May 2007. I am in London to see Wilco. Two nights in a row actually, both at Shepard’s Bush Empire. I don’t recall the night, the second one perhaps, a fellow called Bill Fay walked on stage to sing ‘Be Not So Fearful’ with the band. It was his first on stage performance for 30 years singing one of his own songs that had become a favourite cover for Jeff Tweedy and co.
I never thought anything of that night but did decide that I should check out Bill Fay’s work. Needless to say it turned out to be a good decision. Two albums released in the 70s but largely overlooked, much like Nick Drake. And, much like Nick Drake, tragically overlooked, for those two albums were pretty impressive work. I guess it’s just one of those things; lots of great artists get missed when sales do not measure up to the quality of music on offer. Fortunately for Bill Fay he can call Nick Cave a fan and Wilco started to cover his work. Suddenly he was back in the spotlight whether he wanted to be or not. And let us be thankful for this fact as his 2012 record ‘Life Is People’ is one of the most moving and beautiful records I have had the pleasure of hearing in a long time. It’s hard not to fall in love with it actually.
Comforting. That’s how I would describe it. Comforting and calm. The sort of record that wraps you up in its arms and keeps you safe from the realities of the world for its duration. There is a quality in Bill Fay’s vocal that does not happen often. Something that says things are going to be alright even when they seem like they are falling apart all around. ‘The Never Ending Happening’ is a perfect example of the calmness and beauty that emanates throughout. There is honesty about this record that is not apparent often in music. Much like ‘Seven Swans’ by Sufjan Stevens, this record is overtly religious in tone and content and yet doesn’t suffer for it. This is not a preachy record, it’s just a normal man dealing with the normal demons that we all experience at one time or another, that build up inside us over the years, that reappear when we least expect and acknowledging our own humanity and mortality in a poignant and moving way.
‘Big Painter’ is a dark and flowing number awash with strings and sumptuous backing vocals. Yet, it is when Fay sits at a piano with only the instrument and his voice that the record really stuns. ‘The Never Ending Happening’, his cover of Wilco’s ‘Jesus, etc’ and ‘The Coast No Man Can Tell’ are sublime. And indeed, there is a cameo on the record from Jeff Tweedy on ‘This World’ where the pair trade lead vocals verse on verse before sharing them on the chorus. World weary but full of hope. I missed this though, took a number of listens before it clicked that it was Tweedy and not Fay singing – which is funny because the music really suggests that Tweedy was heavily influenced by Fay in his own song-writing.
Anyways, I am not sure why I feel the way I do when listening to this record but it has the same impact on me as listening to Johnny Cash’ version of ‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails. I feel at peace somehow. I get goosebumps. ‘Thank You Lord’ is so sublime it’s hard not too. The piano on that perhaps? I don’t know. I cannot explain. But my god it’s powerful music and it’s beautifully executed. Whatever it is that happens to me when I listen to this record, I like it. And I cannot get enough of it. I wish all music had this impact on me. Let’s hope 69 year old Fay has more of this music inside him.
You really should check out Bill Fay. Enjoy.