Bill Fay Was a Hidden Gem. One Musician Made Finding Him a Mission.
By Grayson Haver Currin
Jan. 15, 2020
The English singer and songwriter, now 76, has made as many studio albums this decade as in the previous six combined after a producer named Joshua Henry tracked him down.
Bill Fay in 1970, when a Decca imprint released his self-titled debut album.Decca
Joshua Henry never understood why his father owned “Time of the Last Persecution,” an obscure 1971 psychedelic-folk album by the British songwriter Bill Fay.
Henry, a 40-year-old songwriter and producer devoted to old-school analog technology, grew up in the woods at the edge of California’s Sierra Nevada. His father, Jamie, wasn’t a record collector: He reluctantly served in Vietnam before becoming an antiwar activist, then spent his final four decades as a hardscrabble logger. “Last Persecution” was never issued in the United States, and barely caused a blip in England’s very crowded singer-songwriter scene of the early ’70s. After its release, Fay vanished from music.
All his life, Henry remained curious about the Fay LP, with a portrait of a disheveled singer on its stark black cover. When he was caring for his father, who was battling cancer, the album became a lifeline between the two men. They’d listen to Fay, dissecting his peculiar mix of apocalyptic vision and hopeful grit. After his father’s death in the summer of 2010, Henry began trying to make good on a fantasy they had shared: to find Fay and help him make his first record since 1971.
On Friday, Fay will release “Countless Branches,” his third album in the 10 years since Henry tracked him down and urged him to return to the studio. Fay — now 76 and married, almost all he’ll allow about his personal life — has made as many studio albums this decade as in the previous six combined. Like the once-lost rock star Rodriguez or Fay’s fellow British folk singer Vashti Bunyan, he has been given an unlikely second chance in the new century. No one seems more puzzled about that resurgence, or leery of its potential spotlight, than Fay himself.
“When Joshua told me about his dad and that he’d grown up listening to my music, it was real and profound,” Fay said by phone from his North London home. “It felt like the natural path I should follow. But it’s strange.”
Fay stumbled into music in the ’60s. As a college student in Wales, he began to forsake his electronics curriculum for writing songs featuring piano and harmonium. His demos found their way to Terry Noon, briefly Van Morrison’s drummer and a budding music impresario, who helped Fay secure a contract with an imprint of Decca Records and assemble a sharp studio band.
His self-titled 1970 debut featured idealistic odes to friendship, nature and peace swaddled in swooping strings and cascading horns. But only a year later, he’d turned to thorny rock for “Time of the Last Persecution.” Fueled by the horrors of the Vietnam War and the violence of the Jim Crow South, Fay railed against social corruption for 14 fractured songs, framing life as a revolving door of chances to get right with God. Dense and challenging, the album flopped.
Soon after Decca released “Last Persecution,” Fay was, as he says, “deleted.” Labels rejected subsequent demos and his father died from an aneurysm, leaving Fay as his mother’s longtime caretaker. During the next four decades, he raised a family and worked as a groundskeeper in a London park and a fish packer in a supermarket. Still, in a quiet corner of his home, he slowly built a meager recording rig with a cheap eight-track and a little keyboard, shaping full-band arrangements of songs he never intended for anyone to hear.
“I was disappointed,” Fay said, “but music was never my living. And I wasn’t like other people, who had become part of a scene. I went back to what I had always done, which is the gift and blessing of working on music in its own right.”
As a quarter-century passed, both of his albums morphed into critical favorites and collector’s items, fetching hundreds of dollars in record stores and obtaining cult status among indie-rock cognoscenti. In the mid-90s, the songwriter and producer Jim O’Rourke found Fay’s music while researching Ray Russell, the electrifying guitarist on both Decca albums. O’Rourke was captivated by “the very specific way it expressed depression,” he said recently from his home in Japan, and by its blend of Christian imagery and sometimes-outlandish orchestrations.
When a small British label reissued both albums on one CD in 1998, O’Rourke began telling his friends. As O’Rourke worked on Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” he played Fay’s debut for Jeff Tweedy.
“I was astonished: How have I not heard this? How is this not something that is part of our DNA?” Tweedy said of the first time he listened to Fay, speaking from Wilco’s Chicago studio. “It’s music that sounds like it was designed in a laboratory for me to fall in love with.”
Wilco began performing Fay’s beatific “Be Not So Fearful” in 2002. At a time when the band seemed to wrestle nightly with newfound popularity, the song’s muted optimism — “When you wake up, you will find you can run” — offered a reassuring benediction. In 2007, after years of Tweedy pleas, Fay stepped onto a stage for the first time in three decades to join Wilco at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
O’Rourke also sent “Last Persecution” to David Tibet, whose wildly experimental group Current 93 had long used Christianity to consider the apocalypse, too. “My mouth opened, and I was thinking that this is my favorite singer-songwriter ever,” Tibet said in a phone interview. “I had never heard anything like it. I had never heard someone convey such profound feelings and power so simply.”
By the late ’90s, Tibet had become a veteran musical sleuth, tracking down forgotten singers he felt never got their due, including Tiny Tim and Shirley Collins. Despite rumors that Fay had absconded to a Christian cult, Tibet began looking for him; within a week, a British journalist connected him with a guitarist who had once played with Fay and became their intermediary. The two became fast friends.
In 2005, Tibet released “Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” an album Fay had made in the late ’70s with a local band but shelved. In early 2010, Tibet also issued a two-disc sampler called “Still Some Light,” culled from decades of Fay’s home recordings.
A year after its release, the liner notes in that set finally gave Henry the lead he needed. He asked Tibet to forward Fay a letter announcing his intention to help him make the record that the music industry had denied him for four decades. Fay just needed to show up and sing.
When Henry began his quest, he wasn’t sure Fay was even alive. When he found him, he learned Fay was hoarding a mountain of cassettes and Minidiscs containing songs he’d worked on a little each day for most of his life: “He started sending demo after demo of mind-blowing songs.”
Henry reached out to 50 labels, sharing his early findings and his vision of strings, background singers and guest stars for Fay’s comeback. The American indie-rock label Dead Oceans finally agreed to invest in Fay the way it would in an acclaimed young band prepared to make its big break.
“There were some demos, and the songs were as great as ever,” said the label’s owner Phil Waldorf, who originally fell for those first Fay reissues while working at the now-defunct New York record shop Other Music. “But Bill isn’t a traditional touring artist. That allowed us to color between the lines and imagine what working with someone like this means.”
The gamble paid off: Fay’s first two albums for Dead Oceans, “Life Is People” in 2012 and “Who Is the Sender?” in 2015, were both profitable and effective follow-ups to the records he’d made 40 years earlier.
Fay was still writing about his distrust of governments and his belief in the goodness of people. Henry smartly dressed those songs in chamber-pop elegance. Tweedy lent his voice to a jangling tune called “This World,” while Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce added subtle harmonies to “Bring It On Lord,” a paean to valuing the days you have left. Fay’s voice wavered and rasped with age, the seams worn like proud wrinkles of wisdom.
And his songs, new and old, reached wider audiences. Fay made his only live television appearance since the ’70s on Jools Holland’s late-night BBC show in 2012. The New Pornographers singer A.C. Newman covered Fay for the soundtrack of “The Walking Dead,” while the electronic abstractionist Oneohtrix Point Never performed a prismatic interpretation of a somber “Life Is People” tune on tour.
If Fay’s first two albums for Dead Oceans were audacious reintroductions to his legacy, the new “Countless Branches” is his modest statement of being. Fay insists he’s no less appalled at the ways of the world now than he was during the Vietnam War, when he made “Time of the Last Persecution.” But the 10 pieces on “Countless Branches” feel like postcards from a lifetime spent overcoming such despair. “I’m filled with wonder, once again,” he repeats over sparkling piano during the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Filled With Wonder Once Again,” his cracking voice offering a reassurance that, one day, you will be, too. These are calming hymns for another chaotic time.
Despite his late-rising star, Fay has yet to return to the stage, though Tweedy invites him to every edition of Wilco’s music festival. Fay maintains he’s not a recluse; he just believes rehearsing and traveling require too much time. He’s still got lots of “song-finding” to do.
As Fay was recording “Countless Branches,” he signed a contract extension with Dead Oceans, a move that stunned Henry, who assumed he would recede into the shadows after “Life Is People.” But they now seem permanently linked as collaborators and friends, bound by love and trust neither expected.
“After my parents died, I didn’t have much family left. Bill has been a big part of filling that void,” Henry said. “He’s like a father to me.”
While Henry is anxious to coax Fay into the studio with younger musicians he’s influenced like the War on Drugs or Ben Gibbard, Fay is in no hurry.
“It’s best I spend my available time doing what I’ve always done,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m thankful that side of my life has continued for all my life — finding songs in the corner of the room.”
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