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In the early 1970s, British musician Bill Fay recorded a couple of luscious folk albums — which didn't sell very well. Fay was dropped from label after label, and though he continued to write his storybook songs over the years, he eventually fell off the map.
Shortly after the turn of the millenium, Fay's songs were reissued, and with endorsements from the likes of Nick Cave and Jim O'Rourke, acheived a kind of cult status. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy even covered his tune "Be Not So Fearful," which he can be heard singing in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.
While much of Fay's exposure in the last decade or so is due to avid music lovers discovering his lost songs in forgotten record collections or through covers like Tweedy's, he's becoming one of the world's most famous "unknown" musicians. Fay chatted with NPR's Linda Wertheimer from the studios of the BBC in London about his first studio album in more than 40 years, Life is People, and the attention he's getting after all of those years away.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: Could you tell us the genesis of this CD? I gather that an American record producer named Joshua Henry found your music in his father's record collection and listened to it as a kid.
BILL FAY: That's right; his dad had them before the reissues that you mentioned. I mean, I'd been deleted for 27 years up to that point. You get used to home recording when you've been deleted for 27 years. Like I said to a recent music magazine — I think it's been referred to as a comeback album — you can't make a comeback album unless you arrive in the first place. I'm getting a little bit worried that I'm coming close to arriving.
One song that stands out for me is "City of Dreams," which tells the tale of a street sweeper. Who is he?
That's a 15-year-old song, first off. In one sense, the street sweeper is myself. The street sweeper is kind of looking up at the sky, the clouds, seeing through the city of dreams. He's looking for something more real and he's looking for a change. So, I'm kind of identifying with the street sweeper in this song.
You have a listener in your young producer, who knew who you were because he heard your music when he was a kid. But, there's a whole generation of listeners out there who don't know about you. This music is aimed at them — how do you think they'll like it?
I don't look at it like that. Your aim is to kind of fulfill the song and how it feels to you. I think Joshua would agree that we were aiming to produce an album that we really felt for. We are only listeners anyways ... if we feel for it, then chances are someone else will feel for it. That's the power of music, isn't it? What will happen to it — I can't really reach that, Linda. I don't kind of think like that. I'm a bit taken back by even sitting here talking to you.
Let's talk about the "Cosmic Concerto," which is on the Life Is People recording. What's the story that you're telling here?
When I was on holidays with my dad as a kid, we'd sit in seaside cafes and he'd watch people walking by. ... He was astonished at it and he would say, 'Life is people.' That was quite emotional for me, to sort of have him on board so to speak on his own view on life.
Are you ready to get back into it — touring, promotion, record contracts, all of the stuff that goes along with a new record these days?
[Laughing] No, I should just go back to what I've always done — go back to the pile of songs in progress and, just quietly in the corner of the room, work on songs.