Edwyn Collins waits in the car as I explore the steep, jagged cliffs in the northeast of Scotland, five miles out of the small port of Helmsdale, a 100-minute drive up the coast from Inverness. This is Badbea; now a range of tumbled stone ruins marking a forgotten tiny community. It was populated in 1802 by Highlanders cleared from inland glens to make way for sheep. Here among the thick, prickly gorse bushes, the locals had to tether their children, sheep and cattle, lest they be gusted off the narrow clifftop and into the North Sea. In a brutally literal way, this was a precarious life in the balance.
This small settlement existed for little more than 100 years. It is marked by a monument built in 1911 by the returned son of an inhabitant who had sailed for New Zealand. Three years ago, this ghost of a village gave a title to a then-unwritten album by a musician who had also almost been blown over the edge. In his case, by near-fatal bleeds in his brain.
It is windy today, and the track from roadside to cliff is uneven. Collins is fit and mobile. But he walks with a heavy limp and a stick, and his right hand is clenched, due to the two strokes he suffered in February 2005. In the estimation of his wife and manager Grace Maxwell, also waiting in the car, he’s been to Badbea “15 times since his illness”.
“Grandpa used to take me when I was nine,” Collins explains.
It is the night before and we are sitting in the lounge of Clashnarrow, the zinc-clad residential recording studio he and Maxwell have built on the hillside, 102 steps above the old family cottage in Helmsdale. The couple relocated to his ancestral home in 2014, after 35 years in London.
“There’s a ruined village and the monument is there,” the singer continues in the halting manner caused by aphasia, an impairment caused by stroke that affects memory and speech. “It’s possibly nostalgic. It’s haunting. Mind you, in summertime, it’s lovely, balmy. But Badbea – ‘a ruined monument to life and death’,” he concludes brightly, singing the lyrics from the evocative title track. “It’s a soul song.”
The earthquake happened, then the nuclear meltdown, and Edwyn tweeted: ‘I’m still coming!’
The Edinburgh-born 59-year-old sometimes struggles to retrieve words, and can make tangential jumps in conversation. But Badbea, his fourth album since his cerebral haemorrhages, proves he hasn’t lost the musical gifts that made his cult 80s Scottish group Orange Juice pithy, pointed melodicists par excellence, and rocket-powered his 90s solo career with global smash “A Girl Like You”. In the words of his bio on Twitter, of which he is an enthusiastic user: “I am sound of body and of mind, and what’s more I’m witty and refined.”
Badbea was written, recorded and produced with the help of four close musical compadres – and with the assistance of Collins’ remarkable studio set-up.
When he was based in London, this sonic obsessive’s collection of vintage kit – centred around a lovingly restored 1969 Neve mixing console – made his West Heath Yard studio in Kilburn, north-west London, a favoured recording location of artists including The Cribs, The Proclaimers and Bernard Butler.
Now, painstakingly dismantled, shipped to Scotland, spruced up and reinstalled in a new luxury studio space with stunning views over the Moray Firth, Clashnarrow has already hosted sessions from Teenage Fanclub, David Gray and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos.
I start to ask: does recording with this… “…vista!” Collins interjects, his gurgling laugh bursting out of him. Yes, vista, does it make the record sound different?
“Location? Not really. I like Kilburn studios. And I like here. And Grace decided she loved Helmsdale so much, let’s go and rent out the London house. But I said: ‘As long as there’s a studio in Helmsdale, I don’t mind.’”
Collins’ remarkable recovery from the strokes that could have stopped him in his tracks – as could the MRSA he contracted while in hospital – is matched only by his remarkable output. As well as making four albums since his illness, he has also participated in two documentaries, recorded a soundtrack, launched a label with his redoubtable wife and contributed in his own way to Maxwell’s remarkable memoir, Falling And Laughing: The Restoration of Edywn Collins. As he says: “Music isn’t a job. I love it. Even now.”
I was glad I finally finished with Orange Juice. Too many arguments and fights. I don’t like it, it’s not for me.
Badbea is his strongest post-stroke record, with his rich, fruity voice almost restored to the instantly identifiable tones he deployed on OJ classics “Falling and Laughing”, “What Presence?!” and “Rip it Up”.
“Really?” he replies when I say this, thrilled. “The first album, Losing Sleep, after my stroke,” he says of the 2010 record, “I wasn’t sure my voice is strong enough.”
There are stand-outs such as the post-punk rush of “Outside”, currently receiving much BBC 6 Music Playlist love, and the Northern Soul stomp of “In the Morning”. There are also two nods to his musical past. On “Glasgow to London”, he sings about the buzz of the early days of Orange Juice, who sprung from legendary Scottish indie Postcard to a deal with major label Polydor and a proper pop hit with “Rip it Up” in 1983.
“I was so excited. I was 19, 20.” After some searching of the memory banks, he recalls a visit to a shop near Denmark Street, the West End home of musical instrument shops. “It’s long ago ceased. Along with David McClymont, the bass player, I bought a Vibrolux [amplifier]. One hundred and five pounds I paid for that. I still have it. I don’t play it. It needs a step-up transformer.”
Still, always a man for moving on, Collins is no misty-eyed romantic. He might sing on “Glasgow to London” that “ambition ruled my life”, but he swiftly follows it with: “Now I couldn’t give a f**k.” That tees up more reminiscences about the period when OJ ran out of juice on “I Guess We Were Young”: “Splitting up, too many fights, the dark days and the lonely nights…”
Is there regret in that song? “No, not really. I was glad I finally finished with Orange Juice. Too many arguments and fights. I don’t like it, it’s not for me.”
If Collins was too positive for a confrontation before his illness, he is even more so since. Maxwell, 61, who has been by his side since the earliest days of Orange Juice, says the best word to describe his post-stroke character is “blithe”. He’s happy to push on and embrace opportunity.
That said, his gleeful enthusiasm can be problematic. She recalls their 2011 tour, when their routing was New York, SXSW in Austin and then Japan. “Then the earthquake happened [in Tohoku], followed by the tsunami, followed by the nuclear meltdown [at Fukushima]. And at every stage, as each disaster unfolded, Edwyn was sitting in his hotel room in New York, tweeting: ‘I’m still coming!’
“The Japanese people had to say to him: ‘Actually, nobody’s going out, we’re all hiding from the nuclear fallout!’” she hoots.
They delayed the tour by several months, but still went. True to form, Collins remained undaunted. His response to the catastrophes befalling Japan was as steadfast as his determination to overcome his own. “Solidarity!” he declares now, laughing, loudly, again.
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