From the gutter to the stage
Ones To Watch - Willis Earl Beal

From the gutter to the stage, this story transcends ‘overnight sensation’.

“It sucks your soul dry” begins Willis, explaining the pressured stardom that now surrounds him. It’s a stark contrast from sleeping and performing on the streets of Albuquerque, a situation he found himself in not long ago. “First thing I started to do was sing on the streets." Once he’d got a job and an apartment, he decided to start promoting, with hand-drawn flyers in public areas. Not for his music, but for his own lonely sanity. “I was about to flip my shit. So, I started distributing them. I put some wry commentary at the bottom, so people thought I was funny and not nuts.”

Unemployment, heartbreak and homelessness have haunted Willis’ recent life, and they came to provide the basis for his raw DIY music techniques, which have already drawn comparisons to Tom Waits. His story inspired thousands after his flyer appeared on the cover of New York’s Found Magazine, along with his phone number and the message: “I want friends and stuff.” Call him, he’ll sing you a song, and rumours suggest Mos Def did so on four separate occasions. Write to him, and he’ll write back. Yet, it’s in person that Willis truly unravels.

His live performance is intense and unforgettable. There’s a brutal nudity to it all, as he stands alone, and his Anhedonian loathing for it is startlingly indicative of a tortured genius: “These people out there, expecting something great, it’s pathetic. I give it to ’em. I sing these songs that I wrote in the privacy of my own apartment, in squalor. I blink and it’s over,” he continues, “but I don’t know how I’m going to continue to do this.”

Words by Joe Zadeh

Willis Earl Beal plays Dot to Dot festival on 2nd to 4th June

Where: Chicago
What: Savage blues
Get 3 songs: ‘Take Me Away’, ‘Evening’s Kiss’, ‘Monotony’
Unique fact: Willis tried to commit suicide whilst patrolling the ninety-ninth floor of Sears Tower, but he couldn’t get the window open.

Follow Clash: