Haste Ye Back: A Highland Journey With Edwyn Collins
From his throne in the studio Edwyn Collins is the master of all he surveys. The control room looks out over the sea at Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands, the oil rigs on the horizon giving way to a deep, near endless blue, broken only by the white ripples as each wave breaks close to shore.
Right now, though, he definitely isn’t the master. We’ve picked a busy weekend to visit Helmsdale, with an event in the village mere hours before featuring a Nigerian kitchen and the rapper Lowkey.
His wife Grace Maxwell is rushing around when we arrive, cleaning, organising, and sticking on the kettle so everyone can be replenished. She’s about to turn tail – her community activities mean that it’s her turn to drive a young netball team to Dingwall, well over an hours drive away.
Edwyn relaxes on the couch, while Lowkey switches on the news, sipping from his brew as the latest Brexit calamity appears onscreen.
Grace swings past, issuing orders in her wake: “You can stay here,” she nods, “with him…”
Edwyn lets this unsubtle reference slide for just a second, before sliding back his response with carefree grace: “The name,” he smiles, “is Edwyn”.
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Grace rushes out, her phone buzzing with about a half dozen different calls, before Edwyn leads Clash through to the studio. It’s custom-made and newly built, y’see, and he’s rather fond of it. Pretty soon, so are we: it’s stocked to the rafters with vintage gear, from stunning amps to guitars that we instantly note from old Orange Juice videos.
It’s a lifetime of music – his music – in one place. But, we point out, isn’t Helmsdale a difficult place to get a repair done? What happens if you break something?
“Well I guess the key,” he shrugs, “is not to break anything.”
We’re here to discuss new album ‘Badbea’, a record dominated by a sense of place: written and recorded here in Helmsdale, its title refers to a nearby site, a coastal village built and then abandoned by crofters.
“Grace took me for the first time after my stroke,” he recalls. “She persevered with it. I can’t do it, I said. But she persevered and I did it. In the summertime, as well. It was horrendous!”
“My grandpa was born in Helmsdale,” he explains. “When I was eight years old I was living in Dundee, and I loved it here in the summertime as a small boy. My grandfather and my sister took me for a walk every time. It was great.”
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Indeed Helmsdale – together with Grace – are the enduring loves in Edwyn’s life. Watching a recent documentary on the two – Edward Lovelace’s excellent film The Possibilities Are Endless – drives this home.
At one point, Edwyn recalls the early Orange Juice days, when he was stuck for both a sound and a direction, so he took himself down to the beach at Brora, a town close to Helmsdale. It’s here that indie’s big bang occurred: punk energy with 60s pop songcraft, resulting in ‘Falling And Laughing’, a debut single for Orange Juice and a manifesto for Postcard Records.
He smiles just remembering it. “Well, I did it. The first time, February 1980 – ‘Falling And Laughing’. The tune of that is: ‘You must think me very naïve…’ That’s a good starting point for, I suppose, my life.”
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Orange Juice also cast a shadow of ‘Badbea’. The song ‘Glasgow To London’ recalls the first time Edwyn Collins and co-conspirator Alan Horne – boss of Postcard Records – hit London, leaving chaos in their wake.
“I was young and foolish, let’s say. It’s about the start of the Orange Juice days,” he explains. “I remember ‘You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever’ – the album – I was so excited. I was in Glasgow and I moved at 22 to London. It’s a long time ago.”
But it’s not just his own work that informs Edwyn’s new album – ‘Outside’ is a ’77 punk thrash, for example.
“It’s looking back and reflecting. For example, ‘Glasgow To London’ – there’s something nostalgic about it. And the punk song –‘Outside’ - I must admit, it’s been inspired by the Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley and the Subway Sect.”
There’s a curious completion of the circle at play on ‘Badbea’, too, with Buzzcocks drummer John Maher – now a Western Isles resident – taking the wonderful cover photograph.
“He’s nice guy, John,” smiles the songwriter. “We took it outside the studio and the holiday home. It’s such a good likeness. It’s done in November. It’s an amazing photograph.”
We jest, and ask: did you tell him that your favourite song is called ‘Boredom’?
Edwyn chuckles, blushes, and looks at his feet: “I’m pretty sure he knows…”
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Collecting ideas whenever they come to him, Edwyn Collins works by recording snippets of inspiration on a cheap Sony recorder.
“A tiny little one!” he exclaims. “And I dictate into it. Only 20 quid! The chorus is quite easy, but the verse is quite hard. Knowing what to say, and to project. Let’s think, Edwyn: what about this? I’m getting serious… concentrating!”
He muses: “I suppose the title comes easiest. The verse is the hard bit. I’m concentrating on the verse. It’s important.”
It’s fair to say that Grace keeps Edwyn on his toes and out of mischief. The two are a formidable pairing, and his wife certainly understands Edwyn’s music to its deepest core.
At one point he notes: “Grace said the new album – ‘Badbea’ – is wallowing in nostalgia. And I said: it is, a bit. I didn’t realise that.”
“Here’s the thing: I suppose it is nostalgic. Maybe I am wallowing in nostalgia. When I wrote it, I was almost 60. Almost. And I suppose I didn’t realise that. To me, I’m a young person!”
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Despite his lengthy recovery from ill health, Edwyn Collins still sparkles with energy. There’s a boyishness to him, whether that’s his cowboy shirts or his enormously contagious laugh – and when he’s discussing new projects, this energy tends to billow out from all angles.
At one point he mentions a new piece of kit he’s just bought, and careers around the studio, launching open drawer after drawer packed with various items of technology. In the end, he simply sits back down, laughs, and shrugs.
The past few years have been enormously busy. Since releasing a studio album in 2013 he’s opened a studio in the Scottish Highlands, working as a producer – alongside his friend, Sean Read – on a number of records, assisting on the score to The Possibilities Are Endless, as well as completing the soundtrack for Bill Nighy’s touching new venture Sometimes Always Never.
And all that is before work on his latest studio album ‘Badbea’ had even been completed. It reminds of something Grace said the last time we spoke: “Edwyn’s working with alacrity!”
Discussing his studio hours, Edwyn clearly enjoys putting his shoulder to the wheel. “The bands start at 10 o’clock in the morning and we finish around eight o’clock for dinner. And that’s it,” he says firmly. “I suppose the bands don’t have time to admire the scenery!”
It’s surprising that Edwyn even has time – there’s a full schedule for the studio, new projects ongoing, and an Autumn tour to contemplate. He’s naturally excited, beaming: “I want to get on with my life!”
Perhaps that’s why Edwyn Collins placed the mixing desk where he did – even at his busiest, he still gets a clear view of the tumbling countryside, and the vast expanse of the North Sea.
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'Badbea' is out now.
Photo Credit: John Maher
Catch Edwyn Collins at the following shows:
28 Glasgow QMU
29 Hebden Bridge Trades Club
30 Moseley Park Folk & Arts Festival
2 Inverness Ironworks
3 Dundee Beat Generator Live
4 Newcastle Boiler Shop
5 Leeds Brudenell Social Club
7 Liverpool Arts Club Theatre
8 Manchester Gorilla
10 Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms
11 Brighton Concorde 2
12 London O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire
14 Dublin Liberty Music Hall
15 Belfast Empire Music Hall
17 Bristol Trinity
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