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The Arts: Phil Loves His Life In The Jazz Age

Bowling along the shore in his Jeep, Danny, a no-nonsense Irishman who has been Collins's minder for the past 13 years, takes a call from the London office. He finalizes some arrangements for the singer's trip to Munich on Friday. On Sunday they will fly to New York, and then on to Tokyo for Wednesday, returning for the French premiere of Disney's Tarzan in Paris at the end of the week. Collins has written songs for the film.
The phone rings again. It's the former Genesis drummer turned pop multi-millionaire himself. "All right?" says Danny, "Yeah. Be about another five minutes. " With an astute blend of Swiss precision and Celtic blarney, Danny deposits his journalist in a lakeside hotel suite just as Collins is pulling up in the car park outside. A minute later, Collins ghosts into the room, full of chat about his love for Disney.
"My sister was an ice-skater," he says, as he hangs his navy Donna Karan raincoat on the back of a chair. He is slim and strangely unwrinkled for a 48-year-old musician. "She was always doing things like Snow White on ice, or Pinocchio. I was mad on animation as a kid, but my brother had the gift. He's a cartoonist.
"I'd been pushing to do something with animation for a while," he continues, recalling the Disney organization's first suggestion, in October 1994, that he contribute to Tarzan. "I'd done some voices for a Spielberg tally thing - I was two polar bears. But no one does it like Disney. I'd given up hope - just thought, it's Disney, they'll never ask me."
But Collins has sold more than 70 million records, and the Americans wanted him in on the long process of making the feature-length animation.
"Basically they were coming to me for hits," he says. "They said, Are you prepared to sit by a fax for four years to do this? I said sure, and got straight down to it."
A noted workaholic, when Collins decides to get down to something, then down he gets. "I was faxing stuff through to them within days," he says. "They were saying, `Whoa, Phil, slow down. It's a four-year job. We don't need anything yet.' "
With Collins in Switzerland, the head animator in Paris and the rest of the crew at Disney headquarters in Los Angeles, the long-distance teamwork began. "I initially thought I would be writing songs for the characters in the film to sing. But they wanted to use my vocals. I thought that it would be a distraction, suddenly having Phil Collins singing over the action, but it makes the film very different."
Because of the labyrinthine mechanics of constructing the film Collins was asked time and again to change what he'd written. His self-deprecating, rather insecure nature was a distinct advantage. "You just have to bury your ego," he says. "I bumped into Sting when I was in the middle of it all, and he was about to start on another Disney project. He asked what it was like working with them, and I told him they kept changing stuff and it was a bit frustrating. He said, `I'm not changing anything - f that.' I just thought, oh yes, let's see how long that lasts."
DISNEY certainly got its money's worth out of Collins, announcing towards the end of the project that their star singer was now required to record the vocals for all the songs in Castilian and Latin-American Spanish, French, Italian and German.
"I speak a bit of French from living here," says Collins, "so I thought I'd start with that. I spent all day in the studio with a language coach, and then took the tape home to my wife [who is Swiss-French] that evening. She said, `What's this supposed to be? Your pronunciation's all over the place.' The worst was German, which sounds so ugly, and the lisp in the Castilian. The voice coach tells me that some ancient king of Spain had a lisp and decreed that everyone had to speak like that to make him feel better. I was like, `Thanks a lot, mate.' "
But the four-year task of getting the film finished has not seen Collins dawdling by his fax machine. Promoting the Tarzan single, You'll Be in My Heart, which entered the Top 20 this week, has kept him busy of late, but that's not the half of it. "I've done two Big Band tours," he says, "recorded a live album of one of them, written a solo album [1997's Dance into the Light] and taken that on tour."
Aside from working with Disney, the Phil Collins Big Band is the one other project that seems to inspire him, and the band's formation gives an insight into the considerable clout that Collins has in the world of music.
"I started it at the Montreux Jazz Festival," he says, "in 1996. The director said, Why don't you have a night to yourself - do whatever you like. I really loved that Duke Ellington big-band sound, so I got some musicians together. But I wanted to play drums and I don't read music, so we needed a conductor. Quincy Jones was in town and he said he'd love to do it. Then we needed a guest singer, so Quincy says Tony Bennett's here, he'll do it. And I'm thinking, now we've got ourselves a line-up."
The Montreux one-off behind him, Collins looked for somewhere to debut a proper touring outfit gently. "I got a phone call from Prince Charles to say there was a Prince's Trust concert for Nelson Mandela, and would I do something? So I said, er, of course. So that was it, real baptism of fire - our first proper show was a televised gig at the Albert Hall in front of the Queen, Nelson Mandela and half the Government."
The Big Band has since toured America twice, but to some rather mixed receptions. With Collins firmly installed behind the drum kit and various guest vocalists doing the singing, it is a long way from being a Phil Collins solo show. Despite clear billing, many of the US audiences have been peeved when he fails to sing You Can't Hurry Love or In the Air Tonight.
"It's embarrassing, really," says Collins. "People shouting out while the singer's in the middle of a song `C'mon, Phil - sing, man'. But it's not supposed to be a solo show - I made that very clear at the start. I'm less interested in that these days. I might do one more solo tour next year, but that'll be it. But I'd love to keep taking the Big Band out every couple of years."
With 13 years' worth of savvy, Danny the minder comes bustling into the suite. The conversation turns to England, to Collins's early years as a Hounslow youth with an obsession for Motown, and his appearance at 16 in a film called Calamity the Cow. He grins at the memory, then slips away almost unnoticed.
"Did he tell you he misses England?" asks the house-sized Irishman after Collins has gone. "He doesn't, you know. He loves it here really. He's an old conformist at heart."
© The Daily Telegraph, by Tom Horan

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