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5:21 am
Sun August 19, 2012

Bill Fay: A Cult Figure Returns, Skeptical But Optimistic

Originally published on Sun August 19, 2012 3:19 pm

In the early 1970s, British musician Bill Fay recorded a couple of luscious folk albums — which didn't sell very well. Fay was dropped from label after label, and though he continued to write his storybook songs over the years, he eventually fell off the map.

Shortly after the turn of the millenium, Fay's songs were reissued, and with endorsements from the likes of Nick Cave and Jim O'Rourke, acheived a kind of cult status. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy even covered his tune "Be Not So Fearful," which he can be heard singing in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

While much of Fay's exposure in the last decade or so is due to avid music lovers discovering his lost songs in forgotten record collections or through covers like Tweedy's, he's becoming one of the world's most famous "unknown" musicians. Fay chatted with NPR's Linda Wertheimer from the studios of the BBC in London about his first studio album in more than 40 years, Life is People, and the attention he's getting after all of those years away.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Could you tell us the genesis of this CD? I gather that an American record producer named Joshua Henry found your music in his father's record collection and listened to it as a kid.

BILL FAY: That's right; his dad had them before the reissues that you mentioned. I mean, I'd been deleted for 27 years up to that point. You get used to home recording when you've been deleted for 27 years. Like I said to a recent music magazine — I think it's been referred to as a comeback album — you can't make a comeback album unless you arrive in the first place. I'm getting a little bit worried that I'm coming close to arriving.

One song that stands out for me is "City of Dreams," which tells the tale of a street sweeper. Who is he?

That's a 15-year-old song, first off. In one sense, the street sweeper is myself. The street sweeper is kind of looking up at the sky, the clouds, seeing through the city of dreams. He's looking for something more real and he's looking for a change. So, I'm kind of identifying with the street sweeper in this song.

You have a listener in your young producer, who knew who you were because he heard your music when he was a kid. But, there's a whole generation of listeners out there who don't know about you. This music is aimed at them — how do you think they'll like it?

I don't look at it like that. Your aim is to kind of fulfill the song and how it feels to you. I think Joshua would agree that we were aiming to produce an album that we really felt for. We are only listeners anyways ... if we feel for it, then chances are someone else will feel for it. That's the power of music, isn't it? What will happen to it — I can't really reach that, Linda. I don't kind of think like that. I'm a bit taken back by even sitting here talking to you.

Let's talk about the "Cosmic Concerto," which is on the Life Is People recording. What's the story that you're telling here?

When I was on holidays with my dad as a kid, we'd sit in seaside cafes and he'd watch people walking by. ... He was astonished at it and he would say, 'Life is people.' That was quite emotional for me, to sort of have him on board so to speak on his own view on life.

Are you ready to get back into it — touring, promotion, record contracts, all of the stuff that goes along with a new record these days?

[Laughing] No, I should just go back to what I've always done — go back to the pile of songs in progress and, just quietly in the corner of the room, work on songs.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In early 1970s, British musician Bill Fay recorded a couple of luscious albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE NOT SO FEARFUL")

BILL FAY: (Singing) Be not so nervous, be not so frail. Someone watches you, you will not fail. Be not so nervous, be not so frail...

WERTHEIMER: Beautiful though it is, Bill Fay's music did not sell well then, and although he kept writing tunes over the years, he kind of fell off the map. And then, in the late 1990s, his songs were reissued and achieved a kind of cult status among musicians like Nick Cave, Jim O'Rourke and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who covered this tune, "Be Not So Fearful." Now, in his late 60s, Bill Fay is releasing his first new studio recordings in decades. The album is called "Life is People."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HEALING DAY")

FAY: (Singing) It'll be OK on the healing day. No more gone astray on the healing day...

WERTHEIMER: That is "The Healing Day" and it's from Bill Fay's new CD "Life is People." Mr. Fay joins us from our studios at the BBC in London. Bill Fay, welcome.

FAY: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Could you tell us the genesis of this CD? I gather that an American record producer named Joshua Henry found your music in his father's record collection. He listened to it as a kid?

FAY: That's right. He dad had them before the reissues that you mentioned. I mean, I'd been deleted for 27 years up to that point, so you get used to home recording, you know, when you've been deleted for 27 years. I mean, you get used to it. Like I said to a recent music magazine, I think it was being referred to as a comeback album. I mean, you can't make a comeback album unless you were right in the first place. I'm getting a bit worried that I'm getting closed to arriving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WERTHEIMER: Well now, one song that stands out for me on this CD is "City of Dreams," in part because of the story. It tells a story of a street sweeper in the city of dreams. Who is he?

FAY: It's a 15-year-old song, for a start. Well, in one sense, the street sweeper is myself. The street sweeper is kind of looking up at the skies, the clouds, seeing through the city of dreams. He's looking for something more real and he's looking for a change. So, I am kind of identifying with the street sweeper in the song. Does that make sense?

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CITY OF DREAMS")

FAY: (Singing) I'm the street sweeper in your city of dreams. Yeah, I'm the street sweeper in your city of dreams. Sweeping up the paper cups between the limousines...

WERTHEIMER: Now, you have a listener in your young producer who knew who you were because he'd heard your music when he was kid. But there's a whole generation of listeners out there that don't know about you. This music is aimed at them. How do you think they'll like it?

FAY: I don't look at it like that. Your aim is to kind of fulfill the song and how it feels to you like the best that you can do. It's kind of like you find in the song in the first place. And I think what Joshua would agree, that we were aiming to produce an album that we really feel for. We were only listeners anyway, so therefore the odds are, the chances are, that someone else, if we feel for it, then chances are that someone else is going to feel for it. And that's the power of music, isn't it? So, what will happen to it I can't really reach that, Linda. You know, I don't kind of think like that. You know, I'm a bit taken aback for even sort of sitting here talking to you.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's talk about the "Cosmic Concerto," which is on the "Life is People" recording. What's the story that you're telling here?

FAY: Well, you know, when I was on holidays with my dad as a kid, you know, we'd sit in seaside cafs and he'd watch people walking by. And he would turn and say in the space of a human face, he was astonished at it and he would say to you, life is people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COSMIC CONCERTO")

FAY: (Singing) There are miracles, in the strangest of places. There are miracles, everywhere you go. I see fathers, holding a little child's hand...

You know, that was quite emotional for me anyway, but, you know, to sort of have him on board so to speak with his own view on life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COSMIC CONCERTO")

FAY: (Singing) Like my old dad said, life is people, life is people. In the space of the human face...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS WORLD")

WERTHEIMER: And you have a song on the recording called "This World," which would be a little bit of a switch for us 'cause it's kind of more up-tempo. Let's just listen to a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS WORLD")

FAY: (Singing) This world's got me in its grip, ain't nowhere I can (unintelligible) without. Sometimes such a crazy place makes you want to scream and shout. This world's holding all the keys, gotta break it before it breaks me. Something's gotta happen soon, something set us free...

I did say to Joshua in the studio and I find myself - my shoulders were moving a bit.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS WORLD")

FAY: (Singing) This world...

WERTHEIMER: So, are you ready to get back into it - touring, promotion, record contracts, all of the stuff that goes along with a new record these days?

FAY: No.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: In a word.

FAY: Yeah, exactly. No, I shall just go back to what I've always done, and that is go back to the pile of songs in progress and just quietly in a corner of the room, kind of work on songs.

WERTHEIMER: Speaking with us from London, Bill Fay. His new CD is called "Life is People." Mr. Fay, thank you so much for speaking with us and welcome back.

FAY: Thank you, Linda. Pleasure to speak to you and thanks for your feeling to the music. That's the main thing, yeah. Thanks ever so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS WORLD")

FAY: (Singing) This world...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.