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Willis Earl Beal

Deal with the Devil

Jan 08, 2014 Photography by James Loveday Willis Earl Beal
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Willis Earl Beal never wanted to be famoushe wants to make that point clear. And that’s an inconvenient reality for the 29-year-old Chicago transplant, who now finds himself with a critically-acclaimed sophomore album that he doesn’t really want to talk about, a hotly-anticipated schedule of concert dates that he doesn’t really want to play, and a music career that he’d really rather not have. Unfortunately for him, his new album, the darkly haunted, deeply soulful Nobody Knows, is the kind of release that’s likely to only expand his fame exponentially.

“I don’t know if you even know who I am, but it’s convenient that the record is called Nobody Knows, and all of my insecurities are marketed as being a part of the whole album-selling thing,” Beal says from his Brooklyn apartment. “I guess I feel really disillusioned byand no offense to youbut having to continuously do interviews in order to promote myself so that I can have some money so that I can have some modicum of freedom for the first time in my life…. But being trapped with myself and nothing else, all I’ve got as a voice in the world is the thing that I say in interviews and my record. I guess I’m just not interested in my record or myself. I think that what I’m interested in is having a voice that transcends music. I don’t really care too much about music.”

Listening to Beal talk is like overhearing someone’s troubled internal dialog, and he apparently has no interest in repeating the standard album promotion talking points. One minute, he’s explaining how he doesn’t care much about himself or his music, the next he’s describing himself as a narcissist who constantly Googles his own name. In one breath, he explains how fortunate he feels to have a platform to share his thoughts, the next he’s musing about giving it up to open a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. And for a man who says he has no desire to be famous, he certainly has expended considerable effort to get people to pay attention to him. His life story already feels like a biopic, from a lonely childhood spent cutting out drawings of his favorite NBA stars to lean years spent singing on the streets of Albuquerque, placing home-recorded CDs of his music in strategic locations (coffee shops, bookstores) where hipsters might find them, even providing hand-drawn flyers with a phone number so he could sing for anyone who wanted to call him. Those were the days after his discharge from the Army, when he first discovered the artists with whom he would become obsessedBob Dylan, Lou Reed, Scott Walker, Tom Waitsand whose pictures he’d use to make collages, his own picture inserted in the middle, “like we’re all in the same room,” he says.

His first album, 2012’s Acousmatic Sorcery, is the soundtrack to those years, a sprawling collection of crudely recorded, engrossingly strange songs that fit beside Daniel Johnston and Jandek in the canon of great outsider recordings. He was a deeply religious man in those days, he says, practicing a form of sorcery that laid the “spiritual groundwork” that set him on his current path. And while he says he’s not religious anymore, he seems convinced that he’s still riding the reverberations of what he created, and it’s hard not to believe that some strange power was unleashed. After all, Beal has gone from a man who by his own admission has no conventional skills on any musical instrument to being signed to XL, the same label that is home to Radiohead, Adele, and The xx. He’s gone from cutting out pictures of Cat Power’s Chan Marshall (not to mention drawing her on the cover of Acousmatic Sorcery) to having her sing on Nobody Knows.

“Specifically, Cat Power stood out to me, because she had this particular kind of…,” he says, struggling to describe her music. “It sounded like sorcery or witchcraft to me. And it was a combination of witchcraft and vulnerability. It was like this all-encompassing sympathetic voice, and it was a voice that I had not heard. But [it was] a voice that I knew I was looking for, and when I heard it, I knew instantaneously that everything was going to be all right. Meeting her was not a surprise to me at all. In many ways, I feel like I willed it to happen. I told myself, I’m never going to go to a Cat Power concert of my own volition. I’m never going to write her a letter or any of that. And then me and my wife were sitting and watching a movie in New York one night, and my manager called me, and he’s like, ‘Cat Power is going to call you in one hour.’”

Referring to her as his “spirit guide,” Beal says that he and Marshall have since become friends, with the elder artist gifting him with a prayer bead necklace that is meant for doing daily “I can choose” affirmations, as well as a pentagram bracelet that he says causes people to give him strange looks when he wears it in public. Talking about Marshall provides the only time in the hour long interview when Beal sounds unreservedly optimistic about his current life, and her backing vocals on “Coming Through” provide Nobody Knows with arguably its most memorable moment, her menthol coo blending perfectly with Beal’s own sonorous croon. Working with other musicians suits Beal, providing him with a wider sonic palette upon which to drape his richly emotive baritone and downtrodden verse. From the weary death-obsessed drifter on the lightly string-touched opener “Wavering Lines” through the broken down gospel-blues holler of “Too Dry to Cry” and the ethereal piano-based balladry of “Burning Bridges,” Nobody Knows represents the full flowering of an artist whose life and work combine to create something that has no parallel in modern indie rock. But listening to Beal talk, you have to wonder if he made a deal with the devil that he now regrets.

“You can just ask some people who know meI never get off my soapbox,” Beal says. “I guess the reason for that is my perpetual irritation with being an artist. I don’t like being an artist. I don’t care for other artists, and I don’t really care too much for myself. That’s not a low self-esteem thing. It’s just that I’d rather be somewhere building a house, if I knew how. The whole idea of being a professional artist is like a demeaning kind of thing. I feel like some kind of damn…like a pansy or something. You can’t give anything to anybody, because they won’t accept it. They’ll just throw it down and say, ‘Well, you’re just another artist. You’re in line with the rest of the artists.’ Well, fuck me, too,” he says with a deep sigh. “I hope Nobody Knows conveys things that I believe in, but ultimately it will fall short. The only thing people are going to say is, ‘Oh, well, the vocal quality is good. I don’t understand what the lyrics mean, and the instrumentation is sparse.’ They missed the point. The point is not anything that they’re talking about. The point is that a person has expressed themselves in a society that is oppressed, and you should thank God that that can still happen.”


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