Appearing to be ordinary has made Phil Collins extraordinarily wealthy. His simple, unambitious music must strike a cord with a lot of ordinary people, because he has now sold 70 million records as a solo artist - more than he did in 25 years with Genesis. Owning a Phil Collins CD has become part of normal British suburban life, like driving a family saloon, mowing the lawn on Sunday or owning furniture from Ikea. It's just done. People tell Phil Collins they buy his records because they feel he relates to them. He understands their lives. He lives it too, in a way that could never be said of other, more eccentric platinum artists like Michael Jackson, or even Elton John. Never mind that he was a child actor on the West End stage, joined bands early in life and has been at the top of the rock tree since the Seventies. Never mind that as director of Philip Collins Ltd he earned pounds 12.6m in 1992. Never mind the home on Sunset Boulevard that he only stayed in one night. None of this stopped people feeling he was one of them.
"I feel close to the man in the street," he told Q magazine three years ago. "But I'm constantly told I couldn't possibly be, because of who I am." Yes, he had a lovely big house and a BMW, he said, but "I don't have people doing for me all the time. I have a drink in my local and I do the shopping at Budgen's in Billingshurst."
Not any more, he doesn't. That all stopped when he split up with his second wife, Jill, in 1994. She got the house in England, along with Cole Porter's old home in LA and "a lot of money" as a divorce settlement. Phil Collins left behind his young daughter, his good mates at the local in Sussex, and his regular chores at the supermarket, to go and live by the shores of Lake Geneva with a beautiful Swiss woman half his age. How ordinary is that?
Bounding into the room like one of the Jack Russell dogs with which he often compares himself, Phil Collins was matey and alert. He was small and wiry, the handshake firm and the eye contact immediate. He looked exactly like you would expect: like a man who had come to fix the plumbing. In reality, he had come from the studio across the road, where his latest record was being mixed. Dressed for work, he was wearing simple white canvas pumps and faded blue jeans,with a mushroom-grey, long-sleeved polo shirt that appeared to have come from Marks & Sparks. Actually, it was Emporio Armani, a present from his girlfriend.
Asked about clothes, he answered with the mixture of pleasure and embarrassment you would expect from a working-class Lottery millionaire who didn't want good fortune to change his life. A few years ago he had fallen under the sartorial influence of Eric Clapton, a fan of Versace, but that had waned. "As a non-shopper, I liked the fact that I could go to one shop, even though it cost an arm and a leg. But I think old Gianni's gone crazy, he's gone too far out. It's all very gaudy, not my kind of thing." He would never buy Armani or Versace underwear, he said. That would be going too far. So what did he have on now? "Actually, Calvin Klein," he laughed, found out. "But they were given to me. There are people who pay pounds 60 for a pair of socks. Not me."
Mention of Clapton reopened an old wound. How come he had to struggle to be taken seriously, but Eric could get up and sing the blues in a pounds 5,000 Versace suit and get away with it? "You believe him. But if I sing about the homeless, people tend to be more suspicious, and that's frustrating." He would like to be more hip, that's for sure. For a short time in the Seventies he was - after taking over from Peter Gabriel as lead singer in Genesis, at a time when dope-fuelled prog rock was very much in vogue. He is a serious drummer, who has played with "proper" artists like Brian Eno, John Cale and his own jazz band Brand X. This summer he toured with a 20-piece big band that made its debut at the Royal Albert Hall, with Quincy Jones conducting and Tony Bennett on vocals, in front of Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela.
But for all his earnestness, he will never be fashionable. Since his balding head and sharp features became ubiquitous, with the launch of his solo career 15 years ago, he has been seen as that cheeky chappie who works hard for the Prince's Trust and who even managed to portray the Great Train Robber Buster Edwards as a cute, homesick hero. True, his most memorable song, "In the Air Tonight", is a dark and bitter thing that features the line: "If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand." True, he sang it on Top of the Pops with a paint can and brush on the piano, because his first wife had just left him for a painter and decorator. True, he told Jill it was all over by fax. But try as he might - and he does - he's still seen as Mr Nice Guy.
His new record won't change that. "Dance Into the Light" is a perky little single, due for release tomorrow, in advance of an album of the same name. It's the same old thing - driving rhythm, bright horns and a catchy chorus - if a bit more upbeat than we're used to. Sipping at mineral water, he gave an explanation of the song that was embarrassing in its naivete. "As I was writing it, I was imagining walking down a street somewhere in a township in South Africa, and I was imagining these people inside these derelict buildings looking out as if to say: `What's going on? What's happening?' And [me] saying: `You can come out. Everything's changing. It's OK. It's one world, one voice.' Everybody coming out and joining in a carnival."
Somebody had spent too much time with Michael Jackson, it seemed. There was more: "It's obviously deeper than that ... well different to that, I don't know how deep it is ... it's finding freedom. Telling people that freedom is here. I'm sure there is a parallel with me having changed, and finding my freedom." Pardon? Freedom from what? Money does not buy love - we know that - but it does buy a plane ticket to Acapulco. Or Switzerland. How many of his fans can "escape their chains" so easily?
"I have to follow up by saying that I was not chained, bound and gagged in my marriage," he had the decency to say. "I had a good marriage. It just went wrong. Nevertheless I have found a freedom of sorts, with my life here. I went through a dark period, just before the marriage stopped, when I had a brief liaison with an old friend of mine, and it all went very dark and stormy. Now I'm out of that."
The woman who lifted his darkness was Orianne Cevey, a 24-year-old PR manager from Geneva, who was asked to act as a guide when Collins played Lausanne in April 1994. "By the time we got from the airport to the hotel, I was in love with her." He never went home. When the British tabloids found out, "the shit hit the fan" and the couple were front-page news for weeks. Having used the same papers to promote his music, and having built up relationships with the people who worked for them, he knew what to expect. It was the ferocity and duration of the attention that got to him. "I've never been in any doubt that I am public property," he said. "But they went way past the finishing line for a lap of honour, as far as I'm concerned. That's what really pissed me off."
Didn't his glamorous new lifestyle make the "man in the street" image rather implausible? "You're assuming that's an angle, something I've worked at," he said, defensively. "There are no pubs here, but I still go shopping with Orianne at whatever the Swiss equivalent of Budgen's is. To people who live here, London's glamorous. This place is a bit more expensive to live but I have stripped down my life to the bare essentials." In Sussex, he lived in an 11-bedroom mansion in 14 acres of land ("although my mansion wasn't as big as George Harrison's ..."). Now he and Orianne lived in a rented, terraced house with three bedrooms, in a village on the shores of the lake, although they were about a rent a larger property belonging to the racing driver Jackie Stewart.
"We don't have staff, even at the new house," he said. Then, after a pause, he added: "We have a housekeeper, obviously ..."
His life in Geneva was much as it had been in Sussex, he said: going out for a meal or getting a take-away, visiting friends - although most of the time now he had to speak French. His mum, sister and brother flew or drove over to Geneva quite often. He missed Lily, his youngest daughter. Ronnie, his oldest friend from Chiswick County Grammar School, had just joined the band. Primary-school reunions still held an attraction; the day before we met, he had written to someone who had been in his class.
He did regret leaving his local pub. "It became a place where I felt very comfortable. I got to know the landlord very well." If anyone asked for an autograph, the place would fall silent. "Down there they either liked me or not because of who I was, not because of who they thought I was. I miss that. I miss them, anyway."
Leaning back into the plush armchair, legs stretched out, he wanted me to know that he did not think or act like a rich person. "I've been to look at houses in this country that I would like to buy, and the lifestyle is that of a very wealthy person, even if they're not half as wealthy as I am. Someone opens the door in a white jacket and black trousers, takes you inside and gives you a drink ...
"I'm basically a bloke from Hounslow that's been very lucky and done very well for himself, from a lower-middle-class/upper-working-class family and I have been earning my money while I've been working. I don't enjoy my money."
He felt "a deep guilt" at earning so much for doing what he enjoyed. It hurt to be seen as a cold-eyed businessman. So did the criticism he got for "Another Day in Paradise", a song about homelessness for which he was widely ridiculed. Lots of artists write about things they have never experienced, and some make very effective art in doing so - but somehow, earnest social concern was harder to take from a man whose music had seemed during the Eighties to be a soundtrack to middle-class comfort. His argument was that the song raised awareness. Others would want him to back up concern with cash, I said.
"Well, if you knew how much money I give away..."
That's the point, I said. We don't, do we?
"No, `we' don't. It's like Tony Hancock [in the Blood Donor] - do you put a badge on saying: `He gave so that others may live'? No you don't. You don't talk about charity. I mean, I do give a fuck of a lot of money away."
How much I asked? "I would say, every year, into the hundreds of thousands of pounds, to individuals that I've never met."
He had a secretary, who passed on letters she felt required a personal response. "Usually it's inner-city things, or under-privileged kids whose parents can't afford stuff. For the price of an Armani jacket I can send five kids on holiday." His voice softened as he spoke of a letter he had received, in scrawly handwriting, from an 11-year-old boy, saying: "Dear Phil Collins, I am writing to you because I love your music. My mummy tells me I have a very bad disease called Aids ... what really is a shame is that my friends won't play with me anymore." Touched, the singer responsed with a signed photograph and a cheque for pounds 100, so that little Alan could buy some toys. Three months later he received another letter, in the same handwriting, from the same place. It started: "Dear Phil Collins, I am a big fan of yours. I am not very well at the moment, I have leukaemia..."
Smiling broadly at the memory, Phil Collins said: "I wrote, `Dear Alan, I am very sorry that you have leukaemia ... although I'm very pleased that you got over Aids." The reply came back from an 18-year-old student who confessed he had invented "Alan" because he was desperate for money. The signed photograph was returned. Laughing, Collins said: "If he'd just written asking for the money I would have given it to him."
He might have, too. It would not be possible to verify all the stories he told me about people he had given money to, but let's assume that they're true. Including the one about the man who knocked on his door and asked for pounds 8,000 to prevent his house being repossessed. He got it, on the spot - and, two years later, turned up unannounced to repay his debt. "You put it out there, to see if your wrist is going to get slapped, but it didn't," said Collins. Unfortunately the man chose to thank him through the pages of the Daily Mirror, which led to even more begging letters.
"I'm trying to do the best I can, inside what restrictions I have. I'm not going to do a Peter Green," he said, referring to the former Fleetwood Mac guitarist, "and give it all away."
Why not? "Why? I guess it's because there's an inbred thing that says, `You've earned it and you need it for a rainy day'."
That would be a hell of a lot of rain. "Yeah. But how much money do people think I have in my pocket? I'm told I'm very well off, but I don't think about it."
Telling the stories, doing the voices, he had been animated and funny. Now we had moved on to direct questions, he was shifting in his chair. Did it bother him to talk about money like this? "Yeah, it does bother me, because it's too easy an automatic assumption. I know what I am. I know my intentions. I know what is important to me and what isn't, and what I mean - oh, to be articulate - it's just that ... I don't go home and [he rubbed his hands like Scrooge and sniffed the air] smell the cheque book. It's not really of that great an importance to me. It's great that I have it, because I know that my kids never need to worry. Me and mine never need to worry."
His ex-wife Jill used to go to the cashpoint each week and get out pounds 300 for the pair of them. He did not even know how much he made from each live appearance. So who did? "My manager, my accountant. I never really think to ask. As long as at the end of the tour I say: `Did we lose money or did we make money?"
Didn't that make him pretty vulnerable? "Well, yeah, but people are innocent until proved guilty. I'm sure Sting said that before his accountant ran off with his money."
We talked for far longer than was scheduled. He wanted me to know that he cared. He cared about the homeless. He cared about kids in the townships. He cared what we thought of him. It troubled him that people thought he had threatened to leave Britain if the Labour Party got into power. "The amount of mail I got from people, like nurses, saying: `I used to buy your records, I'm not buying them any more."
His comments had been made in protest at the idea of paying more than 50 per cent tax, not against the Labour Party, he said. "I am not a Conservative. Let it be known here and now. Half-and-half, I can handle that - but not more than I'm getting. That's not fair. If you imagine that because I have a lot of money I don't think like that, then you're wrong."
He wrote back to many of the critics in person. "Some of them really ... moved me. Some of them upset me, 'cos they'd got the wrong end of the stick. They're going around thinking that I'm a person that I'm not. That's why I'm going on so much now. If you were to leave the room, and after you'd gone I was to say, `what a fucking arsehole he is,' you wouldn't like it. That's how I feel: I feel that I'm walking out and you - or other people that do this -have an impression of me, that they are going to write about and other people are going to read. So the ripples get bigger and bigger, and it becomes completely separate from what is actually the real thing. That's why I try, badly, to correct it."
Maybe Phil Collins is not just a natural actor, with a gift for making people feel at ease. Maybe he's a nice bloke who really does care what you and I think of him. Maybe he does still feel ordinary inside. He seemed genuinely uncomfortable with his wealth. Afterwards, wandering along the lakeside with a pounds 5 hot-dog, I thought he seemed to be an awful long way from Hounslow. !