Words and music by Mark Brend.
The return of Bill Fay
16th June 2015

Bill Fay is one of my favourite songwriters. Here are two reviews I wrote of his 2012 album Life Is People – the first of which includes a short interview with Bill himself – and one of his 2015 album Who Is The Sender?

Life Is People
Triumphant return with Indian summer masterpiece
Originally published in Record Collector 2012

Interest in Bill Fay has been quietly building ever since his 1970 self-titled debut and Time Of The Last Persecution (1971) were unearthed in the 90s CD reissue gold-rush. They revealed an unaccountably neglected British talent who lived up to one reviewer’s assessment that he was the missing link between Bob Dylan, Nick Drake and Ray Davies. Since then there have been collections of home demos and Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, an album pieced together from assorted late 70s studio recordings. Now, a mere 41 years after his last try, Fay returns with a new album.

Under the care of American producer Joshua Henry, Fay is joined by a band led by guitarist Matt Deighton. Ray Russell and Alan Rushton, who played on Time Of The Last Persecution, feature on several tracks. Collectively they serve Fay’s songs well, with only the gospel choir on ‘Be At Peace With Yourself’ failing to convince – an unnecessary adornment for a man who has minted his own unique spiritual music.

As for the songs themselves, Fay’s talent is undimmed. ‘This World’, in which Jeff Tweedy lends a hand, sounds a little lightweight, but the rest of the Fay originals bear comparison with the best of late period Dylan, Cohen and Cash. A stark reading of Wilco’s ‘Jesus etc’ tugs at the heartstrings and by the valedictory sign-off to a dying friend, ‘The Coast No Man Can Tell’, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

RC: Life is People seems to pick up some themes from Time of the Last Persecution. Is your worldview now similar to what it was then?

Bill: Yes, I guess ‘City of Dreams’, ‘Empires’, or ‘There is a Valley’, could have been on Time Of The Last Persecution. Even some of Ray Russell’s playing on ‘City of Dreams’, to me, touches on his playing on that album. 1967-70 was a very formative time for me, and the things I came to feel and believe in back then will always be inside me, from ‘Garden Song’ onwards, those kind of things, or worldview, will always colour, or find their way into, a lot of the songs, so yes, still the same…

RC: In all the years when you were as good as forgotten, did you ever think your time would come again?

Bill: No, but back in ’98 I was gardening for someone, and listening to a Walkman cassette of work songs in progress.. On the other side of the tape were some tracks off the first and second albums, that I hadn’t heard in a long time. I found myself thinking, ‘maybe one day they’ll get heard and felt for, as they were good albums’… that evening the phone rang and it was Zig Zag reviewer, Jeff Cloves, telling me that the albums had been re-issued on one cd, and Mojo had made it ‘re-issue of the month’. Shock wasn’t the word.

RC: What next?

Bill: Same as in the garden … back to the Walkman tapes of songs in progress. It’s something I’ve always done, and purposeful enough in itself. It’s second nature, music for its own sake. A song’s a special thing and it’s great to keep finding one. Joshua’s hot on my heels for the next album … but right now it’s back to the keyboard and the songs in progress. It’s been familiar territory for a lot of years now.

Life Is People
Originally published in Art & Music 2012

Bill Fay’s eponymous 1970 debut revealed a peculiarly British knack with tangential quotidian detail. The following year’s Time Of The Last Persecution posited an intense apocalyptic vision, drawn in part from a close reading of the Catholic thinker Teilhard de Chardin. Traces of both survive in Life Is People, Fay’s third fully realized album, released this summer a mere 41 years after the second. The difference is that this is palpably an old man’s album. Fay is now 68 and the wild prophetic voice of youth is tempered with redemptive yearnings, the cosmic sweep and the poetic minutiae distilled in a hard won wisdom.

Fay’s liner notes explain that Life Is People was initiated by American producer Joshua Henry and recorded by a cast of, if not thousands, then quite a few. These included Matt Deighton, 1970s Fay sidemen Ray Russell and Alan Rushton, four members of The London Community Gospel Choir and Jeff Tweedy. For the most part the collective efforts of these and others serve Fay well, only sometimes overwhelming the delicate songs and Fay’s aged croak with a surplus of detail. Most of the album’s many great moments occur when Fay is given space. ‘The Healing Day’ waltzes past with stately gravitas worthy of a better-tempered Van Morrison, while the meshed guitars of album opener ‘There Is A Valley’ bear up Fay’s declamatory vocal with appropriate restraint. Meanwhile, a spare piano and voice rendition of Wilco’s ‘Jesus, Etc’ and the church hall hymnology of ‘The Coast No Man Can Tell’ evoke late period Dylan communing with David Ackles in a North London allotment. Hard to think of a higher recommendation than that.

Who Is The Sender?
Originally published in Art& Music 2015

Bill Fay’s justly lauded 2012 album Life Is People appeared 41 years after its predecessor. A second coming not quite as long anticipated as the one that Fay himself awaits, but near-miraculous even so. That he should return again so soon with another album, and a very good one at that, is almost as remarkable and equally welcome.

Whereas Life Is People was a work of variations – stark and poignant one moment, ominous and brooding the next – Who Is The Sender? sets a mood from the off from which it rarely deviates. Subdued, prayerful and reflective, it’s the sort of record that requires close attention yet is too diffident to demand it. As a background listen it drifts past in a mist of piano, organ and strings, but close scrutiny reveals subtle, intricate detailing. What sounds like uilleann pipes join the piano, organ and cello of ‘The Geese Are Flying Westward’. Double bass and electric guitar combine on ‘A Page Incomplete’ before the drums herald a rare gear change. A string synth graces ‘Bring It On Lord’, the most traditional of Fay’s self-styled alternative gospel. It is all meticulously crafted and considered, with only an oddly squashed and shapeless drum sound grating on a few songs. The album’s one real departure is the closing ‘I Hear You Calling (studio reunion)’, reimagined from the second album of the first phase of Fay’s career, Time Of The Last Persecution (1971). Replete with churchy Hammond and female backing vocals it reminds you of one of those classics like ‘Caribbean Wind’ and ‘Angelina’ that Dylan inexplicably left off Shot Of Love.

Vocally not much has changed since 2012, though the now-septuagenarian Fay’s hesitant self-harmonising on ‘Something Else Ahead’ adds a new dimension. Lyrically his preoccupations remain constant – yearned for redemption, bewildered horror at war, and a prosaic nature mysticism that divines depth of meaning in a buzzing bee or a squirrel hoarding nuts. Fay finds an unlikely and almost certainly accidental kinship with rapper Shai Linne in saluting Christian martyr William Tyndale on what might be the album’s best song, ‘Freedom To Read’. This finds Fay standing ruminatively in a garden in London, staring up at a statue of Tyndale and memorialising a man burnt at the stake by a ‘dark religious cult’. This can be read as a microcosm of Fay’s entire career: passing unnoticed through the city where he’s lived all his life, conjuring into being simultaneously odd, quiet and plain speaking insights into subjects beyond the farthest reach of any music trend, a living antidote to self-aggrandising rock hyperbole.

In infrequent interviews Fay indicates that he never stopped writing through his wilderness decades, a claim borne out by a collection of late 70s/early 80s studio recordings released in 2005 as Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow. That Fay should remain faithful to his muse through all those silent years to re-emerge now, blinking and bemused, as one of England’s finest songwriters is a cause for continuing gratitude.