INTERVIEW

When Edwyn Collins awoke from a severe stroke in 2005, the only phrase he could speak was ‘the possibilities are endless’. Daniel Dylan Wray meets the Orange Juice singer and his wife Grace Maxwell

edwyn-collins

Listening to Orange Juice has such weird, jolting memories for me. It is music that is the sprightly embodiment of youth: razor sharp, spunky and hip loosening. I once felt captivated by it. The bug spread throughout many of my friends and the amount of party’s that would be jumpstarted by that jagged jangle of guitar and the nasal croon of Edwyn Collins were as frequent as the amount I attended where the very same songs would soundtrack the grinding comedown, or would – if you were lucky – give you the stimulus you needed once more at 7am, dragging a collective of drugged-out zombies to their feet to dance on top of cider-soused carpets in grotty front rooms as the morning sun seeped through the cracks in the curtain. It says a lot more about how I chose to spend the days of my youth but Edwyn Collins had a strange, lingering presence over much of it. Yet this was not during the time of Orange Juice’s existence; the band had already broken up before I was even born. This was slap bang in the middle of the mid noughties indie-resurgence and despite the retrospective hell-fest that much of that was, many groups proved to be most useful gateways to groups of old.

When the idiosyncratic, juggernaut lyrical propulsions of Edwyn Collins were really jolting me and my friends to life, he was already ill and, truthfully, we expected he would pass away. After all, he had had two brain haemorrhages and despite having little medical knowledge, that doesn’t sound like something someone lives through. I recall at the time what a strange juxtaposition it was: here’s this immensely youthful, invigorating groove that a huge number of us have collectively tuned into yet its chief creator is gravely ill in hospital unable to speak or even pick up a guitar. However, almost ten years on I find myself staring at Collins and his wife Grace Maxwell, who are both in more than fine form.

When Edwyn Collins had his stroke in 2005 he was hospitalised for six months. Initially he was unable to walk, speak, read or write. His memory had been effectively wiped. This is known as aphasia and is common to stroke victims or those who have had brain injury or trauma. As he lay in his hospital bed the only words that would come to his mouth were ‘yes’ ‘no’ ‘Grace Maxwell’ and ‘the possibilities are endless’. The latter is the title given to an upcoming film on Collins and its accompanying soundtrack. It is a beautiful, deeply cinematic film that eschews the conventions associated with Edwyn’s story. It is an ode to love, to life, to Scotland and to Edwyn and Grace and their son, William. The pair live in remote Scotland in Helmsdale, much of which is captured in glorious beauty in the film. I catch them just days after the referendum as we speak via a Skype video link (their first ever time using it). They wave and cheer giddily as we connect. “I’m in a post referendum funk but apart from that I’m okay. Edywn is feeling very positive though, he feels like it’s not over yet. The beast has been woken,” says Maxwell. “The genie is out of the bag. There’s a lot of people in Scotland who are not prepared to go back to sleep.” They were both ‘Yes’ voters.

The warm crackle of their open fire can be heard spitting away in the background as they hunch up together on the sofa. The pair are truly delightful company. A real double act who know one another inside out and take the piss out of one another constantly. They are very pleased with the film, which premiered at SXSW this year and is continuing to pick up rave reviews along the way as it continues to screen across the world. (It will premiere in the UK in October).

Maxwell says: “We decided that if they were going to do this, we’d just get out of their way. I mean Edwyn is a creative…”

“Genius,” he butts in.

“Yeah, genius! [both laugh a lot] and he doesn’t like interference. He doesn’t like things getting watered down. You’re a good collaborator but you’re sometimes under the opinion that too many cooks…”

“Spoil the broth,” Collins finishes, very much setting the structure for how our conversation will work over the next hour or so.

Whilst still a documentary on Collins’ recovery, The Possibilities Are Endless is the very opposite to the 2006 BBC Scotland short Home Again, a more conventional, less cinematic film. “Edwyn was doing this thing for STV, with the people who made Home Again, before he had his stroke and when they approached us again we weren’t sure because things were not quite as good [health-wise] as they are now. They were around for over a year actually, following us around. It was a made for a TV thing, very straightforward. There would have been no point in doing something like that again. Edwyn is hesitant to talk about and go on and on about his stroke and recovery.”

“Dan, it’s too much my stroke,” he says. “I want to progress.”

“As he says, it’s so dull now to go over the stroke thing,” says Maxwell. “We’re past that. The film that they’ve made here is much bigger than that; there are larger subjects being explored in this film. It’s more than a hard-luck story. What happened to Edwyn isn’t that unusual, it’s quite common, it’s no big deal.” Maxwell admits while watching parts of the film was “raw”, the impact of the events surrounding Collins’ illness have subsided. “I feel, for me, that I’ve replayed what happened to Edwyn in the first four, five years [since his stroke] I replayed it endlessly in my mind like a film, round and round and round in an endless loop. It’s quite a mad thing to happen in your life, despite, as I said, it being quite common. That’s the way you deal with trauma, you replay it over and over and again, so by the time it came to seeing the film, this is stuff that I’ve already replayed in my mind that I was able to set it aside.”

Collins tells me: “Dan, for me it’s much better. Because of aphasia I can’t remember things well enough, and it’s kind of better.”

“Sometimes I think what Edwyn’s talking about is that he doesn’t remember the stroke happening at all,” says Maxwell. “He’s got no memory of the scary days, when he was out for the count and we had no idea if he was going to make it or not – he’s oblivious to them.”

“I can remember hospital days,” he says. “The nurse forcing a tube inside me and I was physically sick, retching away and, oh, it’s a horrible situation.” He twists his face with the memory.

A notably poignant moment in the film comes when a story is re-told of Edwyn going back into the studio for the first time since his illness and listening to one of his own songs (one he had been working on prior to his stroke) and how upset listening to it made him. He says this stage has now passed: “No, not nowadays but back in hospital days, one song, ‘Home Again’, I cried and cried and cried.”

“It’s weird,” says Maxwell. “Edwyn’s emotional self back then was – well it still is – so raw he could so easily be reduced to tears. It was weird because on the one hand you felt so much had been ripped away from him and he was having such a job to reconnect with his old self but on the other hand he was so hypersensitive to everything…”

Collins: “Back in hospital I couldn’t talk at all, just ‘yes’, ‘no’ and the ‘possibilities are endless’ over and over again and it was frustrating the hell out of me, Dan. Oh, what can I say, it’s weird, it’s strange… it’s fucking… frustrating as hell!” As he recalls this period and fires out “fucking frustrating” his left hand curls and twists up, his mouth grimaces and his face reddens.

Maxwell: “It was very scary. Edwyn’s began in recent years – and I’m talking about really recent years – to tell me more and more, as he’s been able to locate the words better, what it was really like for him and actually some of it has been a bit of a revelation to me. It’s amazing what a job they’ve done [the filmmakers] of capturing that fear.”

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I saw Edwyn Collins perform in 2011. His voice sailed with an unexpected degree of fluidity and the performance was genuinely rousing. He remained seated for much of the performance and I recall, as he left the stage in a thunderous sea of applause, a lifting up of his walking stick and a heroic saluting to the audience before disappearing backstage. But Collins’ return to singing and performing has not been as easy as he makes it look.

“No. I practiced,” he says. “I used a book for songs like ‘Falling & Laughing’ and ‘Girl Like You’ and I practiced and practiced and practiced. I would say: ‘what’s that word again Grace, in ‘Shilly Shally’, in that middle eight? Oh I get it now, thank you very much Grace,’ and then practice and practice and practice.” He really hammers home the repetition of “practice” to reinforce and emphasise the time and effort spent.

“He has created quite an amazing illusion,” says Maxwell. “A lot of people say to Edwyn, ‘oh the singing comes easier than speaking’, and Edwyn says, ‘yes it does’, but in actual fact he’s had to put in a huge amount of work to get that fluidity you speak of. Every time we introduce a new song into his repertoire…”

“Ohhhh,” Collins chips in, sounding in pain, like somebody just punched him.

“He hates it. The new stuff that he’s just written he can handle that but the old stuff from his catalogue…”

“Especially the Orange Juice days, ohhh,” Collins says again.

“We’ll often think, oh shall we put this back in, and he’ll go, ‘oh God, no.’”

“For me Dan, I have no problem at all with the music but lyrics are hard,” he says. “Before my stroke the lyrics are easy, after my stroke they’re hard.”

Maxwell: “Lyrics for Edwyn was always something he could luxuriate because he was such a clever clogs and such a smarty pants…”

Collins: “Not any more.”

Maxwell: “He did like to show off in his lyrics…”

Collins: “Not any more. I’m daft as fuck.” They both laugh.

“You were fancy-dancy and that’s not what you do anymore,” says Maxwell, “you’re a lot more direct and to the point. That’s what aphasia has given him. It’s quite good, it’s an interesting thing. I was listening to the words that you wrote for a piece of music in the film called ‘Quite Like Silver’ because of this night on the beach [that looked silver]. I said to him before, when it was just a piece of music, ‘could you do some words for it?’ and he came up with these really simple but amazing words and I think some people who are into you think this new style of lyric writing is a new lease of life. You’re limited with your palette and…”

“Steady on Grace! Limited?! What do you mean, Grace?” he half shouts, incredulously, before they both descend into giggles.

“There’s a song called ‘Campaign for Real Rock’,” says Maxwell as Collins visibly winces and moans at its very mention.

“It’s too hard!” he shouts

“… and I keep saying to him that one day he’ll do that song because people really like it but it goes on and on and on. It’s got a huge amount of lyrics in it and it has the most words in it than any other of his songs he’s ever written. When I mention that he just says, ‘oh god, no, no’. He’s in horror at the idea of me forcing him to learn this song but I’m going to do it.”

“Are you Grace? We’ll see about that, we’ll see about that subject,” he says, laughing.

Aside from having both a beautiful film and soundtrack recently behind them, the pair seem to have naturally hit a moment of stillness in their lives. Long gone are the days of hospitals and worry.

“For us, we’re in the happy period of life now,” says Maxwell. “The fear, the misery, all that stuff that goes on at the beginning of it, we’re lucky, we’re the lucky people who survived it and triumphed. Edwyn’s got a great bloody life…”

“And so have you, Grace,” Collins insists.

“Yeah, but you’ve got a really good life. You’ve got a really, really good life [Edwyn laughs] you don’t have to worry about…”

“Fuck all”

“You get to do all the things you love to do. You live the life of riley.”

“Exactly.”

“Honest to god Dan, he’s got such a good life you have no idea. For a guy who, let’s face it, is knocking on a bit, he’s got it all going on…”

“What about you?”

“Well, I’m knocking on a bit but I’ve got a lot of donkey work to do. Edwyn is very busy and he creates quite a lot of donkey work, but he just floats around and everybody loves you.”

“Yes, they do,” he says, drawling out the “yeeeessssss” for comedic effect.

“We’re lucky, so lucky, and Edwyn appreciates that; there’s nothing about being alive that he doesn’t appreciate. That life is an incredible, precious thing, it moves him to tears so often, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he says with a heavy smile.

“It does. He said to me a few years ago, ‘I want to live forever’. ‘Well, I said ‘you’re not gonna’. We do the best to make the most of this life because it’s brilliant. People’s struggles on this earth, it makes you appreciate how fortunate you are, but also that that pursuit of happiness thing is something that everyone is entitled to in this life.”

‘The Possibilities are Endless’. The more you ponder those words in the circumstances from which they appeared, the stranger they are. It’s difficult not to read more into them, as though they were some sort of sub-conscious mantra that Collins’ brain had set about achieving from the second he woke from his stroke.

“Dan, in the hospital days I was completely mad,” he says. “‘The possibilities are endless’ over and over again. The possibilities are endless, the possibilities are endless, the possibilities are endless, the possibilities are endless. I was completely gone, actually. I was completely off my head.”

“You weren’t trying to be deep, were you? It was just what came out when you were trying to speak,” says Maxwell, turning back to me. “It was a symptom of his aphasia, for a while all he could say was ‘the situation is…’ and that drove me nuts…”

“That drove me nuts too!” he jumps in.

“So I suppose the most poetic thing he came out with was ‘the possibilities are endless’ but once you’ve heard it about fifty times a day…

“What about me?!” Collins yells. “It drove me mad!” As they always do, Collins and Maxwell fall into a union of laughter.

Nearly ten years ago Edwyn Collins lay horrendously ill in a hospital bed with his future existence on this planet not known whilst a bunch of drunken youths clambered upon furniture in shitty student houses in Sheffield and danced endlessly, blasting out his voice and guitar to noise-complaint levels throughout the night. As I sit here this evening and talk to that person, that youthful, invigorating, inspiring and talented artist, I find him just as animated and excitable as he made us all those years ago, and still making new and exciting work to boot. There is a strange, beautiful symmetry to that that is hard to shake; not one dipped in nostalgia but one planted in evolution, and the beauty of progression and forward momentum; the same kind that Collins feels is integral to his life. “I find a way now to understand the world,” he says. “I don’t want nostalgia, I look for ways to appreciate the world and carry on. I want to appreciate what’s around me… I want to progress. I want to try and find an identity to me.”

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