Bill Fay is one of English music’s best kept secrets. At the dawn of the 1970s, he was a one-man song factory, with a piano that spilled liquid gold and a voice every bit the equal of Ray Davies, John Lennon, early Bowie, or Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker. He made two solo albums but his contract wasn’t renewed, which left his LPs and his reputation to become cult items. But he never stopped writing, the music kept on coming. Now, in his late sixties, he has produced Life Is People, a brand new studio album that shows his profoundly humanist vision is as strong as it ever was.
His debut on the underground Decca Nova label, Bill Fay (1970), included spacious big band jazz arrangements by Mike Gibbs, but it was the follow-up, Time Of The Last Persecution (1971), that cemented his reputation – a harrowing, philosophical and painfully honest diagnosis of an unhealthy society and a messed-up planet, that featured the cream of London’s fieriest jazz session players such as guitarist Ray Russell. Unable to make ends meet as a musician, Fay wandered through a succession of jobs for years, writing songs privately. Both solo albums were re-issued in 1998, and when the likes of Jeff Tweedy began singing his praises in the early 2000s, Bill began to come back into view and Wilco even convinced the shy singer to join them onstage in London in 2007.
A few CDs of Bill’s early demos and home recordings have since emerged, but Life Is People is his first properly crafted studio album since 1971. He was motivated by American producer Joshua Henry, who grew up listening to his dad’s Bill Fay albums on vinyl. Spooling through Bill’s home demos, Joshua discovered an incredible trove of material. Matt Deighton (Oasis, Paul Weller, Mother Earth) assembled a cast of backup musicians to bring out the songs’ full potential. These include Deighton on guitar, Tim Weller (who’s played drums for everyone from Will Young to Noel Gallagher and Goldfrapp), and keyboardist Mikey Rowe (High Flying Birds, Stevie Nicks, etc). In addition, Bill is reunited on several tracks with Ray Russell and drummer Alan Rushton, who played on Time Of The Last Persecution.
And it’s a stunning return to form. Ranging from intimate to cosmic, epic but never grandiose, Bill’s deeply committed music reminds you of important, eternal truths, and the lessons to be drawn from the natural world, when the materiality and greed threaten to engulf everything.
It’s time to recognise one of the great English voices. After nearly 50 years, Bill Fay has finally delivered his masterpiece: as rapturous and soul-stirring as any music you’ll hear this year.