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Phil Collins Finds Peace On The Solo Path

Phil Collins Finds Peace On The Solo PathRex: Sometimes, Phil Collins scares himself, like now, as he considers how long he has been a drummer.

PC: It's hard to say what music means to me when it's been my life (he says, recalling his younger days). I've been playing drums since I was 5 years old and I'm 45. I never wanted to be anything other than a drummer. That's scary to have never wanted to be anything else. To me, it's such a part of my life, I can't imagine (not) doing it. I would not stop writing music even if I retired (from the stage). Music is my air that I breathe.

Rex: And that air seems to be fresh once again for this genial Briton, whose life, as they say, has been an open book --- especially for the British and European tabloids who took delight in chronicling the breakup of his second marriage, his move to Switzerland and his newfound relationship with a much younger woman there. Then came the announcement that he would no longer be dividing his time between group and solo careers. After a quarter century with Genesis, the vocalist, drummer and songwriter said he was amicably and officially leaving the band.

So, DANCE INTO THE LIGHT, his first solo album in three years --- and his first one since leaving Genesis --- is both a symbolic and literal arrival at the new place in his life. The Collins-penned title track single debuted as the top-most-added song at both pop and AC outlets nationwide.

In contrast to the introspective BOTH SIDES, his last solo album in 1993, the new effort is more upbeat, embracing percussive African rhythms --- and is a band project. For BOTH SIDES, not one of his most commercially successful albums, though it was certified platinum in the U.S., Collins wrote and recorded at home, playing all the instruments himself. Today, he also says he rediscovered his sense of humor. The track "Wear My Hat," for example, is a wry take on fan worship and promises to be a fun video somewhere down the line.

The album, produced by Collins and Hugh Padgham, has Collins on drums and vocals, lead, rhythm and slide guitars, keyboards, bagpipes and kalimba. His live band consists of Nathan East (bass), Brad Cole (keyboards), Daryl Stuermer (lead guitar), Ronnie Caryl (rhythm guitar), Amy Keys and Arnold McCuller (vocals) and the Vine Street Horns (Harry Kim, Daniel Fornero, Arturo Velasco and Andrew Woolfolk).

In other projects, Collins is writing the music to a Disney animated feature film, TARZAN, due for release in 1998 or 1999. He recently fulfilled what he refers to as a lifetime ambition to take a 20-piece big band on the road, debuting at London's Albert Hall with conductor Quincy Jones and guest vocalist Tony Bennett. The band, with Collins on drums, continued on to play seven other European concerts, including two shows at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The repertoire consisted of Genesis and Collins' compositions played with jazz arrangements. A live album and video is planned for this year.

This artistic workaholic surprised some people by taking a six-month break from songwriting and recording in 1995 to recharge. To date, he has received six Grammy Awards and sold more than 70 million records. Atlantic Records points out that if you figure his work with Genesis, the jazz ensemble Brand X and other artists, he has left his mark on some 200 million records worldwide.

Rex: A lot of people fantasize about taking a long break like you did (from May of 1995 to the end of the year), but are afraid or reluctant to go for it. Was it difficult to convince yourself to take the time off you did?

PC: No it was not difficult. I had been through a long tour, 14 months from beginning to end with the BOTH SIDES show. At the beginning of the time, I was separated from my family, my country...I moved to Switzerland. There were lots of reasons to stop and breathe. That's all I did. I promised my lady, who I took into this tabloid hell, that i would just take some time off to just stop and enjoy six months of doing nothing. I bought a boat. We live quite close to the lake in Geneva.

Rex: So it refreshed you?

PC: Very much so. Summer and autumn is fantastic weather in Switzerland. I spent it on my boat reading, listening to some music bits I had written and enjoying doing nothing. How hard can that be? I'm fortunate enough to be able to take six months off. I've always driven myself too hard. I don't have to work half as hard as I do. I do so because I enjoy doing it. Sometimes because you've always done it, people assume you're always going to. I had to put my hand up and say, "Excuse me, I'm changing."

Rex: Did you get what you hoped to achieve when you went into the studio for the new album?

PC: Yes. As usual, I did very comprehensive demos. As usual, the demos we used as a blueprint on which we recorded other musicians. A couple of songs may not have beaten the demos. Some of the songs, I didn't know how good they would be. They turned out much stronger than I had thought. I just knew what I wanted the songs to sound like and I made sure I didn't go too far from that. The original idea was to take the album on tour before recording it. We did three weeks of rehearsal with my band. But the songs started to feel like they were slipping away from me because I was putting them in the hands of so many people.

Rex: Have you heard from Dylan on whether he liked your interpretation of "The Times They Are A Changin'," which closes DANCE INTO THE LIGHT?

PC: No. Some people consider Dylan material sacred ground. You just don't **** with Dylan. I did "Knocking On Heaven's Door" on the last tour. Some loved and some hated it. Some don't want you messing with Dylan.

Rex: Ultimately, what do you want people to take from this album?

PC: I really hope people get into and love the same songs I do, songs like "That's What You Said," "Love Police", "It's In Your Eyes." Those are some of my favorite songs. In a way, I know a lot of people were kind of stunned by the BOTH SIDES album's sort of lack of tempo and humor. But I feel it was one of my best records ever. In the years to come, maybe some people will agree with me. It wasn't what they expected from Phil Collins. I hope they will give this new one a chance to see if they like it better. I write how I feel at the time. That's how I felt for BOTH SIDES. This is how I feel in my life now. The music is bright, optimistic, with a lot of energy.

Rex: ...And No Drum Machines.

PC: (laughs) I forgot how strong a drummer I am.

Rex: It seems we are in a percussive mode without communal listening taste these days, with people embracing and readily accepting music.

PC: Percussion is tapping into body rhythms. It's what makes you move. Melody is crucial. But ultimately, you've got to get the things that hooks a body into a piece of music, which is rhythm. That's why some grooves that have a very simple melody on top can be very successful. For me, (that's) the beginning and ending of everything.

Rex: You said something interesting in your new Atlantic Records Company bio, talking about always wanting to make people who don't like you to think again because the one thing you don't do is repeat yourself. That's a tough assignment, isn't it?

PC: Yes, it is probably an impossible task. When you feel you are doing something so right and people continually slag it off, it gets very frustrating. I have lots of good press and just as much bad press. I'm not bothered by the bad press as much as I used to be, other than the fact what about the the song I like so much that the other person dislikes? It's interesting for me to find out. I think a lot of it is people's forgone conclusion and preconceptions coming into listening to Phil Collins records. They have certain prejudices lined up. Maybe they didn't like the early cheery video or how much "Sussudio" was played on the radio.

Rex: Any ideas how the public perceives you?

PC: I think in America, it's different from, maybe, in Europe. In Europe, they tend to take me a little more seriously, maybe from an artistic point of view. In America, they've really warmed up to me greatly in the last 10 years. I've (laughs) eaten up a few other people's 15 minutes of fame, I think. But I get a bit sad when I think, maybe their opinion of me doesn't stretch further than "Sussudio" or "Two Hearts". I wish they would follow me into deeper ground.

Rex: At what point are you in your career?

PC: I have no idea. I could be at the end of it (laughs). On a good day, I think it's exciting. On a bad day, I think it's frustrating. I did my best album up to that moment with BOTH SIDES, from a musical and songwriting point of view. From a personal point of view, I achieved a lot on that record in terms of playing everything. It was a very personal success to me, but probably my biggest failure commercially. When you did your best work and not as many people like it, when you do your best work and people don't respond accordingly, it starts to make you think, "What do they really want from me? What do they think I am that maybe I don't?"

Rex: You've spoken about being in a period in which you are finding new challenges and opportunities. It that what keeps it fresh and fun for you?

PC: Sure. The fact that everything isn't a forgone conclusion. There's no certainty that something will get on the radio and someone will go out and buy it. That's a great leveler. It keeps you edgy. There's nothing wrong with that. The last thing I want to be is safe. Being on the edge of not knowing can be very exciting. I certainly feel as excited about making this record as I have ever been about a record. The process of making this record was fantastic. I loved every minute of it. I'm not getting jaded or weary of it. I'm weary of the media thing sometimes.

Rex: What do you see as your strengths as an artist?

PC: Lyrically, I can call a spade a spade. I think a lot of people relate to things I write about. As a drummer, I'm a very good drummer. I'm a good-to-great songwriter occasionally. And I'm a good singer. I think when I'm doing a record, people think I might be showing off, when in fact, all I'm doing is trying to get better. I want each record to be better than the last one. People ask me about my time in Genesis. I loved most of it. I hated some of it. I think some of the songs we wrote weren't very good. I loved some of the songs. How can you possibly put your hand on your heart and say, "In the last 25 years everything was perfect"?

© Cleveland Plain Dealer, by Rex Rutkoski

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