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Sunday Times STLive By Magazine, 2010-09-13

There and back again

Let me put it : Phil Collins is one of the top-selling international acts in South Africa. Sales of his six solo albums, among them Face Value, .But Seriously and Both Sides, are shoulder-deep in multi-platinum territory.

His fanbase here is also unusually diverse. For instance, when I bump into rapper HHP and tell him I'm headed to Geneva to interview Collins about his new studio album, he exuberantly shouts "Phil Collins!" across the coffee shop, before telling me how influential the 59-year-old has been in his life.

I relate this story to Collins when we meet in the postcard-perfect room of a 19th-century hotel, situated on the edge of Lake Geneva. He's genuinely touched by the place he occupies in the lives of artists like HHP as well as ordinary South Africans who still count his '90s live show here as one of their top performances of all time.

"I'm touched by it, really touched," says Collins. "It brings a tear to the eye. I am still at a point in my life where I'm amazed at the reaction of people in a place that I've only been to once."

It's no surprise that Collins has a warm relationship with this country, he's been donating every cent of his personal royalties earned in sub-Saharan Africa to charity (in recent years, more specifically, the Topsy Foundation). It's an act of philanthropy that he's kept well under the radar at a time when celebs wave their good deeds around like badly sown Scouts badges.

"I'm very proud of it. It's great that it's doing something positive in a place where it's sorely needed."

Collins can hardly be accused of being a splashy artist - even during Genesis' heyday or in the years before he moved to Switzerland, where he's been living quietly since 1995. He's largely ignored cries that he'd gone there to become a tax exile when he settled in the country after marrying Orianne Cevey (whom he divorced in 2006 and with whom he has two sons, Matthew and Nicholas).

It took him nearly a decade to respond to Noel Gallagher's baiting comment ahead of the 1997 general election that people should vote Labour or face Phil Collins's return from Switzerland if the Tories returned and gave tax breaks to the rich.

Collins has also stood his ground during the cycle that has seen him go from too uncool to mention in dinner conversations to being namechecked by everyone from Ice-T to Wyclef Jean and Timbaland.

"I do think the affection I get in different countries around the world speaks a lot louder than the criticism," he tells me with no trace of bitterness.

"That's why a lot of these hip-hop artists like what I do. They've not been exposed to the tabloid negatives. They just hear my music as music. They don't come with baggage."

Actually, in person, Collins does come across as one thing that's never been associated with his solo music career until the hip-hoppers began dropping his name: and that's cool. In fact, he's also much leaner and far more compact than he appears on the cover of the albums he's released since 1981. And the casual stubble makes him look like a character in a Guy Ritchie film.

Hip or not, these days Collins is upfront about the fact that his 2010 album Going Back is likely to be his last studio record and that there will be no more extensive live tours - like the globe-crossing Both Sides trek which brought him to SA.

"Never say never, but at the moment I am in a holding pattern," is how he puts it, later admitting that if Going Back sells by the truckload he would consider adding to the handful of live shows he's done in 2010 by undertaking eight or 10 dates every so often.

One hundred million solo albums sold (and another 150-million with Genesis) means Collins is financially comfortable but, more compellingly, he wants to be the kind-of hands-on dad he was never able to be until now. He confides that Peter Gabriel has warned of the dangers of leaving the work to one side in favour of parenting.

"But I've got two young boys and I don't really want to go on a big tour." He indicates the direction of his home and says: "It's 10-minutes away from the boys as opposed to a 10-hour flight."

In reference to his other children, he adds, "Lily went to live in LA with her mom; and Simon and Joely went back to Vancouver with their mom, which makes for a lifetime of negotiation.

"I just realised that no one is going to say, 'You know Phil, why don't you just stop and be with your kids.' So I've decided to take control of my life, which is why I did the Final Farewell tour. The only reason I went back out with Genesis after that is that we had disintegrated when I left - we hadn't said goodbye and that didn't feel right."

No small part of Collins's decision to scale back his live commitments is also the physical beating his body has taken since he first picked up the sticks as a boy. The acclaimed drummer's hands are surprisingly slender, something I notice when he shows me the scar on his arm where surgeons have cut to try alleviate the nerve damage to his hands.

"Halfway through the Genesis tour of America I started to lose feeling and I had great difficulty holding onto the sticks by the end of the evening," Collins tells me.

"I thought it was fatigue of some sort and I remember trying to get heavier sticks because I couldn't get any power. When I finished the tour I thought it would get better and it didn't, so I had an MRI. Straightaway, they saw four vertebra had gone out of alignment and were crushing my spinal cord so I had an operation for that and they are screwed back in place. They assumed that would fix my hands."

It didn't, so there was more cutting - and even though he has to tape his drumsticks to his hands to play now and still lacks sensation in several fingers, Collins is calm about what this means in the long term.

Given his retirement from the live circuit, his parental commitments and his health challenges, the circumstances to record a new album hardly seemed right. But, Collins admits, the decision to record Going Back was entirely selfish.

"It's like when you have a family and have stopped having children but then there's an accident and you have a child that wasn't expected. I could have done this record any time of my life because this music was a huge influence on me from when I started buying records. I just never got around to being brave enough to say I want to do an album of cover versions."

In creating Going Back, Collins quite explicitly never wanted to bring anything new to the songs he loves so much. He wanted to make an "old", not a "new" record.

"Obviously, there are differences. Papa Was a Rolling Stone is just one voice singing it as opposed to five voices. Blame it on the Sun is a little less frantic than Stevie Wonder's version, and Going Back is obviously my own version of the song. But, mostly, we painstakingly recreated the '60s sound on the album."

The recording of a repertoire of songs by the likes of Martha Reeves (first single Heatwave), Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Carole King was aided by three members of The Funk Brothers - bassist Bob Babbitt and guitarists Eddie Willis and Ray Monette - a legendary Motown session outfit.

It's easy for the 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee to trace back where he first heard most of the songs on the new album. The '60s Mod band, The Action, that he idolised as a youngster played all the songs live in various London venues.

"I'd hear the songs and, the next day, go out and buy the original and so my record collection grew until I had everything Motown. Along with The Beatles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and the Atlantic label, that was the backdrop to my life."

Fans have Collins's nine-year-old, Nicholas, to thank for the inclusion of Standing In The Shadows of Love.

"He loves that song, but I told him I didn't know if it would make it onto record because Levi Stubbs's voice is tough to get without parodying it. But he said, 'You have to practice it more, dad,' so I persevered and finally I got it."

In total, Collins recorded 29 tracks for Going Back. With just 18 on the record, the rest will come as part of a special edition version of the album and as regular gifts to signed-up fans.

Collins's New York-based girlfriend, Dana Taylor, was key to the final decision on what eventually made it onto the main release.

"It was like who are we going to give away. Which child of ours are we going to let go?"

In the end, no song made it onto the album for commercial reasons: the 18 on there are just ones that Collins "loved to death". In fact, even the album's cover and title are unashamedly nostalgic in the most personal way. Until early 2010, the album was called 18 Good Reasons and it featured a cover stylised to recall the Motown era. But the chance discovery of a photograph of 13-year-old Collins playing drums in the Getty Images library - taken by an unknown snapper that Collins guesses is either a family member or the photographer for the drama school he attended - caused a change in direction and the result is Going Back. He's proud of the way it's all turned out.

"It's like a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise grey sky," Collins says - and he's right.

Before he leaves for the day, the musician wanders over to where a life-sized roll-up poster of the album cover is being set up in preparation for the next day's round of television interviews.

He stands in front of it and points to the fingers curled around the drumsticks. "Look at how grubby my fingernails were," he says, reaching out to touch the hands that have taken him into hundreds of millions of homes worldwide, the hands that turned him into the kind of artist people adore.