Ask Bill Fay about his relationship with his instrument and he says something revealing, not “Ever since I learnt to play the piano”, but “Ever since the piano taught me…”
What the piano taught him was how to connect to one of the great joys of his life. “Music gives,” he says. And he is a grateful receiver. But, it makes him wonder, “Who is the sender?”
Fay – who after more than five decades writing songs is finally being appreciated as one of our finest living practitioners of the art – asserts that songs aren’t actually written but found.
Shown a simple piano piece by his sister-in-law when he was around 15, Fay began exploring how it worked and opened up a whole new world, the realm of chords. Once he’d discovered their emotional power, and how finding the right blend of chords and harmony made him want to sing melodies and conjure words, he became immersed in that world, and has been ever since.
He recorded two phenomenal – and completely different sounding – albums, Bill Fay and Time Of The Last Persecution for Decca offshoot Nova in 1970 and 1971, which were largely overlooked at the time, but whose undoubted power sent out enough ripples to find important admirers many years later. Among them was label owner Colin Miles who reissued them on CD in 1998 and thereby alerted a new generation to Bill’s work. After 27 years of neglect, people like Nick Cave, Jim O’ Rourke and Jeff Tweedy were praising those records in glowing terms. Tweedy even began covering Fay’s Be Not So Fearful at Wilco shows.
Another original fan of those early albums was James Henry, a Californian Vietnam veteran who somehow came across them and found something in the spiritual ruminations of a young man from North London that resonated with him. He passed his enthusiasm on to his son Joshua who grew up to be a producer and who, in 2010, contacted the elusive, almost reclusive Fay and asked if they might make some new recordings. Touched by the unexpected connection his music had made with this young man in Nevada City, Fay agreed. Henry recruited world-renowned engineer Guy Massey and a crack squad of musicians, including current, in-demand players Tim Weller, Matt Deighton and Mikey Rowe, and Bill’s cohorts from the Decca days, Alan Rushton and Ray Russell. This pan-generational team proved a perfect conduit for Bill’s work and the results, released as Life Is People in 2012 were breathtaking and lauded around the globe.
Now that team, with some new additions, has convened for a second album. Cut in just 13 days in Ray Davies’ Konk Studios, North London, Who Is The Sender? sees Bill expanding upon themes he has touched on from the beginning, spiritual and philosophical questions, observations about the natural world and the people in the city he has lived in all his life. You can hear them in Garden Song, the first song on his debut album in 1970 and in Underneath The Sun and How Little on this album, with its refrain “It’s all so deep.”
The joy and sadness are indeed deep in this material, which Bill describes as “alternative gospel”. Though it clearly stems from his belief, he doesn’t seek to proselytise or convert anybody, but just hopes to share the concerns he puts into the words and the feelings that he receives from the music: “Goodness, beauty, comfort. If something gives in the world, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Maybe that’s what music wants to do.”