Andrew Duncan meets Phil Collins now on his third marriage, with four children and several midlife crises behind him, the musician is understandably philosophical about his career and future.
He is incensed, in the nicest possible way, as only he can be, because someone just tried to compliment him by saying that Testify, his first solo album in six years, is "lovely". "What does that mean?" he says. "Did he like it? Lovely. Huh." An impeccably polite, often intense; short, wiry, balding, half-deaf (in one ear) control freak, drummer, singer, songwriter, who's earned millions, he's happily ensconced with his beautiful third wife, Orianne, 29, and their one-year-old son, Nicholas, who are today on a Disneyland trip while he chats in an LA hotel. Yet the musician- profiled this week in a BBC 1 documentary- remains so vexed and frustrated by what he believes is his unfair reputation for simple, unadventurous music, that he contemplated not releasing any new songs."I'd written them, which is the enjoyable process, and don't feel an urge to prove myself any more by doing everything I can to get into the top ten. It's the best I can do at the moment, but I'm not confident about whether it fits into the market place. I had a certain amount of success with Genesis [for nearly 26 years], and on my own, but the music business constantly reinvents itself. Something that s popular today will be eaten up and spat out in two months' time.
"I don't know if I fit in or not. I've been out of mainstream rock for so long-writing the music for Disney's Tarzan and touring with my 20-piece Big Band [himself on drums, Quincy Jones conducting, and Tony Bennett singing] -that I feel maybe I've been forgotten. I was so big in the 80s and early 90s that tastes could have moved on, but people still ask for autographs and say, `Loved your new song, man,' so I suppose there's still an audience, but I don't take it for granted. `Phil Collins-middle of the road. That's what's said about me by the press, full stop. Do I need that negative stuff? I'm happy. Why should I be made miserable by reading what they say?"
Very simple. Don't read it. "I get shown it. I used to be obsessive. If a journalist wrote something unfair I'd contact them and say it was a load of crap. I don't do that any more. People will either know what I see in this album, or they won't; they'll either think my work is poetry or rubbish, and there's nothing I can do except keep true to myself. Some of my songs are light and fluffy - that's part of what I do - but it isn't the entire picture. I write all kinds of music.
"Ice T, who was on the cutting edge of rap, told a reporter who was criticising me, `Don't mess with my man Phil: I couldn't believe it and thought how odd that I'm considered old hat, yet guys like him enjoy my work. I've never thought about it clearly enough to say, `I'm a really important songwriter.' It could be I'm just an entertainer. There's nothing wrong with that. As I get older I wonder if I really need to put myself out on a limb, and then a little guy in the back of my head says, `Let's find out"'
Collins is one of the - dwindling band of 70s rockers not to be knighted. "I got the LVO [Lieutenant of the Victorian Order] a few years ago for charity work, which was probably inspired by [his friend] Prince Charles. I worked hard on the Jubilee concert - a labour of love- and someone told me, `You'll get a knighthood,' but I don't hold my breath. Do I want to join a club that would have me as a member?" Or Sir Michael Jagger? "He's the wild card that crops up every now and again, like Ray Reardon receiving an MBE. He was rebellious in the 60s, but he's not now, so why shouldn't he accept it? Its a nice thing to have, and he's kept Britain on the map for a variety of reasons, even if the establishment think he's a bad egg. Turning it down would have been a bigger mistake than giving it to him. I never quite got over the idea of McCartney being knighted when George and Ringo weren't. What makes him so special? The group was the phenomenon. I was mystified."
He has an air of mild bewilderment about several things, not least his success and his boring Mr Nice Guy image ("an invented title that had nothing to do with me"), which was seriously dented by lurid tales of marital dysfunction. The ordinary bloke from Hounslow, as he is fond of calling himself, wanted to be a simple drummer from the age of three, but was sidetracked into an acting career when his mother, June, now 88 and still feisty, who ran a theatrical agency, found work for him as the Artful Dodger in the original stage production of Oliver! when he was 14. He told me he had his life mapped out happily- a few years in a pop group, followed by a dance band, and then the orchestra pit-but becoming first the drummer and then lead singer with Genesis, changed everything.
His first wife, Andrea Bertorelli, was at stage school with him in west London in 1964. They dated before she left for Canada to be near her mother. She had a daughter, Joely, (now 30 and an award-winning actress living in Vancouver), whom he adopted when he married Andrea in 1975. They had a son, Simon (now a record producer in Frankfurt), but the marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce five years later. He accused her of poisoning the children's minds. She called him a heartless hypocrite.
A troubadour of angst, he wrote In the Air Tonight about her:
"If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand." His first solo single, it hit number two in 1981. His second marriage, to Jill Travelman, ended after nine years in equally bitter recrimination over access to their daughter Lily, now 13, with him famously sending his ex-wife an obscene fax.
"Lots of stories have been amalgamated into that piece of folklore. I told her how I felt and she asked me to write it down, so I did and sent it to her by fax, which is basically a letter you put in a machine instead of an j envelope. It wasn't, `You're out of here.' A few months later I was touring in Germany, trying to workout access to Lily. Jill was angry and kept putting the phone down so I wrote her another fax, which was printed on the front page of The Sun the next day. It was misread as the first time I'd told her we were splitting up. It became a snowball I couldn't control, based on an untruth. I'm still lumbered with it. During that time I didn't even want to be me any more, or at least the person they wrote about. They categorise you, and every time you try to lift your head out of the box, they bash the lid down again."
Orianne was his guide and interpreter for a concert in Lausanne in April 1994. "It was a coup de foudre. She met us off the plane, took us to the hotel, and by the time we'd got there I'd fallen for her." He left Britain to live in Switzerland the following year, under a blitz of tabloid ridicule about `the male menopause'. "I was doing what I wanted, had a lovely family, and it just happened. I'd never wish that stuff on people, and especially kids.
"Today, if I have to choose one thing that makes me happy, it's that my four kids all love each other and Orianne. I relate much better to my two older ones than I ever have done. For a while they only saw one side of the story, and now they're old enough to be inquisitive, I'm constantly surprised at what they didn't know. It's been bitter on and off with Andrea, and I haven't had too much contact because it was usually grief-ridden, but yesterday she sent her love to me and Orianne. Considering the way these things can fall, I've been fortunate. It could be a nightmare, but it's not- just a bit of a bad dream occasionally.
"It's fantastic being a father at this age. We'll have another baby. We're already decorating the room. I hope I've become a better father. I used to think my mum and dad knew everything - then realised they made it up as they went along, same as all of us. The only sad thing is I worry if I'll live to see Nicholas married. I want to be with him as much as possible before I have to say goodbye."
As per usual, Collins's new album reflects his personal life. "The words come off the top of my head. I rarely sit down with a bit of paper and wonder, `What shall I write?' I'm my own editor, so if you don't like my work I have to stand up and say, `Well, that's because of me, I'm afraid.' When I made my first solo album, Face Value, I hand-wrote everything-even the legal stuff on the label, okayed each picture, and the marketing campaign. Some might see that as being a control freak. I think it's responsibility. I take all the glory -and the blame. The public likes to know where they are with you because they're involved in the real things of life- getting through the day, making enough money to keep the family together and the car paid for-and they want music for relaxation. They don't want you to come up with different material, but I fight against that.
"Testify has more positive love I songs, as opposed to `love lost' songs. There's optimism in the first one, Wake Up Call, which says ifs good every now and then to shake yourself down, ruffle feathers and look at what's going on with your life. People don't think they can affect society, which is why they don't vote. I know this is idealistic, but we can either watch life pass by, say what a shitty place we live in - or do something. My own soapbox [Don't Get Me Started] is hypocrisy, and the lies we're fed by the media. I have a man-in-the--street feeling about the old cliché that the world is owned by a few corporations and we don't know what is truth and what isn't. We could change it if we all decided we didn't like it. The alternative is dumbing down, laddism, yobbism."
Collins originally planned to tour with the Big Band every two years "to keep my hand in", but in November 2000 he was struck with sudden deafness, which has probably ended his touring days. "It hasn't improved or got worse. My brain has compensated, soI can sing, write and do the odd concert." He's 50 per cent deaf in one ear, so that all he hears is a buzz. Cortisone, one possible treatment, had no effect, and a hearing aid only magnifies the buzzing. "It could be a lot worse. Whoever is up there is saying, `Come on. Think about what you're doing. You don't need to tour for ever, dragging your family around the world.' Jackie Stewart [the former motor-racing champion, from whom he rents a house above Lake Geneva] has the same thing, and says he has to really concentrate at dinner parties. I just tilt my head"I don't want to sit and panic and wonder what I'll do. Another door has already opened with film soundtracks. Critics wonder why I do Disney films- `kids' stuff, a b of pap'. But actually it's an art form that lasts for ever. I'm still watching Snow White, whereas I could write music for a Schwarzenegger film and it will be forgotten in a year.
"There's talk of making Tarzan into a musical, which I'm writing because I now have time. I'm no so ambitious as I was and don't need to do things I thought I wanted so much. I love England and miss the sense of humour, my ploughman's camaraderie down the pub, but at the same time I appreciate Switzerland - no graffiti, a decency towards each other, which we've lost. It's duller than London, but I'm happy to be with the family, sit back and watch the world pass by."
© Radio Times