Few musicians of recent times have been quite as disillusioned as Willis Earl Beal. Many profess their despondency towards a money-orientated industry, the downsides of fame and often a loss of freedom in the face of their successes. Beal expresses his revulsion with such vigour that you wonder why he’s playing the game at all.
“I think it just feels ridiculous. I feel like a clown. I think everybody should just shut up.”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and we’re sitting on a park bench in Hackney Downs, sipping from a £16.99 bottle of Cognac out of a plastic bag, courtesy of Beal’s management.
“I don’t understand what we’re all doing,“ he continues. “It’s like Louis C.K. said, he put all the food on the ground and said, ‘Eat the shit.’ What do we do? We devise currency and God or the universe or whoever says ‘Well, what is currency?’ Well, some people have to have more than other people. Why? Why is music a competition? Why do I have to promote it? Why do I have to sell it? Why?”
It seems appropriate to point out that the world has been asking itself ‘Why?’ since the beginning of recorded time; it’s a question that divides mass opinion and one that we are no closer to answering. It also seems appropriate, in light of Beal’s backstory, that he should detest capitalism with such a venomous energy.
Born and raised in Chicago, a directionless Beal joined the US army aged 22, an experience he describes as “a bunch of guys walking around with hard cocks”. Following his acquittal from the army a year later, due to medical reasons, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he was homeless and working a string of dead-end jobs.
“I think the biggest thing that had an effect on my music, imagination and writing is the desert in Albuquerque and my experiences out there,” he explains. It was during this period that he wrote most of the material for his first album, 2012’s ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’ (Clash review), a collection of bluesy, magical and somewhat bizarre DIY creations.
Singing on the streets of Albuquerque, and leaving his CDs around the more ‘hipster’ parts of town, his truly astonishing voice and predilection for rudimentary and artistic experimentation inevitably caught the attention of XL Recordings (Adele, The xx, King Krule) who swiftly snapped him up. You would think his rags-to-riches story would be a source of immense pride, but Beal seems intent on banishing any notion of self-worth.
“I’m weak. I’m this perpetual child that is dependent on other people to get the interviews, to get me publicity, to get me this, to get me that. Waiting for the next cheque. ‘Oh, I did this – pay me.’ It’s a constantly demeaning process and it’s not the fault of my record company, it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way things are and I don’t know what to do about it, so I just bitch.”
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Willis Earl Beal, ‘Too Dry To Cry’, from ‘Nobody Knows’
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Would he describe himself as a pessimist? “If I were a pessimist, I probably would have killed myself a long time ago.” Would he describe himself as an entertainer? “Unfortunately, yes. I’m an entertainer. I used to want to be a performer so much, to be the centre of attention… I’m only getting what I deserve. But I’m using this time to tell people in interviews and whenever I can that I am a product of the society you created. I wanted to be famous at some point, I wanted to be ‘somebody’ and now that I am ‘somebody’ I don’t want to be anybody.”
It would be useful to mention that Beal hasn’t taken off his Zorro-style mask during our conversation. His eyes are hidden behind tiny nets that make him look expressionless, detached even.
“That’s the reason for the whole mask and the ‘nobody’ thing. I’m trying to pull back into some sort of anonymity but I want it to be this anonymity that exists outside of the spectrum of the harshness that is society.”
It could be argued that the mask does quite the opposite. It is fast becoming a distinct trademark in performances and far from creating anonymity it makes him recognisable and draws attention.
During his current tour it got him in trouble with the law in the Netherlands. “I had a full face mask on, because I like wearing masks. So I put it on and went out jogging in the morning time. A cop stepped in front of me while I was jogging and wanted me to take off my mask and I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘What do you think I am – some kind of pussy?’ and got me in a headlock and forced me inside the car.
“I was to find out that wearing burkas is illegal in the Netherlands because they have an extremely right-wing government. They said the reason they arrested me is because I refused to reveal my identity and I wasn’t carrying a passport. Who carries a passport when they go jogging?”
While on paper (okay, the webpage you’re looking at) it sounds like he’s prone to having a good old rant that’s littered in contradictions, in person Beal’s demeanour is polite and considered, unassuming and honest. He believes what he says and is man that riffs with his ideas as much as his music.
He also possesses an undeniable raw talent. He becomes animated at the mention of his new album, ‘Nobody Knows’, a record that acts as a vehicle for his haunting and soulful voice and (unlike his first album) is painted with a thick dollop of studio gloss.
“I love ‘Nobody Knows’ so much with all my heart because it is the perfect representation of my 29 years of existence. My first record was not really my first record. What I wanted to do was combine primitive elements like scratchy, tape-y sounds with the polish of the studio, and that’s what I tried to do with ‘Nobody Knows’.”
He backtracks. “‘Nobody Knows’ is an extremely straight record. There’s so much good, interesting, crazy-ass music out there and, really, ‘Nobody Knows’ is a pretty traditional, even bland record in that sense.”
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Willis Earl Beal feat. Cat Power, ‘Coming Through’, from ‘Nobody Knows’
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But it could hardly be described as “bland”. Combining uplifting rhythm and blues – including a brilliantly stomping collaboration with Cat Power in ‘Coming Through’ – and a cappella that showcases his impressive vocal ability, it could be described as a classic blues record at the very least.
We wonder what’s next for Willis Earl Beal. What do people do when they finish something? They look to the future.
“I’ve already completed my next record, I’m finished with that.” He sounds resolute. “I love to express myself. I have this problem where I always want to be heard but I think that all people want to be heard. I’ve actually written two screenplays and I’ve written about 10 short stories. I would love to be a novelist.”
His love of creating art is in stark contrast to the pain of promoting it. “I know why I’m in this,” he justifies. “I’m in this game to just get in and get out. Hit it and quit in. And on the way out I’ll tell everybody: ‘Look, there’s no euphoria, there’s no paradise on the inside. Try to be where you are for that period of time, vibrate on a realistic frequency and perhaps you will have a chance at some comfort. But if you are striving for fame and fortune and trying to get to the top, you will fail.’
“I’m not saying you will fail to get to the top, but you will lose a lot of dignity in the process. You’re going to get there and realise it wasn’t worth it.”
As we part company and shake hands he says, “It’s been great talking to you. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t make me look like an asshole.”
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Words: Daisy Jones
Colour Portrait Photography: Marc Sethi (website)
This article originally appeared in issue 90 of Clash magazine – find out more about the printed side of Clash here.
Listen to 'Nobody Knows' in full via Deezer, below...