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The Strange and Wonderful Return of Cult Hero Bill Fay

Bill Fay / Photo by Steve Gullick

Life Is People was made by a ghost. Or at it least it may have seemed that way to the small congregation of music fans who’ve been haunted by Bill Fay. More than 40 years ago, Fay, then a young Londoner, released two stunning albums of ambitiously produced and spiritually minded folk rock. Both 1970’s Bill Fay and the following year’s Time of the Last Persecution sold squat, and were eventually deleted. But not dead. Though Fay faded from view, over time his albums came to be seen as hidden gifts by the likes of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who has covered Bill Fay‘s “Be Not So Fearful” live.

Fay, who supported himself with odd jobs over the years, did make some low-budget recordings in the late ’70s and early ’80s, (later released as Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow), but he hadn’t much reason to think he would ever cut another proper album until he got an unexpected phone call from American producer Joshua Henry, urging him to put his sensitive, searching, singular vision back into the world. The fragile, gorgeous Life Is People, out August 21 on Dead Oceans, is the result.

Speaking on the phone from his home, Fay, still a Londoner but now in his late sixties, spoke carefully and humbly about his return.

First off, I want to say thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
It’s my pleasure, David. Can I ask you how you came to hear the music?

Oh, sure. Do you mean the new album or the older stuff?
Well, I should think the older stuff.

I think I probably read about it in one of those “Buried Treasure” pieces that magazines sometimes do.
Yeah, the reason I ask is because my music was deleted for 27 years and it’s interesting to know how somebody does come across it. Before you ask anything, David, can I say a couple things that you might, perhaps, include in your piece?

Please. Of course.
People are saying that the new album was my first time in the studio in 40 years. But in reality, well, it’s been a long time — 30 years. The musicians I worked with 30 years ago gave a hell of a lot and the end result was a studio-finished album [Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow]. Obviously, nothing came of that album but it doesn’t read very fair to those musicians who helped make it to put that it’s been 40 years instead of 30. Thirty years is a long time, but for their sake if you could leave this bit in, I’d appreciate it.

I will. Thank you for clarifying.
And the only other thing I was going to say was that I think it’s important to mention that the engineer [for Life Is People], Guy Massey, did an enormous, astonishing amount of work. So if there’s space and you could mention that, that would be great. Otherwise, you fire away and I’ll do my best to answer. I’m not used to all this.

That’s totally okay. Throughout the years, did you have a sense that people were finding your music? Or did you feel that your work had vanished?
Up until 1998, when some people reissued my albums, as far as I was concerned, I was gone, deleted. No one was listening. But then I got the shock that people remembered my music. I was doing some gardening, and listening to some of my songs on cassette, and a part of me thought they were quite good. I thought, “Maybe somebody will hear them someday.” That same evening, 14 years ago, I got a call from a music writer telling me that my two albums were being reissued. A shock is not gonna get much bigger than that, David.

Did you feel proud?
It was astonishing to me. I won’t ever really be able to believe that it happened. That’s how I feel about it. I had come to terms with the fact that I was deleted, but that I had always kept writing songs anyway and that was good enough. Did your hunger for writing songs ever diminish? Was it disheartening to keep writing when you thought no one was paying any attention?
No. I wrote when I was young as well and never thought anyone would listen. My sister-in-law showed me a little party piece on the piano when I was 14 or 15 years old and from then on writing songs was a natural thing to do. It became second nature. It’s great to find a song, finish it, and move on to the next one. That’s how it is with me, really.

When it became clear that you’d be writing songs for a new studio album, were you nervous or apprehensive? It seems to me that it might be daunting to know that there were going to be so many more listeners for your music after it was so secret for so long.
All of it was fundamentally unbelievable, so I wouldn’t say I was nervous. This album had a life of it’s own. It just fell into place. It was at peace with itself. I was walking into the unknown, but the people who helped me make it were really nice, and great players. It was exactly right. Though I did have to relearn some things on the piano.

Being able to hear recorded versions of your songs for the first time in so long, and hearing them interpreted by musicians — do you think that anything has changed in your writing style over the years?
I guess most of my stuff is kind of like, predominantly plaintive. I think anything in general that I wrote would go back to the formative years of around ’67 to 1970. Everything is a variation on those albums. That’s what I feel. I’m committed to the conscious song, so therefore, lyrically, there will always be variations on similar themes. Hopefully my new songs are as melodically strong as my old ones. Perhaps the earlier albums had a young man’s urgency on them. I don’t know whether somebody might think, “Oh, [Life Is People] is substantially different.” I think there are probably links. Do you think that?

I think the album sounds like you.
Right. Thank you.

Given how your career has gone, do you have any expectations at all about where your new music might go or who might hear it?
It’s just — it’s really very hard for me to come to terms with the fact that it exists. Just as much as it was for me to come to terms with the fact that my old music was no longer deleted. It’s all a shock. So it’s a hard question to answer. I seem to understand that some people are eager to hear it. That’s good. I know I’ve made a good album. I do know that. But that is very much down to the players and Guy Massey and Joshua Henry. So therefore I see the album as something they’ve achieved, which makes it special to me. But I’m trying to take it all in.

Thanks for your time, Bill. I’m glad you’re back.
Thank you, David. Do you think you might be able to put in the piece that I made the album with the Tomorrow band?

I promise.
Okay. What are you gonna do now, David?

I think I’m going to go get a sandwich.
Thanks for your time, David. You take care.