New York -- "Michael J. Fox was on a morning show the other day, and I feel a bit sorry for him," says Phil Collins, as he sits in a conference room at his record company's Manhattan offices. "He had the TV show, 'Family Ties,' and now the guy's trying to act, but nobody will really take him seriously until he gets that role that will change everybody's minds.
"I feel like that, in a way."
Given Collins' track record, it's hard to imagine him worrying about being taken seriously. After all, he's one of the most accomplished and versatile musicians in rock. He toured with Robert Plant, did Live Aid with Led Zeppelin, sang R&B; with Philip Bailey, recorded art rock with Brian Eno, played fusion jazz with Brand X and produced tracks for Eric Clapton, Stephen Bishop, Howard Jones and Frida (formerly of ABBA), among others.
That would be career enough for most people, but it's just a sideline for Collins. His real work is split between Genesis, the mega-popular trio he's fronted since 1976, and his solo career, which has so far produced seven albums -- including "Both Sides of the Story," which is due out Tuesday -- and five chart-topping singles.
So why does he feel no one will take him seriously?
Frankly, it's because he's perceived as being just a little too nice to be a serious rock star. Mick Jagger candidly admits he's got nasty habits, Pete Townshend is always busting things up, and even Sting hasn't been afraid to show the snarl beneath his smile.
But Collins? He's always seemed Mr. Hail Fellow Well Met, the kind of pop star who not only readily gives autographs, but
seems to enjoy doing it.
"There's nothing wrong with being nice," he says, shifting in his ,, seat. "It's just that it all adds up. Nice equals mediocrity, and being all right but nothing special. Which is maybe what I am, I don't know.
"Ultimately, what does it matter? I've got millions of people out there that want to buy the records, and that like what I do. But in a way, I'm more interested in the millions of people that don't buy the records, and why they don't."
Don't get him wrong -- what motivates Collins isn't greed or the desire to chalk up more No. 1's. "I'm more interested in why those people don't like me. It's almost like I would take a cut in salary to get more respect, you know what I mean?
"I always end up talking about this," he adds. "And I always feel like it's a waste of time, because I don't have anything to worry about. I make music that I like, that I believe in, and that a lot of other people relate to and like. That should be the end of the story.
"But a bit of reassessment certainly wouldn't go amiss, as far as I'm concerned."
Particularly now. Because "Both Sides of the Story" is perhaps the most intensely personal album Collins has ever made. Some of that has to do with the fact that Collins recorded the album by himself -- he does all the singing, plays all the instruments -- at his home in England, with only a few parts overdubbed in the studio.
He'd always done demo versions of his songs at home, but when he was copying a demo to digital audio tape at the Farm (Genesis' studio in Chiddingfold, England), he noticed that his home recording was clean and quiet enough to release as-is.
"I thought, 'This is interesting,' " he says. "I could actually go home, finish the lyrics, and record the lyrics at home with no headphones -- just me with my finger on play and record. Make them up as I go along, and really sing whatever I want to sing. And it was great to be able to do that."
It wasn't just that he liked the spontaneity, either. "I didn't want to go into the studio, and go behind the plate glass with the headphones on," he says. "Much as I respect the engineer and assistant engineer's opinion, I didn't want it to be something where I'd sing and say, 'Is that all right?' I wanted to get all that out of the way, and just do it. And I believe I got better performances vocally as a result."
There's another reason Collins preferred privacy, though, and that has to do with the nature of the songs he's written. Unlike his last couple albums, which often tended toward light and cheerful pop, the songs on "Both Sides of the Story" are full of restless emotions and anxious regret. It's not self-pity, exactly, but a relentless form of self-examination, one which seems to find him looking hard at where life has taken him, and not always rejoicing at what he's found.
As such, Collins is a bit hesitant about explaining what, precisely, prompted these songs. "Everything you hear on that record happened," he says. "It's not me putting myself in another situation.
"But I'm not going to lay out the various reasons behind them. I'm just going to say the lyrics are there -- make up your own story."
He does, however, want to make sure we understand a couple things about the album. "There are a couple of things you have to take out of the picture," he says. "The more straight-ahead, up-front, pseudo-intellectual journalists in England have said, 'So, your marriage is breaking up.' And I said, 'Oh, no, no. My marriage is great.' Then they say, OK, then you miss your ex-wife.' "
Collins makes a face, and you begin to understand why he's so weary of the rock press.
"No, no, no. Take both those things out of the picture. The fact is that there are ghosts that won't lie down. There are bridges that you just cannot burn, because they just won't go away. That basically sums it all up."
He also mentions that despite the emotional weight of these songs, he enormously enjoyed writing them. "In a way, they were the happiest of things to write, because I felt that I really hit the nail square on the head; I mean, for me, personally. A song like 'I've Forgotten Everything About You' and 'Can't Turn Back the Years' sums up exactly what I mean.
"So I was very happy when that happens, because you actually completed something you think, 'Yeah, this is exactly what I want to say.'
"And yet they're very sad songs."
Collins isn't really sure how the album will be received. The title tune is already doing well as a single, and industry expectations are that the album will do well, but Collins refuses to be suckered by false confidence.
"People are saying, 'Well, you've got nothing to worry about' . . . But it's been four years since a record of mine, and nothing is a foregone conclusion anymore," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen."
But he does know what he'd like. "I'd like to think a few people will be surprised by it," he says. "I think it's that different an album. There's more space in the record than there has been before. It really is more of a late-night album.
"What I've done here is something that I'm really proud of," he adds. "And if people don't get it, then they're not going to get anything I do."
LISTEN TO COLLINS
You can hear excerpts from Phil Collins' new release, "Both Sides of the Story," on Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service.
You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800, or from Anne Arundel County, (410) 268-7736. After the greeting, punch in 6146.