Edwyn Collins doesn’t hang around. His solo career – if, indeed, you can label his output with such a workmanlike term – is marked by about turns, new directions, contrarian statements and renewed experimentation. Set out in a line, his studio albums seem to say: dismiss entrenchment, further enhancement.
So when approaching new album ‘Understated’ it’s nice to find something, well, understated. Stylistically it shares many of the influences which fuelled 2010’s ‘Losing Sleep’ and is often imbued with the same furiously creative energy. “He’s not got patience for navel gazing, Edwyn’s working at speed - with alacrity” his wife Grace Maxwell insists on the telephone. Collins himself simply chuckles, in that endlessly joyous way of his: “Good word, Grace! Alacrity!”
The two need to be taken as a pair. Interviewed together, Edwyn & Grace finish off each other’s sentences, spur thoughts and make each other laugh. “You’ve got no patience with fannying about. He really hasn’t! It’s quite funny. It can sometimes be quite frightening for the groups he works with, because he’ll say: that’s good, move on! Or just interrupt them and say “stop it! Do it again!” He speaks to people like that” she insists. “Why not?” Collins interjects, before cheekily adding: “In a friendly way.”
A product of piecemeal sessions at London’s West Heath Studios, ‘Understated’ actually owes its origins to the Highland village of Helmsdale. Edwyn Collins wrote much of the album in the Far North, using a tape recorder to capture ideas as he is flanked both by the seemingly endless Scottish countryside and the open sea. “I use a tape recorder. For example, ‘Dilemma’ – the single – I use a tape recorder” he says, before singing the opening lines down the phone. “Good, I’m happy with that.”
Grace Maxwell picks up the thread. “He sings. Rather than play them records – they know the records he’s on about anyway – Edwyn sings the parts” she says. He wrote it in Helmsdale and he had the whole thing done.” Eager to get his point across, Collins begins singing again: “I would say to Sean – the trumpets and the saxophones, I want this...”
“The whole thing was done like that, singing into his tape machine. He plays the tape machine, sings them into the tape machine and uses his own voice” Grace says simply.
It’s a remarkable achievement. ‘Understated’ is packed with allusions to Collins’ musical memory, with a special vein devoted to 60s soul. The arrangements are simple yet graceful, propulsive yet packed with feeling. Born in Helmsdale, the material itself was laid down in London using a loose-knit group of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and collaborators. “The thing is that West Heath Studios has a big pool of people who are always around, floating in and out, doing different projects, different things. It’s just natural” Maxwell explains, before the singer adds: “For example, Little Barrie – I’ve done two albums, producing them along with Seb my engineer. He’s my friend but he comes along, take for instance ‘Dilemma’ – Barrie Cadogan is playing bass and is brilliant”.
“It’s not actually that complicated” Grace adds. “Sometimes Edwyn would have a song and would then ring round and see who was in town. It’s literally a case of who’s around. It’s not any more scientific than that. All these guys are brilliant, they’re so amazing and they all are completely tuned into Edwyn.” For his part, Edwyn Collins insists that the process behind ‘Understated’ is as fluid as it possibly could be. “There’s no communication problems. Up in the studio, I want this or want that, and the guys sorting it out. It’s cool for me.”
Able to construct songs in the peace of Helmsdale, Edwyn Collins is then faced with the task of lyric writing – something he admits doesn’t always come easily. “Usually the music comes first and I take the lyrics after. The chorus is easy, the verse is hard. What am I trying to say? What is it about? It’s hard for me to concentrate, to believe in myself again” he insists. “It’s a tall order for you” Grace adds. “It’s a fantastic exercise for you, lyric writing. The nature of being creative means that Edwyn will release sometimes that he’s already come up with something. Seb or me will say, sorry mate – back to the drawing board!”
Taking the lead in terms of songwriting, ‘Understated’ is also marked by Edwyn Collins’ ability to contribute guitar parts. Still undergoing therapy following his devastating stroke, the songwriter is working hard on a way to work past his disability. ’31 Years’ finds Collins contributing one handed guitar, an unusual hammer on technique which is a product of his overpowering determination to impact what he can hear in his head on tape. “One handed guitar. He can only do the left hand, the chord parts. There’s been various nice people who have suggested gizmos Edwyn can use to replace his right hand and as kind as it and a nice as it is for people to make these suggestions I’m afraid he turns his nose up at the” Grace reveals. “The only thing that’s happened is that a guy sent us a video of a friend of his who has only got one arm, a left hand. He doesn’t use any gizmos at all, he plucks and makes chord shapes on the next of the guitar with his left hand. He’s developed his own technique. It doesn’t involve any technology or gizmo-itis. He’s got an acoustic guitar, his left hand and that’s it”.
It’s perhaps telling that Edwyn Collins refuses these technological offers. Passionately independent, both Grace and Edwyn split their time between London and Helmsdale. On paper an odd, perhaps difficult situation to circumvent, the two have decided on a solution – to remove themselves from London. Building a Highland studio, it seems that the temptation of working in such a naturally beautiful environment is simply too much. “I’m happy about that. It has to be done. Up in Helmsdale, it’s a new experience and the studio, it’s all good news” Collins insists. His wife is quick to admit that there are risks in such a project, but is keen to stress that the Highlands are as accessible as any point in the country. “It depends. It’s only a semi-commercial project, the studio in Helmsdale, it’s not necessarily our living or anything like that” she muses. “We want to be able to bring people up there. I think when they realise it’s only an hour and a quarter on the plane to Inverness things will change!”
A pair of very natural, energetic enthusiasts, both Edwyn and Grace seem to be turning into evangelists for the Far North of Scotland. “We want everybody to come and see it, to see how amazing it is” she says at one point. “We want it to be a hub, for people to come and do things. We want people to get involved in the North as well, there’s a lot more going on up there than people imagine.”
Photo Credit: Hedi Slimane
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'Understated' is out on March 25th.