Listen to this track by one-time Orange Juice frontman and second-wind Brit-pop singer songwriter Edwyn Collins. It’s “Losing Sleep” the title track to his 2010 record of the same name, and its first single. The song and its accompanying album represents an important phase in Collins’ career. It was a comeback. But, the term takes on additional layers of meaning when one considers the road that led to its creation.
In 2005, Edwyn Collins suffered two brain hemorrhages that left him severely debilitated. He couldn’t walk, write, or read. He lost strength in the right side of his body, and suffered aphasia, which is a loss of connection between thought and speech. At one point, the only things he could say was “yes”, “no”, “Grace Maxwell” who is his wife and manager, and finally and very tellingly, “the possibilities are endless.” For Collins, that last statement seemed to be pretty unrealistic given his condition. But, he went to prove that assumption wrong.
How did he do that? Well, for one he lived through it. But for another, he went back to work.
Edwyn Collins has been an active musician since the mid-to-late 70s, coming up on the punk scene in his native Edinburgh. His initial success was with pop band Orange Juice, with their biggest hit being the jubilant “Rip It Up” in 1983, kind of a post-punk-meets-disco sound that can be heard in the music of Franz Ferdinand today. A decade later, he made his strongest solo statement in 1994’s “A Girl Like You”, a marvelous slice of neo-psychedelic goodness which would be a trans-Atlantic hit and later grace the Empire Records soundtrack.
Needless to say, Edwyn Collins kept his hand in the pop music game, and more importantly, in the songwriting game. When you’ve been doing it for that long, your brain is wired to do it. I wouldn’t want to get all Malcolm Gladwell on you, nor would I presume to know very much about how music and neuroscience combine (ask Daniel Levitin about that, good people). Edwyn Collins had a lot of help from professionals, with physiotherapists and speech therapists putting him through the paces to recovery. Yet I think the music itself helped him, along with his drive to keep making it.
But, this wiring of the hard drive toward musical expression had to have helped rather than hindered Collins when it came to regaining a good deal of his abilities as a musician and a songwriter, not to mention his skill as a visual artist. As well as writing all of the songs, and singing them, he also drew all of the illustrations on the album cover.
This song captures something of his continuing struggle, perhaps. But, its very existence shows how far he’d come with the help from his family and encouraging correspondence with fans. By the time he came to approach this record, he had to re-think his approach to making music.
His ability to play guitar has had to change, unable as he is to play with his strumming hand. Even bouncing back from a limited vocabulary and building it up again left him looking at lyric writing differently, which each word in its place and none wasted. After not being able to say much for a long time, I imagine that one would find a new love and respect for language in general, and in communicating with others as an artist specifically.
“Losing Sleep” is full of soulful bounce and effervescence, matched with a lyric that could be looked upon as sombre and darkly introspective. In this, the song springs from a well that Collins knows well, mixing bright tunes with words streaked in gray. But for him and his family, things really were pretty sombre for a while, with not only his ability to continue as a musician called into question, but also whether or not he would survive not one but two brain hemorrhages. Not many people could have pulled off what he’s done after looking at that situation in the face and still sound as great as this. It helps that Johnny Marr, Roddy Frame, Alex Kapranos, Paul Cook, and others lend a hand on the album.
But for me the focus should be on Collins, and on what I believe music represents for him and for all of us; not the frivolity that pop music is often thought of as being, but rather as The Lifeforce, and you’ll excuse my being earnest here I hope, with the power to heal those who immerse themselves in it. The possibilities are indeed endless.
Edwyn Collins has not rested on his laurels. His latest album Understated is out now. You can find out more about it, and about him at edwyncollins.com.
And to learn more about Edwyn Collins’ illness and recovery, check out the TV documentary Home Again, which is narrated by fellow musician Alex Kapranos of the aforementioned Franz Ferdinand. This film was shot in 2007, three years before Losing Sleep was recorded. So when you watch this, know that you have the advantage of a happy ending built right in.
And for more on the story of Edwyn Collins’ illness and fight to recover, check out this trailer for the full-length cinematic documentary The Possibilities Are Endless.