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Rock's outsider: Phil Collins interview

Phil Collins has recorded an album of Motown covers, but he won't be joining the musical circus again.

Rock's outsider: Phil Collins interview
Phil Collins at his home in Geneva with some of his collection of artefacts from the Alamo site in Texas

Which of his many honours matters most to Phil Collins? Any one of the seven Grammys? The two Golden Globes, or the Oscar that he won for writing and performing You’ll Be In My Heart in Disney’s 1999 film Tarzan? Being inducted earlier this year, alongside his Genesis bandmates, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York? Or the 250 million records he has sold both as a solo artist and as the frontman with Genesis, the band he joined in 1970?

This morning, in the basement of his house in the hills outside Geneva, those successes don’t seem such a big deal to him. The accolades that really fill Collins with pride are hanging on the walls. There is the certificate proclaiming him an Honorary Member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas; the document anointing him an Emissary of the Muses – City of San Antonio; and the painting Travis’s Line, in which Collins appears in military uniform alongside 184 19th-century American frontiersmen. 'Friend of mine painted that,’ Collins says. By Gary Zaboly, it is a depiction of the American garrison at the Alamo mission in Texas in 1836, immediately before the battle.

Collins, 59, who this month releases Going Back, a collection of Motown covers (his version of the Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love was one of the biggest number one singles of the 1980s), is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Alamo. In May he gave a lecture to the Dallas Historical Society in Texas. And he has written the text to accompany a book of paintings by Zaboly to be published next year.

Collins has been a serious collector of artefacts from the Alamo site for 15 years, devoting a good chunk of his fortune (still estimated at £108 million). Here, arrayed in glass cases and hung on the walls in his basement, are the fruits of his collector’s zeal. Weaponry and documents, posters from the 1960 film starring John Wayne, and two autographs by the Duke. Cannonballs and shells, bits of horse harness and army uniform, many of these discovered beneath the foundations of a shop near the Alamo site that Collins bought just so that he could dig underneath it.

His interest dates from his childhood, when he watched the Disney television series about the frontiersman Davy Crockett. 'It was on every week, and it just got me and never left me.’ On birthdays his parents would indulge their son’s passion. (Collins’s eldest son, Simon, has a similar enthusiasm for William Wallace of Braveheart fame.)

Collins visits San Antonio every March, on the anniversary of the battle, 'with all the other boffins from Europe. It’s not as bad as trainspotting,’ he says. 'I’ve met a lot of nice people over there. And it’s not “Phil Collins, Pop Star”. It’s just me, being an amateur enthusiast about that subject.’

His other hobby, model railways, has fallen by the wayside. He shows me the incredibly detailed layout – mountains, valleys, bridges, buildings – he has built . He has not touched it in two years; on a workbench, tiny, handcrafted shrubbery lies in various states of assembly. Even his recording studio, in another basement room and full of photographs of Collins with the Princess of Wales, Robert Plant and Nelson Mandela, feels underused.

When I ask how often he writes songs, he replies, 'Um, not a lot. In fact last night there was nothing particular on TV that I wanted to watch, and I thought, why don’t I go downstairs [to the studio] and just turn everything on and see what happens? Anyway,’ he sniffs, 'I didn’t.’

Collins looks proudly at his framed, yellowing battlefield letters and historic documents. 'All I have is a five-year-old Range Rover and this,’ he says. That, of course, is not quite true. But this house, salmon-pink and with terrific views over the lake, is surprisingly modest. 'Don’t you think this is a small house, considering what you were expecting?’ he says, perhaps still sensitive to the long-standing supposition that he is a Thatcher-supporting 1980s relic who moved to Switzerland in the mid-1990s for the tax benefits. He didn’t, he insists; he relocated here because he fell in love with a Swiss woman, Orianne Cevey, a translator. They divorced in 2007.

Collins lives here alone most of the time – his sons, Nicholas, nine, and Matthew, five, from his marriage to Cevey have bedrooms here but mostly they stay with their mother – and he is looking to buy a bigger place so that when Joely, 38, the eldest of his five children visits with his granddaughter, there is room for everyone. Cevey lives 10 minutes away, in the more capacious former marital home, complete with tennis court and swimming-pool (the divorce pay-out was a reported £25 million). Collins also owns a mountain chalet (good for the skiing), an impressive-sounding motor-cruiser moored on Lake Geneva (good for the waterskiing), and a New York apartment (convenient, given that his current girlfriend, Dana Tyler, 51, is a Manhattan-based television journalist).

Yet shuffling about in casual jeans and non-descript T-shirt, barking at his terrier, Travis ('I was going to call him Crockett, but you can’t shout “Crockett!” There’s no edge to it’), Collins wears his wealth and success lightly. As he approaches his 60th birthday in January he would rather be taking Nicholas and Matthew to school, playing football with them, or pottering around in the toy-filled playroom.

Collins no longer has any interest in the musical circus – he attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at which Genesis were inducted under duress, and flatly refused the request that the band perform. The 1980s, when Collins sustained a hit-strewn solo career on both sides of the Atlantic, and notably performed at both the London and Philadelphia legs of Live Aid (using Concorde to make his cue), seem a long time ago.

'I had stopped,’ he says as we sit down on the garden terrace. 'Retired is too… that’s an old world.’ He had decided that the days of touring and promoting were behind him 'because I just wanted to do the normal things with the boys. But my manager always seems to want me to work,’ he says wryly, 'because he thinks I’m doing nothing here when in fact I’m doing quite a lot.’

A Motown album, largely recorded in the basement studio, accompanied by a very short run of concerts, seemed manageable and family-friendly. In that regard, does Collins regret that his furious work schedule in the 1980s and early 1990s meant that he did not have such close relationships with his older children, Joely, and Simon, 33, from his first marriage, to Andrea Bertorelli; and Lily, 21, from his second, to Jill Tavelman?

'Well, I would say in my defence, your honour,’ he chuckles, bristling slightly, 'my eldest two kids lived in Vancouver. Then when Jill and I split she went to LA. So weekend visits were never on the calendar. Which is why I stay here – my boys are 10 minutes down the road.’

Phil Collins was brought up in a semi-detached house in Hounslow, west London. His father, like his father before him, was an insurance man in the City (he had hoped Collins, his brother and his sister would follow suit, but none of them did), and his mother was a co-founder of the Barbara Speake Stage School. When he was five, his parents bought him a drumkit for Christmas.

His first career was as a child actor. While a pupil at the Barbara Speake school in east Acton, he found success appearing as the Artful Dodger in two West End runs of Oliver!. He was also cast as an extra in the films Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and A Hard Day’s Night. 'Junior Points of View was good,’ he says with a smile. Collins would read out letters from children, employing his gift for different regional accents. 'And I did Jackanory. No reading, I think I was in the little group of kids. Knitting patterns, modelling pyjamas.’

His father approved of his acting, but was less enthralled by his burgeoning enthusiasm for music. A self-confessed lippy 16-year-old, Collins began to 'talk back’ to directors on set and devote more time to auditioning for bands. As a 19-year-old, he played percussion on George Harrison’s solo debut, All Things Must Pass. The same year, Genesis – frontman Peter Gabriel, keyboard player Tony Banks, guitarist Mike Rutherford – advertised for a new drummer. Auditions took place at Gabriel’s parents’ house in Cobham in 'leafy Surrey’, as Collins says, with terrace and swimming-pool. Rutherford, Collins insists with a grin (contrary to Rutherford’s own recollections), 'had carpet slippers and a Noël Coward jacket on’.

Collins was a grammar and drama school child joining a band comprosed of Charterhouse alumni. 'I was the one that broke the ice,’ he says. 'It was a bit like you had to work your way into some kind of club. I mean, I can say this now because [Rutherford and Banks] would agree with me, but they were very highly strung, tightly wound. It was like they’d been tied up at school.’ He pauses, then laughs. 'They probably had been tied up at school. And I came from a drama school where we listened to Sgt Pepper and the Byrds while we were studying for our GCEs.’

When Gabriel left Genesis in 1975 Collins became the frontman. But being the singer with the prog-rock giants, one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, took its toll: 'Andrea just decided to leave because I was on the road all the time.’ Collins told Rutherford and Banks that he was quitting the band and following his wife and children to Vancouver, 'to patch this stuff up’. Rutherford and Banks told him, 'Just go and sort yourself out, we’ll go and do some solo music.’

'But by the time I came back they were only at best halfway through their solo stuff,’ Collins remembers. 'So I started writing.’ He also spent time with the folk singer John Martyn (singing and drumming on his 1980 album Grace and Danger), who was also going through a divorce. He recalls that they would be in the studio together, each trying to speak to his estranged wife. 'He’s making his phone call, phone goes down. Me making my phone call, phone going down. Have another drink. All right… Phone again…’ Collins laughs.

Face Value, his 1981 debut solo album, which featured In the Air Tonight ('If you told me you were drowning/ I would not lend a hand’), 'became a record by accident, because everybody that heard the demos fell in love with them.’ Did he have to let out his emotional turbulence in song? 'Well, yeah,’ he falters, 'but actually, I wasn’t aware that anything was going to happen to it. I was just writing little messages – “When she reads this she’ll understand what I feel.” I wasn’t very articulate. And I never got a chance because the phone kept going down anyway.’

The false tabloid claim that he divorced his second wife, Jill Tavelman, by fax still rankles. But he will cheerfully discuss the time that he appeared on Top of the Pops singing In the Air Tonight with a pot of paint near his keyboard – widely perceived to be a reference to Bertorelli having run off with their decorator. It was only there, Collins insists, because he had used a Black & Decker Workmate as his keyboard stand. The paint, found backstage, merely completed the picture. It was 'unintentional’, but 'it is a fantastic coincidence, I agree. And of course the phone rang the next day: “What the ****!”’ Collins starts making a noise like a particularly shrill duck. His wife was upset, 'but it genuinely hadn’t dawned on me that this was a dig’.

Collins’s mood darkens when I mention his most recent divorce, from Cevey. Barbara Speake, one of his mother’s oldest friends, told a news­paper in 2008 that post-natal depression played a factor in their break-up. 'I’d never had to deal with anything like that, so I don’t know if it was or not,’ he says. 'All I know is that my three ex-partners, we’re all great friends. If they’re in New York, they stay at my place, my girlfriend gets the food in for them.’

Collins clearly has his bêtes noires. 'I get a bit… surprised at the vitriol of [Noel and Liam] Gallagher and people like that who consider me the Antichrist of music. I don’t think I’ve done anything that bad,’ he says. In any case, the fact that the American hip-hop community has embraced him – his drum sounds and melodies are ripe for sampling or covering – helps balance things out. And the smash hit 2007 Cadbury’s 'drumming gorilla’ ad was a timely reminder of his adroit pop songwriting skills.

Collins is candid, forthright and down-to-earth, with a dash of the vinegary curmudgeon. He says he is proud of his daughter Lily’s modelling and acting career – she recently appeared in the Oscar-winning film The Blind Side. 'I believe that the kids have got to find themselves on their own two feet… When I go, the kids will get a lot of money.’ But, 'there’s a certain way I was brought up where that’s the icing on the cake. If you get that, you’ve got to have some kind of will to work.’ He is doing all he can to ensure his children don’t fall into the pattern of 'someone inheriting money then just getting completely lost along the way’.

Phil Collins may be an elder statesman of rock and pop, but he is not above admitting to frailties. He has ongoing problems with his left hand (he is left-handed) that an operation on four vertebrae and another on his arm have yet to fix. An 'arm specialist’ has told him it’s a problem with a nerve 'coming out of its socket’.

'I personally think I’ve played drums for the last time,’ he says matter-of-factly. 'I played on this record, but I had to tape the sticks to my hand.’

He seems unfazed by what could be the end of a lifetime of drumming. More pressing is the impact on normal life. His difficulty gripping with his left hand means, he says, that 'I can’t cut a loaf of bread, I can’t pull open the car door.’

He has also had trouble with his hearing. It has been reported that this meant he was less willing to socialise than Cevey, who is 22 years his junior, which contributed to their drifting apart. 'That’s not true,’ he says. 'I mean, we are still very much in love with each other actually. But she’s got remarried, and I’ve got a girlfriend.’

He met Dana Tyler in 2006 when she interviewed him on New York’s WCBS-TV. 'But I’m not going to get married again,’ he says. 'There are times when I get depressed. Times when I get very lonely. But I think I’m better off on my own.’

Collins is happy to be here, alone on a Swiss hill. He is something of an outsider, just as he was when he joined Genesis. If Going Back does well, he says, he would consider doing another, similar album. But he is also wary of going too far down the 'Rod Stewart route’, a reference to Stewart’s series of thoroughly polite, don’t-frighten-the-horses Songbook covers albums. But doing the school run with his sons is now his day-to-day focus. He would rather not risk his health, nor his family, by hitting the promotional trail and touring the world for the umpteenth time. '**** the music,’ he says blithely. 'I don’t care. I’ve done most of what I want to do. For me it’s about getting back to living a normal life.’

'Going Back’ (Atlantic Records) is released on September 13, 2010.

© Telegraph, by Craig McLean

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