Suggesting that he’s more self-aware than the average DIY flavour-of-the-day, Willis Earl Beal has a theory as to why he’s currently in high demand around the globe. And make no mistake about it, the 28-year-old with the stunning backstory is indeed on international hot lists with a large-calibre bullet. Recent accomplishments include jetting to England to appear on the tastemaking Later… With Jools Holland, fielding questions from the ever-stylish folks at GQ, and landing a much-coveted video-profile segment on Pitchfork. Not bad for a guy who was once eating out of Dumpsters after managing to make a royal mess out of every go-nowhere job he ever had.
So why, exactly, are hard-core music fans are in love with Beal, whose beyond-lo-fi XL Recordings’ debut disc, Acousmatic Sorcery, is part dirt-caked blues holler, part Tom Waits boho oddity, and part scuffed-up neo-soul? Reached on his cellphone the day after a show in New York, the engaging and charmingly odd breakout artist is happy to provide an explanation.
“First of all, I’ve got good marketing,” Beal says frankly. “I’ve got a good agent who knows how to make people interested in stuff. If you get XL Records on your side, people are going to be interested. That’s the reason that people are interested in me—it has very little to do with who I am, or what I’m about. I mean, you get up on-stage, and if you’ve got a certain status or what the fuck ever it is, people automatically pay attention to whatever you say and do.”
Beal has definitely learned that over the past few months. The singer has had one of the most unlikely coming-out parties in pop-music history. Flash back a few years, and he was unemployed and drinking malt liquor out of paper bags while spending his days riding public transit to kill the boredom. At times the Chicago native was homeless, moving from city to city in the U.S.
He was also creative, spending hours recording music by himself, writing short stories, and drawing. This creativity included going on a grassroots mission to spread the word about himself. Beal would leave self-recorded cassettes and self-made zines around Chicago, along with notes scribbled with his phone number and musings such as “I like oatmeal, train stations, night-time and chamomile tea. Call me RIGHT NOW.” Oh, and did we mention that he also appeared on Simon Cowell’s The X Factor as a contestant?
All of the above made him instantly fascinating when he was signed by XL Recordings, which also happens to be home to heavy hitters like Adele and M.I.A. The label chose to release songs from those cassettes in unvarnished form, with the artwork for Acousmatic Sorcery containing a booklet of Beal’s short stories and drawings. Consider the record the ultimate DIY triumph; as the singer notes on the back, “I am a primary example as to why ANY BODY can do ANYTHING they want to do within the constructs of conventional civilized society.”
Beal finds it amusing that he’s become something of an instant sensation, mostly because, as far as he’s concerned, he hasn’t begun to show the world what he’s capable of.
“I like my voice, and I like my music,” he says. “I’ve recorded 13 new tracks in the studio, and I listen to them and am inspired by myself. But I’m not entirely sure that people see what I see in myself. So the only thing I can chalk it up to is that people take what they are given and buy what you are selling. You can take any Joe off the street, put him on the Internet with a bunch of commercials that say ‘This person is good, this person is profound.’ They could be shovelling shit for a living, but people will say, ‘This person shovels shit real good, so you should pay attention.’ Some people will say, ‘This guy is bullshit’, but others will say, ‘You know what? You are right. This guy shovels shit real good, so we should invite him on our show. Let’s talk about his philosophy.’ That’s the culture we live in—we live in a culture of sheep.”
In case it’s not coming through, part of the reason Beal is getting so much attention is that he’s out there; when the Georgia Straight calls, he answers the phone with “Did I get the job?” After revealing that he’s spent the afternoon drinking Manhattans at a Chinese restaurant in NYC, he heads into said eatery’s washroom, which is where he conducts most of the interview.
But unlike outsider artists such as Wesley Willis, Beal is obviously as talented as he is quirky, making Acousmatic Sorcery one of the most thrillingly uncompromising and authentic-sounding records of the year. Things kick off with “Nepenenoyka”, which walks a beautiful line between delicate and jarring, the song a deep-freeze lullaby built around a distorted child’s toy harp from Belarus. Beal goes on to dig up the corpse of Robert Johnson with the sharecropper’s blues belter “Take Me Away”, position himself as a Dirty-’30s crooner with the marinated-in-tape-hiss “Sambo Joe From the Rainbow”, and plays thrift-store MC in the junkyard-boogie hip-hop jam “Ghost Robot”. Throughout, you get the sense that Beal’s all-time favourite record is Mule Variations and that he sees his battered, barely-in-tune guitar as something to be abused with extreme prejudice.
Considering all the attention that he’s getting for Acousmatic Sorcery, it would be easy for the singer to sit back and bask in the spotlight that’s suddenly been turned on him. That, however, doesn’t interest him. The way he sees things, he spent the first 20-odd years of his time on Earth drifting through life, not accomplishing much of anything. Now that he’s stumbled onto something that he’s good at (he had no musical training or particular aptitude before embarking on his singing career), he’s not blowing a shot that few are ever given.
“The next record is going to be all over the place, just like me,” Beal says confidently. “It’s throwing a lot of paint at the wall. It sounds really good. Sometimes I’m going old-school, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins–inspired soul. Another time, I’ve got a really rudimentary punk song. I’ve got this ethereal spoken-word. I don’t know—it’s going to be a real collage. I think that people who own Acousmatic Sorcery and have me in a certain category right now are going to be real shocked. They won’t even think it’s the same person.”
As incredible as Beal’s outsider-makes-good journey has been to this point, it would seem that his story has only started to be written.
Willis Earl Beal plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Saturday (May 5).
Follow Mike Usinger on the Tweeter at twitter.com/mikeusinger.