The only thing worse than being typecast as a sinner in the music industry is being typecast as a saint.
Over the past 30 years, the affable English pop star has grinned and mugged his way to the top of the heap, churning out hit songs such as "In the Air Tonight" and "Against All Odds."
Without the help of supermodel girlfriends, he has managed to sell 250 million albums, both as a member of art-rock combo Genesis and as a solo act. He is worth about $300 million and eagerly lends his name and checkbook to charitable causes.Dressed simply in cargo pants and T-shirt, he seems like a regular bloke, good for a few pints at the local pub. As he does the rounds to promote his first album in six years, "Testify," he finds himself defending his relative normalcy.
"I don't pretend to be nicer, better, more holier-than-thou than anybody else," Collins, 51, protested -- albeit very nicely -- in a recent interview with Reuters. "I'm just slap-bang in the middle, I suppose, normal."
The problem is that when he strays from type, even a little bit, there is hell to pay. After he left his second wife in the early 1990s, and went to live with a girlfriend 22 years his junior in her native Switzerland, the outraged U.K. press accused him of everything from adultery to tax evasion.
"Of course I get crucified a little bit more than everybody else, than Rod Stewart or Mick Jagger would, who kinda womanize their way around the world," said Collins, who seems to have aged better than the other hell-raisers.
The happy taxpayer
In reality, Collins met interpreter Orianne Cevey after his marriage to Jill ended -- "I was always very, very faithful when I was married" -- and he happily pays his taxes.
"I made an awful lot of money, so I don't mind paying an awful lot of tax. I've paid tax for years, through the nose really."
Mr. Nice Guy indeed.
Collins adjusted well to life in Switzerland, and eventually married Cevey in 1999. They have an 18-month-old son, Nicholas, Collins' fourth child overall, and are trying for another baby.
On the professional front, his last studio album, "Dancing in the Light" (1996), did not recapture the huge success of his earlier efforts, but Collins was already focused on other projects. He toured with his big band, and composed the score for the Disney cartoon "Tarzan." He won an Oscar in 2000 for "You'll Be In My Heart," his hit single from the film.
The new album, "Testify" (Atlantic Records), debuted modestly at No. 30 on the U.S. pop charts, and has sold about 140,000 copies to date. But he feels no commercial pressure.
"I'm not in that marketplace anymore, and I'm quite pleased not to be, to be quite honest," he said. "I'm 51. I'm not gonna do the things that are required of me to be on MTV, if they were even thinking about having me on it, because I'm too old."
As an "adult-contemporary" artist, mining the same easy-listening genre as buddies Sting and Eric Clapton, Collins must drum up original ways to promote his music. Following in the footsteps of Sting, whose last album got a boost when he sold a song to Jaguar, Collins lent his cover of the 1978 Leo Sayer hit "Can't Stop Loving You" to Toyota. The song became his eighth No. 1 on the U.S. adult contemporary chart based on radio airplay.
But Collins is no old fogey either. By his own admission a bit of a technophobe in days past, he embraced computers for his new record. Sure, the system sometimes crashed and he lost more music than he cares to mention, but it also made it easier to arrange random pieces he had written over the years.
The title track -- "I want to testify, testify my love for you" -- is one of the most personal songs he has ever written, he says. He has a habit of wearing his heart on his sleeve. His debut solo album, "Face Value" (1981) came about after his first wife Andrea walked out on him.
"My ex-wife was livid, how dare I talk about this in public," he recalled. "But I'm a songwriter, and what is going on in my life will come out in song."
The new album, released last month, luxuriates in domestic bliss, but Collins throws in a curveball with "Don't Get Me Started," a tirade against politicians, media moguls and terrorists. In explaining the track to a rather jaded guest, he finally betrays some anger, some passion.
"You can't believe anything you read, can't believe anything you hear. It undermines people's confidence in themselves. You just spiral downwards if you're not careful," he rants.
But the next song on the album is "Swing Low," which deals with the happier problem of impatiently awaiting Nicholas' birth, and all is well again.