenage Fanclub and David Gray.
'Our house is 200 years old, my great, great, great, great grandfather built it,' continues Collins in his hesitant but gentle tone. 'The family were builders. I was delighted to move here. When I was eight years old, I first came here on holiday in the summertime. I love the place, and the beach, and there's loads to see. I'm into the birds and animals particularly, it's magic. For example, there are nesting ospreys and herons and suchlike. And the air is gorgeous.'
'It's good for the quality of life,' says Maxwell. 'For Edwyn's creativity too, that can happen anywhere – it can happen in a newsagent. I've never seen Edwyn struggle with that, he doesn't need to go and sit and wait for the muse to descend. He's slowed down a little bit, but there was a time when you knew he was always thinking of music, of lyrics.'
The couple finally moved to Helmsdale in 2015, although it didn't feel like much of a stretch, as it had been a home-from-home to them for many years, before and after the death of Edwyn's grandfather. Maxwell first visited in 1985, and they took charge of the place in the late 1990s, giving serious thought to the permanent move and the studio built from around a decade later. 'It's a magic place,' says Collins. 'Grace built it for me, it has parquet flooring, glass in the window. ('Glass in a window is very important!' points out Maxwell, to a snorted laugh from Collins; their conversation is like tennis). I mean, I miss my studio in London …'
'Do you?' she demands to know, with mock offence. 'This one's so much better than your London studio! So much less messy, for a start, and everything works. It's amazing. [Losing the old studio] wasn't a tragedy, because the world turns and the business changed. It was impossibly difficult for people to make records in those days, in the 1990s, unless you had loads of money and a major label. It's more democratic now, more accessible for people to be able to record.'
'I know that, you don't need to tell me,' says Collins, referring to the difficulty of getting an album made in the 1990s (although the decade bore his greatest hit, 1995's 'A Girl Like You'). 'But now I have my own vintage equipment … ' Although Maxwell's suggestion is that his previously obsessive level of songwriting has slowed, a lot of his effort now goes into practicing singing; his aphasia makes remembering lyrics just as difficult as finding his speech, but he can sing them at a natural pace because he spends so much time learning how to do it.
'He has to do more practice before he even gets together with the band,' she says. 'He works really hard to get the flow; people listen to him onstage and think, "speaking is difficult, but obviously singing comes naturally," but it's because he practices so much. There's a breakthrough point with each song, he just takes a while to get to it. He likes working a lot, but there is part of me that thinks, should we be …'
'… retiring?' chips in Collins, who has turned sixty since we spoke, with a mischievous laugh. 'After all, we're old people, I admit it! No, I think I'm maybe …'