Music

Edwyn Collins: "I was too frightened to listen to music"

Edwyn Collins on his happy childhood, forming a punk band - and hearing music for the first time after his stroke

I was born in Edinburgh, then I lived in Dundee for a while. Then when I was 16 my mum and dad split up and we moved to Glasgow and I started a band. The Nu-Sonics. A punk group, I suppose. Then I got too old for that carry on. It wasn’t a very good band I guess. But I progressed, and when I was 17 I made myself Orange Juice. 1980 was Falling and Laughing, the first single. My mum was originally from Glasgow. My dad Peter is a painter but he’s retired now. My mum Myra was a cleaner. It’s hard work, cleaning. But she used to be an artist like Peter. A long time ago. I guess creativity runs in my family.

Music was my passion. It’s still my passion. I think, let’s think of an idea, a possibility. And it always comes out as a song. That began a long time ago. I was 14 years of age and I loved David Bowie and Sparks. This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us. I bought their album, Propaganda, and I went to see them at the Caird Hall in Dundee. First it was Pilot, [sings] ‘Woah oh oh, it’s magic, you know.’ Then Sparks. I went to see Bowie in The Glasgow Apollo in 1977. It’s been pulled down now. I was only 15.

Edwyn Collins with Orange Juice

I was a happy-go-lucky teenager, not miserable at all. My sister Petra had just been born. We were a happy family when I was a boy. I wasn’t a quiet boy. I didn’t run with a gang but I had friends at the Demonstration Primary School. When we first got a band together Steven Daly was the singer. I was the guitarist. Then I said, ‘Oh! You can’t sing Steven.’ [Peels of laughter]. I was rude, I suppose. So he switched to drums.

I was proud of the first single, Falling and Laughing. But I wasn’t completely convinced by the singing. I was terribly shy. By the fourth Orange Juice album, in 1984, I felt, I can sing now. But Rip it Up [Orange Juice’s 1983 hit], still at that time I wasn’t sure about my voice. Back then it was a job to convince some people. But these were punk days. Some people liked me and some people didn’t. But so what?

EdwynCollins-2

For one year and six months I went all round the world. [His solo track A Girl Like You was a worldwide hit in 1994.] The first sign was when the song got to number four in The Netherlands. I was exhausted by the end of it. It was very hard work. [“It was a huge record and it hung around a long time,” says Collins’ wife, Grace Maxwell. “But Edwyn was 35 by then and we’ve always been quite cynical about the music business. So he wasn’t all starry-eyed about being a pop star. He wasn’t madly impressed by the fleeting nature of pop superstardom. He knew it doesn’t last.”] After that The Magic Piper of Love got to number 30. And that’s it.

I’m lost without singing. Without music, what’s the point?

For six months after my stroke I didn’t sing a thing. [Collins suffered two cerebral haemorrhages in 2005.] I just said, ‘The possibilities are endless’, over and over again. And ‘Grace’, my wife’s name. And a few other things. Not much. I was as daft as a brush. It was a hallucinogenic time. The words might flicker but then they were gone, in an instant. It was incredibly hard getting off the floor but I progressed and I did it. Grace helped me. I had to fight. I remember when I was in hospital, I was too frightened to listen to music for ages. Because it brought memories. Then one day Grace put headphones on me and the first song I heard was Johnnie Allan, Promised Land, a song by Chuck Berry. I cried, I must admit… I cried floods of tears. It was emotion, welling up inside me.

Coming back to myself was very slow. There were sudden breakthroughs. For example, in London, in a crate in the studio garage, I found a sound desk. I’d bought it on eBay. The power supply was there. But no EQs. And I suddenly remembered where I had put the modules a long time ago. And I remembered Phil Oakey was the singer in The Human League. And the name of my sister-in-law’s hairdressing salon, Tangles. In the studio I try to memorise things, lock them inside my head. I still hear music in my head. I have a Sony dictation tape-machine I use to get my words so they don’t get lost. Not a digital. I don’t trust them. I sing all the parts into that.

If I could go back to any time in my life, the start of Postcard [Records] was good but not the happiest. [“Were you fighting with the band too much?” asks Grace. “Exactly,” he says.] I was very happy when I was boy. When I was at primary school in Dundee my grandfather lived in Helmsdale, where I live now. It’s very high up north. John O’Groats is 15 miles away. I spent summers here. We went out walking a lot; me, my sister Petra and my grandfather. Tramping up the hills. It was hard work but I got good at it. I knew all the species of birds when I was 10. That was a very happy time.

Nowadays, what it is, I’m lost without singing. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s a funny thing. I’m lost without music. Corny, isn’t it? I did used to get nervous about going onstage, especially in Orange Juice days. Now I suppose it’s when I feel most confident. I’ve come on a bit since my stroke, at talking. But it’s a bit of a chore. But singing is not a bit of a chore. Without music, what’s the point?

With thanks to Grace Maxwell. Edwyn Collins and band will play On Blackheath festival, London, September 11

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community
Soweto Kinch
Music

Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community

Grassroots music venues need your help to survive now more than ever. Here's why
The Nefarious Picaroons play at Fiery Bird in Woking
Venue Watch

Grassroots music venues need your help to survive now more than ever. Here's why

Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson: 'You don’t need some rock star saying war is a bad thing'
Bruce Dickinson
Letter To My Younger Self

Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson: 'You don’t need some rock star saying war is a bad thing'

How a band formed in an asylum hotel is giving refugees hope: 'Each note comes from the heart'
Ardavan of The Unknowns
Music

How a band formed in an asylum hotel is giving refugees hope: 'Each note comes from the heart'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know