Bill Fay


Bill Fay: Life Is people

Bill Fay, for some, is an enigma. In our overheated, market-driven time, it’s hard to understand him (or Jandek or Sixto Rodriguez), because it’s assumed that being a recording artist and creating records is about creating audience with the goal of selling records. If you casually cast your eye over the press around “Life Is People” (Dead Oceans, 2012), Fay’s story about being dropped from a major label decades ago is portrayed as a commercial blunder, preventing Fay from selling records and having the life he could have had. And as a result he was denied a following, a “career” in music, instead having to work a variety of jobs to pay the bills.

But this misses the real story about Fay and his years in the wilderness, a story that I think directly connects Fay to Jandek and Rodriguez, equally engaged artists in their own way. For more than 30 years, Fay has been making music, creating “imaginary” records, working alone in his home studio, rising to standards he defined for himself, in a way every bit as real as making so-called real records, touring, and building a following on Facebook.

It’s important to find the artist where he lives, to find what he thinks is real. Without marketing hype to tell us what to think, we’re alone with our thoughts and feelings about what he’s created, about his own artistic satisfaction working as he does, about how he uses his environment to make his art; and we can find whatever meaning we can on our own. “Life Is People” is a brilliant record that waits for us without “buzz” or marketing. The real story about this record is the artist’s relationship with his work, and how that’s been enough to sustain him―for decades. “Music for its own sake,” Fay writes in the liner notes of “Life Is People.” He makes the wilderness sound comforting.

The genesis of “Life Is People” is connected to the early recording relationship Fay had with Decca Records, and to something personal about how the artifact, the vinyl record, can bring people together across continents and decades. Joshua Henry, the producer for “Life Is People,” first heard Fay’s songs on those almost forgotten first releases from decades ago on Deram Records (a subsidiary of Decca): “Bill Fay” (1970) and “Time of the Last Persecution” (1971). Henry’s father had the records in his home collection. From father to son, these two ancient recordings led to something new, changing both artist and producer and bringing Fay to a new level of global attention. Fay thanks Joshua Henry’s father, James Henry, in the same liner note.

Just imagine the scenario as a producer for this artist. You find two cool records from the 1970s in your dad’s vinyl. You want more, but discover in your research that there aren’t any more. A major-label beginning, and then nothing. Maybe you wonder if the man is gone. So you decide to track down the artist, and you meet a man like Bill Fay, someone who has quietly and privately continued to develop his aesthetic, writing dozens of songs, only to put them away when they’re finished, captured and just waiting to be expanded in the studio with new arrangements. And the songs work so well because of Fay’s mystical and authentic lyrics, universally honest and personal and vulnerable, filled with yearning and expression. He’s a confessional nature poet who can play the piano and sing.

I discovered “Life Is People” by seeing it in a record shop. I’d never encountered Fay’s work before, but the sepia-toned photograph of him at his piano spoke to me about this artist. His is not a young face. His hands are lined. He’s leaning into the piano and microphone. I sense a personal, private sensibility in this picture between this artist and his piano. I imagine this is how most people have come to Fay’s work, now and back in the day. We just find him by browsing, like his records have been waiting for us without fanfare.

From the opening track, “There Is a Valley,” this is a record of songs rich in metaphor and meaning. “The Healing Day” is a cyclical meditation on hope. And Fay’s cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” is perhaps more meaningful than Wilco’s own version, simply by its simplicity as Fay allows the lyrics and his solo piano to unfold without distraction. There’s a well-documented connection (and mutual admiration) between Nonesuch Records recording artist Jeff Tweedy and Bill Fay, and even that connection reinforces my theory that we just find Bill Fay’s work when we need it. If you listen to the songs and performance assembled for Tweedy’s 2006 film “Sunken Treasure: Jeff Tweedy Live in the Pacific Northwest” (available on DVD), and the soundtrack on Wilco’s band website, it’s easy to connect Fay and Tweedy in their honest, confessional lyric style. Tweedy has played Fay’s songs live on tour.

Where Bill Fay departs from Jeff Tweedy and Wilco is in his expressed spiritual― Christian―themes in some of his songs. Again, the press has dealt with this aspect of Fay’s work in depth, so no need for me to cover that ground here. I mention it because it’s there, on Fay’s record, but not as a limiting aspect of his songwriting. In fact, I perceive it as an old-school Christian sensibility written in broad strokes, non-preaching and inclusive, just the exploration of a universal human yearning to find bigger meanings in our lives. The past few decades have made it extremely hard to even mention Christianity in the context of modern alternative music, unless one is writing about Christian music, which I don’t do. All too frequently, Christianity has become the province of those who wish to narrow and polarize debate, even in popular music. But not here. Bill Fay’s songs weave together his faith and his version of a kind of nature worship, especially in the song “There Is a Valley.” Fay allows for multiple layers of interpretation and appreciation. That’s how it used to be. Faith could be expressed in art without it necessarily being a coded message, or part of “faith-based marketing.” “There Is a Valley,” the bold opening track on “Life Is People,” is the perfect track to open this LP; it highlights the two big themes in all of Fay’s work: his almost mystical connection to his Christian faith and reading, along the lines of St. Francis, and his equally mystical descriptions of how nature interacts and enfolds all things. Instead of being limiting, mysticism is an open channel in human experience, one that never shuts down through the ages.

Bill Fay’s output is now flowing into real records we can buy. His eponymous “Bill Fay” was released in 2012 on the 4 Men With Beards label, as was “Time of the Last Persecution” (2013). “Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” with The Bill Fay Group, was released by Drag City in 2006 (it’s officially out of print, but copies are still circulating). There’s a live performance on YouTube of Fay playing “The Never Ending Happening” on “Later… with Jules Holland” on BBC Two. He’s been found by the world’s marketing machine.

“Life Is People” quietly crashed into my world. I found Fay the way many of his fans found him―quietly, wandering through a record shop looking for inspiration. Who knows, maybe my finding this record when I did has a spiritual direction for me associated with it. Naturally, I want Bill Fay to make more music and reach more people. Still, I hope he makes more imaginary records. There’s more to music than sales figures. Thing is, Fay knows why he makes his music. He’s immersed in the total experience of his art and his faith. He’s always had a huge fan base, just not the kind that’s easily quantifiable. In our overheated, “messaging” world, with social media that eliminates anything resembling real society, I’m not sure we possess the imagination to understand what Bill Fay has never lived without: a one-on-one, private, spiritual, and artistic connection with what he calls the “never-ending happening.” I wish I could sit with Bill in his back garden. We’d sit, and we’d not need to say a word.