Phil Collins on Almost Working With Adele on '25' and Secretly Reuniting With His Ex-Wife

Patrick Balls
“I stopped going into the studio because I was sad, but now I’m getting a taste of it again,” says Collins.

Phil Collins is trying to get back on his feet -- literally. A dislocated vertebra, nerve damage and foot fractures have left him feeling like he's walking "on sticks," he tells Billboard; he has been unable to play drums properly since around 2007. But the Genesis singer/drummer-turned-solo star, 64, is aiming for a comeback, beginning with reissues of his 1982 solo debut, Face Value, and 1992's Both Sides (out Jan. 29 on Rhino Entertainment) featuring rare demos and reshot cover art. The British icon spoke candidly with Billboard about his health issues, ending his retirement and working with Adele -- and reveals he's back with his third ex-wife, Orianne Cevey.

How's your health?
I don't know if I'll ever be fit enough to play the drums again on tour. My left arm has changed -- it's a neural thing. The back surgery I had was great -- I mean, how good can surgery be? But it was problem-free. But then when I was recovering on crutches, I fell and fractured my foot. When I recovered from foot surgery, I fell again and fractured another part of the same foot. My right foot now is completely numb. It could be a year or three months to get feeling back -- I have no idea. I’ve warmed to the idea of getting back to work in some respect after avoiding it for a couple of years. I’ve got a studio in the Miami house. Once my guys get back form their holidays, they’ll plug it all up and I’ll start working.

You've also struggled with alcohol, particularly after your 2008 divorce from Orianne. Are you still sober?
I'm doing well -- it's the third year. I had retired to be with my kids in Switzerland, but then they left to go to Miami with their mom [Cevey, after the divorce]. I'd wake up, turn the TV on and have a glass of wine. You look up at the end of the day and you've knocked off a couple of bottles -- and you're still sober! I spent way too much time horizontal. It started to be bad for my body. I almost died. My organs were beginning to shut down. But I'm all right now. I bought [a house in Miami] about six months ago. I'm actually back with my third wife -- I haven't really talked about it. We've been together for a while, and nobody's noticed.

Will you be touring in the future?
My 14-year-old and my 11-year-old want me to do more shows so they can listen to it and brag to their friends. I intend on doing some things. I don’t want to go away for months. But it can be done differently. You know, Billy Joel does Madison Square Garden every month. Or I could do small theaters. All I have to do is give some sort of indiction to my manager. Because I have told him, “Don’t keep asking me, otherwise we’re through, darling.” [Laughs] He just needs the word. I’m close.

Do you have stuff to write about?
I don’t know. Nothing depressing this time. [Laughs]. I just need to get back in that saddle. That could be the reason, though: I haven’t really had the drive to write. Life is great. I’m back with my kids and wife. I never went into the studio because I was sad; it just happened. And now it’s been too long a wait. You forget what it’s like. You get a bit scared. [You wonder,] “What happens if nothing happens?” But I’m getting a taste of it.


 

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Where were you as a man when you were creating Face Value?
It didn’t start until my first marriage fell apart. I’d come back from a very long tour with Genesis to an empty house. It was very sad to come back to, but it was a long tour. I was asking a lot of my wife. I told the band and my tour manager that I was going to Vancouver to follow her and try to sort it out. They all took time to do their solos then. I went to Vancouver for a couple of months and nothing really changed. And when I came back, they were in the middle of their albums. So I had a lot of time on my hands to get a little studio together, which was really this one-inch eight-track in my master bedroom. It wasn’t soundproofed or nothing. I had my grand piano and I just started playing it. I started coming up with these songs and mostly improvised lyrics. So the album kind of wrote itself. I didn’t work too hard at it.

Is it hard revisiting tough times in your life with these reissues?
I'm probably as much to blame as anyone else, but Face Value is often referred to as "the divorce album." Really it isn't. There are songs like "This Must Be Love" that are talking about meeting my second wife, Jill [Tavelman]. Some people say to me, "It must be painful." But it's not painful anymore. I might get some stick from it from the ex-wives, but that's it. When I perform "Against All Odds," people want to believe that I'm really reliving it -- but you can't! You know you're not feeling the way you felt when you wrote it. I'm not mentally revisiting my exes.

You’re heavily influenced by R&B, which can be heard on Face Value, especially on “I Missed Again,” which features Earth Wind & Fire’s horn section. Did you ever attempt to get certain songs played on R&B stations? 
I had a bit of a hiccup. I went to see Henry Allen, who was the head of R&B at Atlantic. I said I’d like to put “I Missed Again” out to see if I can get played on urban radio. He was very skeptical. He said, “No, man. You’re white.” I said, “I know. But you don’t have to put my face on the cover.” I wasn’t that big back then. I said, “They won’t know the difference.” He said, “They’ll know.” [Laughs]. I was hitting brick walls back then. But the Isley Brothers covered “If Leaving Me is Easy.” That was a huge thrill to me. I’ve been very fortunate to have been adopted by the urban community.

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You were supposed to work on Adele's 25, but it didn't work out. What happened?
She sent me a piece of music that I began working on, but then she was very difficult to find. She had a kid -- all this [personal] stuff was happening to her, unbeknownst to me. I sent her an email asking, "Am I waiting for you, or are you waiting for me?" I found out she's a bit of a ghost -- Ryan Tedder told me that. You may not hear from her for a while. So nothing came of it. I was very pleased to hear [it], because she's being asked about this with the release of her new album, that she said, "It was too early, and I was too scared." That's better than "He was terrible." I was very grateful for her gentle way of looking at it.

Do you think Genesis will ever reunite and tour?
It depends. I don’t see the [Peter] Gabriel Genesis reunion happening. But if people are interested in the rest of us, I don’t know. I can’t give anybody any hope. But that door isn’t closed.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of Billboard.