"It's something that I never thought I'd be allowed to do, for some strange reason," said Collins, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. "You don't always feel that you're in control of your own career, your own destiny."
But now, after stepping out of the spotlight for a while, Collins, 59, has re-emerged with Going Back, a collection of covers by artists including Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Temptations and Carole King.
The album, released late last month, is a loving tribute that faithfully recreates seminal songs such as "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and "Jimmy Mack" note-for-note.
It's unlikely that his version of "Going to a Go-Go" will top the charts. But Collins, whose string of hits includes "Against All Odds" and "In the Air Tonight," isn't interested in chasing that kind of success.
"The Phil Collins that we've all become used to doesn't really exist anymore. I've written him out of the script," he said in a recent interview. "So there's just me now, and I'm a new Phil Collins."
The Associated Press: Some people will see this project as another veteran singer doing a throwback record. Is this different?
Collins: For me, it's not an album that suggests that I'm drying up. I mean, there was a review that I saw for a Peter Gabriel album. ... The reviewer said that it's what normally happens when artists get to a certain age, they start drying up with material and they start to cover other people's material. Well, I object your honor. I've kind of being doing Motown stuff ... so for me this has been an album that's been waiting to come out, waiting to be done, all my professional life.
AP: Why do albums by artists covering the classics do so well commercially?
Collins: It shows what's lacking in today's music, that people want to go back and hear the old music. It's like the recycling of Beatles' material. There's nothing like it, and so people always go back to it, and with Motown, there is nothing like it. ... I can't come to the defense of every other artist who has done this kind of thing. It is a commercial exercise. ... I just hope I did a good job and I hope somebody else likes it.
AP: Have you ever heard a remake that you considered heresy, or conversely, thought was amazing?
Collins: Whitney Houston ... did a Stevie Wonder track ("I Was Made to Love Her") ... but that was good. She did it totally differently. ... The Stones' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," the Stones' "Going to a Go-Go" - they're pretty awful. ... But they weren't out to recreate it. It's the Rolling Stones doing those songs.
AP: Are there songs today that you wish you had written or that you could record?
Collins: I don't really have an ear to the ground of what's going on out there, at all ... I'm just interested in what I'm doing. I used to feel bad about it. But then I read an interview with Roger Waters, who said, "You know what? I really couldn't give an (expletive) about what other people are doing because all I'm interested in is what I'm doing, and that takes up all my time." (Laughs.) And suddenly I thought, that's really the way I feel about it but I was always too polite to say something else.
AP: How is the new Phil Collins different from the old one?
Collins: I'm just trying to get out of everybody's face. The old Collins was in everybody's face at the time because I worked all the time. ... I've done an awful lot of stuff and I feel like it's time to get a break from that, so I'm sort of reinventing myself a little bit, so the old Phil Collins has been written out of the script, and this is the new Phil Collins, who's much quieter, and not such a pain in the (butt).
AP: I imagine there are a lot of offers to bring back the old Phil Collins.
Collins: I realize that I can go on rewriting and writing and rewriting "Against All Odds" all my life, but you really only write one of those songs once in your life. ... The new Phil Collins is saying no to everything so that the new Phil Collins can have a bit of time with his family.
AP: You say your life revolves around your children. What are some of the things that occupy you?
Collins: I've never really been able to take (my three adult children) to school. I missed out on all that stuff, so now I'm able to catch up and do it with my two little guys. And in doing it, I realize how much my older kids, how much they missed my part of growing up, and how much I missed of them, so it's very, very important.