Edwyn Collins: ‘My ambition’s changed’

Singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins looks back on his past in his new album, Badbea. He spoke about it to Duncan Seaman.

Edwyn Collins. Picture: John Maher

Edwyn Collins is a man who, by his own admission, doesn’t much care for casting backward glances. Yet his new album, Badbea, is full of songs that re-examine his youth.

The singer-songwriter, who sprang to fame in the early 80s fronting the band Orange Juice before going on to million-selling solo success with his song A Girl Like You, puts his softening of approach to his past down to two things: his relocation to his Scotland, where he and his wife Grace Maxwell were born and grew up, and his 60th birthday (which he celebrates on Friday August 23).

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The album is named after a village in Caithness where families settled during the Highland clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now ruined, it is, he says, a place he visited in his childhood while staying with his grandfather in nearby Helmsdale.

Edwyn Collins. Picture: John Maher

“I suppose Grace would say the album is nostalgic and I guess it is, looking back on my youth and so on,” Collins says.

“You are always saying I’ve got no time for nostalgia and then you made this album that’s dripping with nostalgia, you fool,” teases Maxwell, who is also his long-time manager.

The tone of the album was struck by the song Glasgow to London. Collins explains it was all about “looking back on my youth in the Orange Juice days, I would go to London on the train”. Others followed in a similar vein. “You were looking at your past,” says Maxwell. “I didn’t realise I was doing that,” her husband replies. “It’s almost an inevitability – Edwyn is about to turn 60, ha ha ha,” Maxwell interjects, pointing out she’s already 61. “The cycle of life,” Collins agrees.

Moving back to Scotland has brought changes in the couple’s lifestyle. They had, after all, spent 35 years living in London. Collins says leaving behind the capital, where he had established a well-renowned studio, was “a wee bit” hard for him, “but not for Grace”, and he has managed to shift his old equipment to a “brilliant” new recording venue in Skelmsdale. “Edwyn gets into a nice groovy rut and he had his studio in London for all those years and he’s not always enthusiastic about change,” his wife says. “I just forced him to, basically. He’s [now] got a studio that sits above an old house, and the house is an artists’ retreat, and it’s really like Tracy Island up there, it’s beautiful.”

Edwyn Collins. Picture: John Maher

Revisiting the village of Badbea is, says Collins, “quite challenging”, but such has been his recovery in recent years from the two major strokes that he suffered in 2005, that he’s been back there “at least 20 times”. “We were there three years ago on a windy day,” says Maxwell. “It’s beautiful but very bleak.” “There’s a monument to the people who lived there,” says Collins.

“As Edwyn says, it’s a bit of a challenge for him, but he likes it down there and he’s been going since he was a wee boy,” Maxwell says. “When we were there you said, ‘I think I’ll call my new album Badbea’.”

“It’s a mournful place,” says Collins. “People were moved there against their will,” says Maxwell. “When we got it’s always a decent day but you can’t help but imagine what it’s like in the winter weather. It didn’t last very long. It was less than a hundred years that people were there; obviously the subsequent generations went, ‘What are we doing living here?’ Even when you first took me there in the 80s the remnants of the houses that were there nature had taken over. It’s kind of subsumed in the landscape, like Hadrian’s Wall, you’re hardly able to see any of it.”

In the lyrics of Glasgow to London Collins reflects that ambition once “ruled his life” but now he couldn’t care less. “In the early days of Orange Juice I was quite arrogant and shy at the same time but nowadays I’m too old, my ambition’s changed,” he says. “You do things to please yourself,” says Maxwell. “I knew him then, he was a shy person and somebody who was a bit awkward but he was very driven, he was obsessed by that, and that’s what that [song] is about.”

Collins says that since the strokes he has become mellower. “No more sarcasticness,” he says. “You’ve not got any cynicism,” adds Maxwell. “But Grace does,” says Collins. “I’m doing it for two of us,” she chuckles.

Having lost the use of his right hand, the singer taught himself to draw with his left and took to sketching birdlife. “At first it was shaky but I persevered and I’m drawing fluently again,” he says. His interest in the natural world goes back to his childhood. “I like Scottish birds and English birds,” he says. “I’m fascinated by animals and birds and wildlife.”

“Birds particularly,” says Maxwell. “He tells me when he was young he was an expert, when he was 12 there was nothing you tell him about birds.”

Collins laughs when asked if turning 60 feels like a significant landmark in his life. “No, it doesn’t,” he says. “He doesn’t do birthdays, he doesn’t do anniversaries,” Maxwell says. “I do Christmastime,” he notes. “But he has to be forced to remember it’s Mother’s Day or his mum’s birthday or my birthday,” Maxwell says.

“I’m a bit selfish,” Collins says ruefully. “But you don’t much care about your own birthday either,” Maxwell adds.

“I’m basically too old,” he smiles.

Badbea is out now. Edwyn Collins plays at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on August 29 and Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on September 5. www.edwyncollins.com