It’s been a decade since the royalties from A Girl Like You filtered through to Edwyn Collins. The song that propelled the former Orange Juice frontman into top tens all around the world earned him enough to move from a one bedroom flat to a terraced house in Kilburn. On the front door of that house, where the window should be, is a piece of corrugated iron. As his wife Grace explains, “There are some kids around here who just about remember A Girl Like You, and think Edwyn’s a rock star. There’s really nothing to steal, but this is our fourth break-in over a period of two years.”
If there’s an unspoken message imparted by Grace’s sing-songy Glaswegian tones, it’s that you’re not expected to feel sorry for her. Over the course of a relationship that dates back to Collins’ days in Orange Juice, she has often been his metaphorical right hand. Aged 17, when I turned up to a Birmingham venue hoping to interview Collins for my fanzine, it was the glamorous, blonde-bobbed Grace – then, as now, his manager – who decided on Collins’ behalf that he would make the time to talk.
Twenty years on, she now frequently has to do the job of his actual right hand. Since the stroke and the subsequent bout of MRSA that almost took his life two years ago, Collins has learned to talk, walk and read a little, but his own fist is permanently clenched. If he needs to work out a new song, his 18 year-old son Will might strum while Collins’ left hand shapes the chords.
But to say that life goes on is an understatement. Last month, Home Again – the album Collins recorded just before his stroke – finally appeared to career-best reviews. Recent weeks have been taken up with rehearsals for his upcoming live shows. And whatever other faculties Collins’ illness may have taken away from him, his laugh still sounds like a drain struggling to cope with the barrelful of porridge being emptied into it.
In the front room, sometime Aztec Camera frontman and guitarist in Collins’ band Roddy Frame can be heard gently teasing him over Grace’s revelation that, during this morning’s trip to the barber, Collins had to have his ear hair trimmed for the first time. “What did they use?” says Frame, “A strimmer?”
Clearly, kid gloves are not needed for a friendship which stretches back to 1980, when the 16 year-old Frame and 20 year-old Collins both fronted groups on Glasgow’s influential Postcard imprint. Back then, Collins was a surrogate older brother – not just to Frame, but to every indie kid who heard the fey art-school clatter of singles such as Poor Old Soul and Falling And Laughing. As Frame puts it – no doubt echoing the sentiments of acolytes like Franz Ferdinand and Belle & Sebastian – Orange Juice were emblematic of a time when “indie actually meant something. They were an affront to the music industry – these effete young men with their Penguin Classics sticking out of their tweed jackets.”
That Collins was arguably the most articulate musician of his peer group makes one effect of his stroke seem doubly cruel. His dysphasia – a condition affecting his use of words – is something he constantly struggles with. Occasionally, neighbouring words in his internal dictionary get mixed up. Talking about acclaimed early Aztec Camera singles such as Oblivious, Collins says, “Roddy was pretentious, really.” He means precocious – although Frame adds, “thinking back to my old interviews, he might have a point.”
And yet for all the unimaginable setbacks, Collins radiates a strange inner peace. The contrast from the restive soul of latter-day solo cuts couldn’t be more pronounced. Looking back at Collins’ albums in the wake of A Girl Like You, songs like I’m Not Following You and the Britpop-baiting Adidas World depict an artist increasingly irritable at the changing world around him. Home Again, though, portends a transition. Songs like Leviathan portray a man breaking free of his earthly container – bored of his own boredom, yet unsure of what will replace it.
Looking back now, Collins says, “I had a prescient energy… a sadness looming forwards.” His words are eerily borne out by new single One Is A Lonely Number. “And if life breaks your heart,” he sings, “You needn’t fall apart/Cos you’ve still got your mind/Which will serve you in kind.”
Like anyone keeping tabs of Collins’ progress thoughout the spring of 2005, Frame began thinking in terms of if rather than when he might see his friend again. “When Edwyn got sick,” he begins – before turning to address Collins directly. “I couldn’t get to see you for the first three months. It was just close family.”
Collins suddenly looks saddened. “Did they not let you see me?” Oh God, Sorry to hear that, Roddy.”
“Don’t be silly, man! They have to do that! You had newspapers ringing you up. But it really got me thinking that you were like a trailblazer to me. You went down to play in London before I did. You were on the NME cover before I was. I realised how much of an influence you had, even to this day, in my humour and the way I view music.”
For these reasons, when Frame got the call about helping Collins with these upcoming live shows, the answer was always going to be yes. Nevertheless, being a sideman for the first time in his life has been a humbling experience. “The other day we were playing something, and I said, ‘How about doing it like this? And Edwyn goes, ‘No, I want it to be [ital] correct [ital].” But, you know, that’s the brilliant thing. No-one’s tip-toeing around anyone. Edwyn is sounding great.”
Parachuted into circumstances that would have gotten the better of almost anyone, it’s as though he has found a challenge he can really get stuck into. The sketches of lapwings and snake eagles in the booklet of Home Again hint at his appetite for the fight. To draw them, the right-handed Collins had to re-learn with the left.
“Certain doctors made predictions about likely outcomes,” says Grace, “on the basis of three minutes with him every two days.” Had she listened closely to them, she might never have dared to imagine an Edwyn Collins well enough to accomplish the remaining duties of this Thursday afternoon.
At a studio two miles away, Collins and Frame are to play two songs for this week’s Times Sounds podcast. As Collins’ first recording session since his stroke, there’s no telling how it will go. “When people ask him if it’s easier to sing,” says Grace, on the other side of the glass, “he usually says yes – but that’s slightly misleading. Memorizing and getting the flow of the words has been a painstaking slog.”
Her words tail off as, through the speakers, Roddy Frame picks out the opening notes of Home Again. When Collins opens his mouth to sing, his words are inescapably pregnant with the travails of the last two years. Grace stares downwards and grins the grin of someone who may start crying at any minute. “Outside on the street,” sings her husand, “Well, I heard somebody singing/And I heard the music ringing/From some clapped out pirate station/It was my unholy salvation.” The note is high, sustained, and seems to break loose from his body like one of those lapwings in flight. No second take needed.