Interview Fay Hallam
After 35 years of writing and playing music Fay Hallam believes her best work is still to come
Words:Claire Mahoney Picture: David Collyer
If ever there was a mod band that hit the scene at just the wrong time – it was Makin Time. Despite an audience that was loyal and clued up and enthusiastic, their punchy soul-driven pop grooves weren't enough to help prop up the weight of that crumbling edifice that was the mod revival.
This was 1985 and a far as the music press were concerned – mod was done and dusted. It was old hat and there was no room in their pages for revivalists. After all, music was quickly becoming a computer-generated affair with slick production values that even managed to suck the life out of the most major artists – just think of Bowie's and Elton Johns output during the mid 80s to put yourself in the picture.
Hard to imagine these days – but in a sea of neon track suits, Miami Vice and demi-waves, retro was not cool, it was fusty and old -fashioned and any pop outfit that has a whiff of it was never going to make it mainstream. The irony is that shortly after Makin Time split up – so-called Indie guitar music began to flourish and even got it's own chart.
Briefly after the split Fay and bass player Martin Blunt and drummer Jon Brookes formed The Gift Horses with Graham Day (of The Prisoners), but geographical logistics made it too difficult to continue. The following year Martin formed The Charlatans, ironically it was their single, “The Only One I Know” played at a CCI rally that highlighted the musical fault line that ran down the centre of mod scene and divided those that wanted to look forward and those that wanted to stick with the music of the originals.
Fay went on to form The Prime Movers with Graham Day with whom she had two sons, then took a break from music to before returning with Phaze, The Fay Hallam Trinity and more recently a solo career that began with album Corona in 2015. Aptly titled given that our interview takes place a week just after the the lockdown was lifted in the UK during the current pandemic. Fay had travelled to Cardiff to meet with her son Josh who has played with Fay since the age of 14. The two of them are in the process of recording a new album of Josh's current band's work which will be produced by bassist Andy Lewis.
“I'm so excited about this project and I'm not even going to be playing on it” she says, a definite glint of parental pride in her eye. In January of this year, Fay and Andy travelled down to Cardiff to record Josh's band and their current set which mainly consists of what he describes as 'covers re-worked in a jazzy, swing style'. Fay has since been working with the recordings, taking bits from them here and there and turning them into original pieces. “It's going to be quite collaborative. I'm going to be writing some lyrics as well but it's up to Josh what he wants to change. But the musicianship of these guys is just incredible.”
It is hoped that the album will be ready for release at some point in 2021. For Josh it feels a bit like coming full circle always having been an addition Fay both musically and biologically. His music instead has become the focal point of Fay's attention. “I've had some of the most fun I've ever had doing this album,” he says “and it has certainly made me confident in my ability. Working with Andy is great, he is such a visionary. He'd suggest things and at first you may not be sure about them but when you hear them played back you realise he really knows what he is talking about.”
This new album is, of course, a chance for Fay and Josh to work on a level playing field. Josh has played with Fay since he was 14, a daunting prospect at any age, but particularly for a teenager. “Although it was quite intimidating at times I was always very happy and proud of the fact that people were there to see mum. I would get a lot of people coming up to me telling me about times that they had met my mum 30 years ago and I was kind of like, 'that's lovely,' but I don't know what to do with that information,” he laughs.
Despite the fact that Fay got Josh involved in the music as soon as she could, it is not surprising that a penchant for the piano has been passed down to another generation – as it's in the lineage. Fay herself was first introduced to keyboards by her father Frank. He was a professional musician – an organist who would gig regularly in venues around the Midlands, along with Fay's mother Margaret who was a singer. Being born into a family of working musicians it seems gives you a very practical attitude when it comes to writing and performing. It has given Fay a particularly grounded attitude towards her role.
“My Dad taught me to play and there were always instruments in the house,” she says.“So when I formed a band I saw myself first and foremost as a musician. When I was in Makin Time people would come and interview us for the fanzines and they would always ask all the bands who their influences were. It was always the same old suspects – The Who, The Jam - and being truthful I'd say actually it was my mum and dad. Because it was. They were the first people I saw perform. They would be doing gigs several nights during the week and Sunday lunch times as well. This helped me develop my own voice so I don't feel I copied anyone's style.”
There is one artist however that did resonate with her and that was the late Karen Carpenter, “I really loved the tone of her voice and and this made me want to sing in a lower register.” Her singing style was in the 80s a stark contrast to the high-pitched girly vocals of her contemporaries - think Claire Grogan, The Bangles and early Madonna. And Fay admits not wanting to sing like them was a very deliberate decision. “When I listen to the Makin Time stuff I think I was always singing lower than I really needed to. But I really didn't want to be that person who was squeaking away like Madonna. It meant that I never really pushed myself to sing very high and I only ever used half of what I could. Its only in say, the 15 years that I've given myself permission to use my whole voice.”
Being the only girl in the bands she was in also meant that Fay sometimes had trouble making herself heard vocally “After Makin Time I toured most with the Prime Movers and we would go off for three week tours round Germany and started to notice then that very rarely did you see another woman. All the support bands were men, the sound people and even the audiences were mainly men I never really had any problems from anyone but what I did have issues with was the sound guys. I could never hear my voice on stage and that used to really really annoy me. Especially in the Prime Movers as when you've got a loud drum kit and guitar and bass and you've got a massive Leslie amp, everyone is competing for space and especially if there is another singer as well. I'd often find that my vocals were half the volume of theirs. On stage during the sound check I would constantly be saying can you turn my vocal up again – and we would do another half a song and I'd be going – “Can you turn it up again please?”And they would say, “Oh it's because you voice is quiet,” Now my voice in loud, in fact, it's ridiculously loud. Maybe its so bloody loud because I had to fight to be heard!”
The real change came when she become working as a solo artist. “I started to feel that I had some control over the band – not in a dictatorial way - but in the way that I didn't feel I was being swamped by needless sound anymore. Also having the brass sound made such a difference when we played live as it felt the pressure what off. When there is just you, a bass player and a drummer its so much harder but more recently when we were touring Propeller we had seven of us on the stage with the brass section so I could really afford to sing and play what I wanted to play without have to worry about keeping the whole thing running all the time.”
In fact, Fay says that she has been enjoying writing and playing music more than ever in the last few years. Aside from working with Andy Lewis as a producer – which she says has been a game changer in terms of the quality of the sound on the albums House of Now and Propeller. Andy Lewis and Fay first met at the 100 Club in 2015. “My band The Fay Hallam Group had a gig there and at the time we seemed to be having problems with bass players – it was like Spinal Tap with drummers. The person who was supposed to be playing that night couldn't make it and then our drummer Kieran said he might know someone and I said to him: “But is is any good?” and Kieran said. “ Well he's on tour with Paul Weller at the moment? “ and I remember thinking,” he won't come and play with me? But he agree and on the afternoon of the gig he was ready and waiting in the rehearsal room. He hadn't even been sent the full set list, so there were two songs he didn't know but he just played along anyway and the gig was great.”
“After that I said to him – I've half written an album and half recorded it would you like to play bass on?” He agreed and a few months later they started recording in a studio down in Ramsgate in Kent. At the end of the day Fay says that Andy just took the recordings away with him and starting working on them. That album was House of Now. With House of Now I suddenly realised for the first time ever what a massive difference someone who is really good at producing can make to an album. The production of Rhythm and Soul wasn't great and I remember towards the end of the recording we were all in the studio and Martin was saying: “I'm not sure this is sounding ok. I don't want it to be the sort of album that your Mum and Dad listen to. But it was and had this very slick 80s thing going on.”
Andy Lewis then went onto produce Fay's next album Propeller. and played on and produced this year's Il Senato album. Fay goes onto explain that Zibaldone actually the name of an Italian dessert - a kind of continental Eton Mess, a mixture of sweet and sour and English and Italian influences – how very mod! In Italian it is literally translated as 'A heap of things' and is the name given to the journals originally made by Venetian merchants who would create intricate scrapbooks of their travels filled with their writings and sketches. This musical melange combines 60s garage with soulful hammond grooves. Joining Fay on vocals is Luca Re fro, Italian 60s garage band from Sick Rose. Fay has known Luca since the 90s having played with them when she was on tour with The Prime Movers. Half of the album was recorded in Kent and the other half in a bar in Italy. “We have such a good time playing together. I go out to Italy twice and year anyway now as they have become good friends. We drink nice wine, eat great food, see some lovely places and listen to good music – it's all good. I can't wait to record the next one now.”
Looking back on her prolific career one wonders whether Fay feels any tinges of regret that fellow band mates went onto such huge mainstream success with The Charlatans – particularly as keyboards were such a vital element of their sound? “Not one bit. I never think about it.” she says in her soft, warm Midlands brogue.“ I was in that band (Makin Time) for two years when I was 17. So I think things are bigger in people's minds perhaps because they have got the albums and came to see us. I don't judge how successful I am by what other people have done. Women or men who make it in any sphere are incredibly driven there is way more to it than your song writing ability or talent. I am driven to write good songs and record them well, but I'm not driven to be a pop star or successful in that sphere. It doesn't interest me at all. My ideal thing is to write songs and make them amazing – that's makes me really really happy.” It makes a lot of other people happy too.
For more info about Fay and to purchase Zabaglione by Il Senato visit www.fayhallam.co.uk