Music

All Eyes Heavenward: The Enigma of Willis Earl Beal

Photo of Willis Earl Beal by © Andrew Sloan (courtesy of Tender Loving Empire)

A sensual, gossamer presence among the hovering musical chords, Willis Earl Beal gently presses the wealth of his soul's burdens into the wide, open skies...

Probably the unluckiest music artist to ever grace the recording industry, Willis Earl Beal (who prefers the moniker "Nobody") has lived a life of happenstance where his success has depended on the mere chance of being noticed. The irony is that with a voice like his, so large and powerful and bodied with so much sincere soul, it shouldn't have taken so much effort to turn heads. But such is the fickle music business that has bowed to everything but the poise of a very true, though sidelined, talent.

Beal's story is a fantastic though over-told one; everything from being discovered on the wide-reaching but dubious platform of The X-Factor to courting new fans via a guerrilla-styled campaign of plastering his artwork and contact details all over the streets of New Mexico. The real story, probably a thousand years' worth of stories, lies in that ineffable, magnificent voice of his, which could crumble mountains and bring statues to their knees.

Born in Chicago, Beal made haste with his life, first joining the army in his 20s before leaving (he was discharged) to work several regular jobs, after eventually having moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2007. The press has made a fairy-tale out of his life on the streets, homeless while still working jobs before inspiration hit. His now famous account of posting up flyers promising a song over the phone speaks to the tenacity of his talents. And it isn't too surprising to learn of such an approach; one listen to Beal's music and you hear a soul moving in real time, no matter its imprisonment within the document of recorded music. Unfettered by the tangles of place or space, his songs traverse the mediums of vinyl, compact disc and digital media to the clear and present "now" to deliver their pressing message.

His first proper album was released on XL Records in 2012. Entitled Acousmatic Sorcery, his record-label debut encompasses influences as disparate as country and hip-hop, stemming from a cold-stone bedrock of American blues. The lines of these songs are shaky and rickety, but drawn with a sure confidence that, despite the lack of polish, signals a governing power of will within. Numbers like "Take Me Away" and "Ghost Robot" crack with the rhythms of fractured drum loops, while being lifted to dangerous heights by the soaring, heavenbound vocals. Other tracks, such as the pretty, rain-pattered "Sambo Joe from the Rainbow", demonstrate a vulnerability of childlike wonder, successfully locating a dynamic of aggression and fragility in his constantly evolving range.

While he has often been saddled with comparisons that run the entire gamut of blues artists from B.B. King and Son House to Jon Lee Hooker, Beal's musical wanderlust and preference for structural improvisation would have him aligned with artists like Annette Peacock and Mary Margaret O' Hara, whose Morpheus-mix of jazz and blues have still evaded the boundaries of genre. Like Peacock and O'Hara, Beal has made a career out of instinctive choices, where the adage is "If it feels right, then do it."

By his admission, Beal has felt that his follow-up was somewhat of a compromise between himself and the record label, who insisted on a more commercially viable effort. Nobody Knows (2013), to be certain, features songs with a more rounded shape, the edges smoothed out to reveal a softer, more yielding artist in Beal. But if indeed the album was a compromise, then that compromise was hard-won. Nobody Knows is replete with the powerful and restlessly vagrant energy that Acousmatic Sorcery embodies. Even in the more pointedly conventional numbers like "Too Dry to Cry" (which Beal himself has expressed some dissatisfaction over) there is a prevailing sense of individualism that cuts like a sine wave through the intense sheen of production gloss. The singer's voice, always an instrument of passionate force, is refined here to a clear sonic boom of incredible desire. Where his voice was once (and can still be) a jagged bolt of thunderous energy, here it explodes in smooth, sculpted curves to reveal an artist who commands his voice with true mastery.

Nobody Knows also features the softly distilled "Blue Escape" (written quite some time before its official inclusion on the album), a string-backed whale song that rides slowly the waves of despair with sheer grace and poetry. It nestles against other numbers like "Burning Bridges", which ups the rhythm to the dancerly gait of a boxer in a ring.

Around this time Beal also landed the lead in Tim Sutton's independent drama Memphis, in which he played a character closely resembling himself. Premiering at the Venice International Film Festival in the summer of 2013, Sutton's quietly lyrical film about a vagrant musician with possible mystic properties raised the singer's profile slightly, perhaps expanding the context in which his music is understood. Beal proves an enigmatic presence on film, much like his true-life persona and the at once earthy and ethereal tones of the film are highly reflective of the singer's work.

Meanwhile, tensions would rise between Beal and XL and the singer would eventually leave the label to continue as an independent. Granted the artistic freedom he had been craving, the singer produced in Experiments in Time (2014) an even softer distillation of his emotional delivery. Full of haunting guitar strains plucked with the certitude of precision, Beal circles his passions with the sparkling gospels of a world we do not know. As the album title would suggest, these are experiments in time, but they elude a clear space, belonging rather to an atmosphere that will change with the emotional weather within the listener. The awning and dawning of such numbers like "Waste it Away" hold the listener suspended within their vestibules, the songs and their amorphous shapes expanding into the unknowns. The measures on Experiments in Time remain unchanged and steady, further establishing Beal as a practiced and vocally-astute artist.

Noctunes would arrive in 2015, a venture made possible by a deal with Tender Loving Records. On Noctunes, Beal continues his empyrean accent, rising above the earthly bedlam and into the solar spheres of an otherworld. Riding high after the springboard-to-heaven that was Experiments in Time, Noctunes finds the singer sometimes employing the use of drum machines to produce clean, minimalist beats of which the dreamy atmospheres of his synths rest upon. Clear, unmistakable resolve is to be, once again, found in his voice, which holds indeterminately the breadth of his passions, pain and desires. Now a sensual, gossamer presence among the hovering chords, Beal gently presses the wealth of his soul's burdens into the wide, open skies, lifting his post-mortem blues up into the black firmament of night.

A rather interesting and anomalous turn found the singer being tapped to record a version of Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me", made famous by the John Hughes 1985 film, The Breakfast Club. Recorded for a State Farm Commercial (in which the singer appears, performing the song), Beal's version is almost unrecognizable. Gutting entirely the new wave pop of the original, Beal delivers the tune as a tender barroom ballad that bends the arrangements to the crisp and tempered strains of a piano. The cover returned the singer to the welcome attention of his awaiting fanbase, who had been feverishly following his rocky trajectory through the finicky music scene.

Troubled times have fallen again on Beal, who is no stranger to the difficult passages of life. A new album that has been nursed and developed in his home base of Arizona, ALMS is the most recent offering of his vocation thus far. It seems that Beal has no intention of returning to earth, as ALMS has taken him into the heavens and beyond. Long gone are the homedown blues of the gritty Acousmatic Sorcery. A new bewitchment has taken Beal, one born of self-sacrifice and the resignation that comes with age. ALMS, a paean to the singer's girlfriend as well as an emotional itinerary of his earthly struggles, opens with the chiming hum of "Trials", making angelic digressions through toil and lust, and ends with "Nothing", bringing the album to its ghostly, indefinite close.

Somewhat distressingly, Beal's Go Fund Me page, created for the purposes of trying to raise money to help distribute his material, reveals the tribulations that an independent artist must undergo when the bitter end of life gets the upper hand. Confessing his struggles to secure regular work after having long been away from the job market, music has become the threadbare tightrope of which he finds himself determinedly poised upon. With so much of his soul having been offered up and with so much left to spare, perhaps no musician has better deserved the hopes and prayers of the watching eyes below, the collective and heartfelt wish that, despite the narrow and slippery rope beneath him, he will not fall.

One of my favourite things about your debut album, Acosmatic Sorcery, is the novella that accompanies the album. You revealed in it that the songs were written during a period when you spent time with your grandmother, as well as spending time alone at the library and also shoplifting. You also spent time posting flyers, encouraging people to call your number and you would sing to them over the phone. I'm curious about any phone calls you received. What kinds of people called? Also, what kinds of songs did you sing?

To be specific, there were three distinct periods of time when I solicited phone calls in that primitive way. The first time was in Albuquerque. During this time I had not offered to sing to anyone and music was not really the focal point. I was receiving these phone calls due to the front cover and the accompanying article from Found Magazine, a publication by Davy Rothbart. On the cover was a picture of my original flyer with a self drawn illustration of me, a written message and my personal phone number. Within the article, the readers would discover my rather singular backstory and perspective. They would also find out about my music but more as an afterthought. I received calls from all over the United States during this time.

The most memorable call for me was from none other than Mos Def. No one could ever mistake that particular Brooklyn accent for another person. He, myself, and his management had corresponded three or four times when he'd more or less decided to play me in a film based upon my backstory information in the article. I had his personal number in a cheap flip phone until I was robbed for the phone and some pocket money in the alley behind the Wendy's restaurant where I worked. I had no internet identity or conceivable way to contact his management at the time so that ended that particular odyssey. I know it's hard to believe but it really happened. Ask him about it someday.

After this experience, a friend of mine named John Mulhouse, who I met through Davy Rothbart, started encouraging me to flesh out some of the home recorded songs I'd written. He had been a drummer in a punk band and his girlfriend Emily played some guitar. They offered to help me with this musical endeavor. We'd gotten our first gig in Albuquerque before I abruptly left town after my relationship (with a woman whom I would see again) ended for a time. I left all my belongings in the apartment on 815 Coal Avenue including every recording of every song I'd written up to that point and returned to Chicago with only the clothes on my back. I vaguely recall that LeBron James was considering Chicago at the time because a fake picture of him wearing a Bulls jersey was on the newspaper. This is a segue way into the second period of phone calls.

In Chicago, as a means of social therapy, I began posting flyers again, soliciting phone calls but still without singing, this time using my Grandma's phone number. The flyers were again simply reaching out for friendship because my music was gone, as far as I knew. Through these flyers, I was invited to a few disastrous parties by one disastrous woman. I met a Witch named Jocelyn Wine and also a man named Ryan Ehreshman who later helped me post flyers around town for gigs and smoked me out a few times, for which I was grateful. In the midst of what seemed like a total drought of genuine inspiration; Patrice, my ex-landlord mailed a huge box containing my poetry, drawings, songs, tapes and CDs with a sad letter about disappointment and Buddhism. Receiving these items would prove "instrumental" in resuscitating my love of music and my determination to create it. I acquired an acoustic guitar when I could.

Newly invigorated by ghosts of the recent past, I worked day labor jobs, wrote the novella 'Principles of a Protagonist' at the local community center, and shoplifted library books and cheap alcohol until I was suddenly contacted by John Mulhouse from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Apparently a writer from the Chicago Reader had contacted him regarding some song recordings of mine that he'd posted to his blog, "City of Dust" on the web and wanted to interview me. He'd heard these songs due to "randomly" finding one of my flyers downtown and drawing the connection (through the Internet) to John's blog. When I agreed, it would lead to much more than I'd anticipated.

Memories of my hermit-like musical and artistic trials in Albuquerque, plus my Grandma's encouragement, emboldened me to try my luck at the British singing competition, The X-Factor. The show was making its American debut and I would meet Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Antonio "L.A." Reid and Nicole from the Pussycat Dolls. I auditioned in Illinois for several weeks before the big moment of getting three "Yes" confirmations to go to the next round in Pasadena, California. Fellow musical artist Dwayne the Teenaged Weirdo was also at these Illinois auditions, although we would not meet until we almost became label-mates in New York later on.

I travelled to Pasadena and back for this unrelated X-Factor experience where I'd participated in the singing contest, made it to the "boot camp" stage then was finally eliminated but, it made me ready for something new. It wasn't the first time I'd been "eliminated" from boot camp due to my brief experience in the Military. As usual, my elimination was not the product of poor skill, necessarily, but poor preparation and rich disillusionment. I was drunk, dressed like a bum and sang 'Goodnight Irene' with no music. I didn't look like much of a star to L.A. Reid or anyone else. Besides, I was actually more excited about the article that would be out when I returned to Chicago. I felt special. Anything would be better than day labor. I was already experimenting with street performance under the elevated train pass where the lines converged and the people were most diverse, made famous by the infamous R. Kelly.

Self-portrait that appears on Willis' "A Place that Doesn't Exist" EP.

The Chicago Reader interviewer was Leor Galil. Through Leor, my ex-girlfriend and I were reunited and the article got the attention of XL Records. Additionally, an earlier (and longer) version of Acousmatic Sorcery was funded by Found Magazine creator Davy Rothbart in a Limited Edition Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, which would not have been possible without the tapes that were sent to me by Patrice, my ex-landlord.

Due to the popularity of the Chicago Reader article (and the accompanying photos) I became iconic before most folks had heard one note of my voice or music. It was sensational. Many people tried to get in touch with me, this time through Leor.

One person that got through was a man named Jake who worked as an attorney and spent his spare time as a videographer. He expressed interest in filming me and starting a band with some of his friends. Once we connected, Jake filmed me singing some original songs standing in front of an abandoned dock for semi truck trailers. This video was released to the Internet and generated viral numbers. Suddenly, I was the next Sam Cooke.

Jake introduced me to two of his associates who would actually play the music. They were a couple of fellow attorneys who really liked The Black Keys. Aside from this and the luxurious condo where we practiced, they were actually nice fellows, if not a bit overzealous. I would write songs, sing, and use my newly anointed popularity to be the "face of the band". We called ourselves The Ghostones and got our gigs based solely upon the buzz generated by my name. Jake had big plans and they only got bigger when we found out that I was on the big label radar of XL Records. Unfortunately for Jake and the Ghostones, XL only wanted me, which suited me just fine since I felt that my true sound wouldn't be created with this band and I was on food stamps (which I am now). They had jobs and I had been an unskilled laborer my whole life. I grabbed the gold bar.

Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

It was more British men to the US, but this time it was for my show. I would go on to be signed to a five-album joint arrangement with an XL subsidiary called Hot Charity run by Jamie-James Medina and his associate Doug Posey, for which I was the very first artist.

Through Hot Charity I secured a deal with Universal Music Publishing; forcing yet another British man onto a plane to meet me across the water to where I stood. Meanwhile, I stuck around town still riding my bike but riding a bit higher with the hot stacks in my pocket, the hot press and the Hot Charity. I was burning up. It was during this time that Hot Charity added to my very real, but often misconstrued backstory to re-create a situation where I would again take calls from random people, but this time from across the globe while singing songs. This was basically a marketing scheme, which leads into Phase Three of the flyers and phone calls.

"Call me and I'll sing you a song" was really not my idea. In addition to being interviewed about a million times, I also got a lot of drunken, disorderly and lewd calls. The phone rang day and night in my Grandma's house until I bought a nice modern cell phone which also buzzed day and night. I don't remember how we changed the number but we did. My cynicism grew stronger as I began to get a taste of stardom.

One night, however, while sitting in a bar for several hours lamenting the absurdity of my life, I got up to hit the can and have a nice vomit about it. With my head over the toilet and my spirit in the bowl, my back pocket began to buzz again and I answered. The human at the other end just wanted a song to help him feel better. I sang him 'Goodnight Irene'. This alone probably helped me feel legitimate as a potentially inspirational figure.

Soon, I moved to Manhattan with my ex-Girlfriend. Acousmatic Sorcery came out and that was the end of the phone call/flyer spectacle, the beginning of the challenges to come and only the answer to the very first question. My apologies.

I'm impressed with your storytelling abilities in your songwriting because I think that those kinds of narratives are something that hasn't been done for a very long while now. This is especially evident on the final track of Acosmatic Sprcery, "Angel Chorus". I imagine some of the stories in these songs are fiction, perhaps some are real. But they definitely seems inspired by a lot of literary works. What are you reading (or what were you reading) that has captured your imagination?

The song you're referring to is called "The Masquerade" but is not listed as such because it was intended to be one of those surprise songs that play if you don't turn off the record. "Angel Chorus" was just my name for the wordless, cacophonous interlude before it because that's how it sounded to me, like angels in chorus.

"The Masquerade" was featured in the tracklist of the original Acousmatic Sorcery in the Limited Edition Willis Earl Beal Special Collection by Found Magazine and is based upon a true story involving a situation that arose from one of my early flyers in Albuquerque. The song is the story of how an unknown woman once summoned me to a costume party at a small club and the ensuing isolation that I felt as a result of attending this party alone.

In fact, the song is quite literal in its description and I really did wear a faceless phantom mask, which would be a recurring theme in the future of my work. I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits at the time and reading plenty of Haruki Murakami. Currently I'm re-reading the books of Carlos Castaneda and Tao de Ching by Lao Tzu.

The two elements I notice you work with (particularly in your early works) are minimalism and the contrast of extremes. You gain a lot of results simply by placing two ends of the spectrum together, which usually means offsetting your voice with some diametric musical element. For example, often, if you sing in a falsetto register, your musical backdrop will be very bottom-heavy and low-end. If your musical backdrop is lighter, more ambient, your voice becomes a cavernous, booming instrument in its lower register. This seems to be the motif of much of your work. Can you explain this approach to your singing and your music?

What you say is certainly true and though I am aware of it, it's really an intuitive approach that I believe is motivated subconsciously by balance.

I'm sure that it's just how I think my voice should fall within the emotional context of the lyrics and the somewhat physical contour of the notes (synaesthesia), though I have never composed through reading and writing in a notational way. I had to refine the process of transitioning vocally from falsetto to a lower register while manipulating and merging within the nuances of my limited and simplistic musical instrumentation, which is really why I enjoy "soundscapes" rather than rhythm sections.

My process now is not much different, though, in addition to having better recording equipment, I am more "in tune" with what I want to express and how to do so efficiently and stylishly. Refinement is always beneficial and skill can be cultivated sometimes within the development of a niche through refinement of even a simplistic process. Miles Davis believed that there are no 'wrong' notes and that a single string plucked with passion and focus by a novice could produce more interesting results than an uninspired multi-note performance by an expert. I second this emotion and have tested it.

How much of your songwriting depends on improvisation? How much revision goes into the writing and recording process?

It's always different. Sometimes it starts with a color which leads to a feeling then the sound is crafted around this. Sometimes it starts with a musical riff on keyboard or guitar and the lyrics are generated as a result of the feeling of the sonic content which leads to lyrics. Sometimes the feeling is so overwhelming that it writes or sings itself immediately, which accounts for the improvisational factor.

From a single line stored away to a full connection made on another day, it's always different but i'is never forced... not anymore. Although revision is crucial to precision, which is a perpetual pursuit for me at this point; I can happily report that my creative process is more like subtracting than adding, similar to my life.

As your music progresses, I notice that there is a shift to more spiritual themes. Not necessarily religious, but there seems to be a higher esoteric quotient in your music these days. I also notice there's still a heavy atmosphere of sexuality in your songs, but that the line between sexuality and spiritualism is harder to define and these two themes seem to merge at times in your work. How do you view the relationship between sexuality and religion/spiritualism?

Spirituality and sexuality are one and the same. Yet, the powers in control of popular music culture do not wish the masses to know this. That is how mass control is granted; through willing access. Access to the spirit, which begins internally, is gained seamlessly through sexuality because sexuality is extremely potent due to its external connection to the physical realm, which is carnal in nature.

It seems fairly obvious to me that the condition of the external realm must mirror the condition of the internal realm. "Religion" is most often characterized within the construct of man-made churches that dictate elitist and dogmatic doctrines, but religion is really just a simple routine that serves as a reminder of where we come from and where we will return. Although theories regarding the theological implications of truth can be argued, hopefully, none of us can deny that our bodies come from dust... be it Earth dust, stardust or something in between.

Spirituality is scientific. Science itself is sexuality overall because it is the study of Life. Someone is sending powerful messages through the promotion of all major music artists and sexuality is the Flaming Sword of Damocles, but I guess everyone knows this by now.

Also, the more a man's' girlfriend kicks his ass, the more spiritual his music gets. Ha!

ALMS is an album which points more toward the ambient ends of your work. It seems to be more of an extension of the stuff you did on Noctunes and Experiments in Time. What prompted this shift toward a more electronic sound as opposed to a more guitar-based sound?

Well, to be honest I've really always wanted my music to sound ambient as it does today. Despite the continued analog simplicity of my current material, it remains head and shoulders above my old stuff in terms of fully fleshed out ideas, carefully conceived motifs and vocal and instrumental subtlety of performance.

Though I could have purchased a $15 keyboard like the one I currently use , I could not afford (a presently outdated) Tascam Digital 8 Track recorder and mixing board that would allow me to adequately place and edit the sweeping electronic synth strings that I love so much.

I could not generate the atmospheric clarity without a more suitable recording device but I got used to the limitations. Working within these limitations helped me to learn to use the aural depth of the room rather than trying to block it out like more advanced producers do.

Limitation allowed for a special kind of remedial experimentation that was not based upon pre-existing knowledge. Many of the songs were already electronic in my head from the start. Some others were just bare plates of audible poetry and storytelling. Many times I overdubbed the guitar in unconventional ways using cassette tapes to compensate for my inability to play it "correctly". In any event, they all needed to be written and recorded until I could flesh them out more assertively at a later time.

This was my solitary period of documentation which I drew from for quite awhile while gradually building new material; which comes with new experiences.

You record independently now, mainly by yourself. You've expressed these difficulties recently on your Go Fund Me page regarding your troubles in securing funds. Yet you are an extremely prolific songwriter with many releases to your name. Can you elaborate on the process of writing and recording when you are working with very little means?

Well it's easy to produce a good sounding or at least, an interesting record with a decent portable recorder, a healthy imagination, a few instruments and a kaleidoscopic set of emotions... not to mention a car to get you to a motel. For me, as long as I have electricity I will record, no matter what the financial means. If I write songs that I cannot accommodate, then I save them for a time when I can or I let them go and they return to me in other forms.

Fortunately, we now have Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Curensea and Cdbaby as outlets for independent artists, though I am admittedly late to the bandwagon.

You worked exclusively with producers for your second album, Nobody Knows. Since then, you've worked alone. Could you ever work again with another person producing your work?

I occasionally ask myself this question then I know it's really a question of whether I will think it's necessary for what I want to achieve at that time in the future. If forced to give an answer today, I would opt to continue my solo path, but one never knows.

If the project involved Matt DeWine of Pieholden Suite Sound, Nathan Gibson aka Portable Disko Various Moods, Andre Burgos aka Brown Calvin, Albuquerque producer Sleepdepth, Dustin Kracatovich aka Skin Lies, Like a Villain or Vangelis... then maybe. I don't really expect Vangelis. I just threw him in there 'cause I like his sound a whole lot.

Do you plan on returning to a full-band set-up on any future recordings, perhaps a return to a harder sound?

Not planning on joining or creating a band, but Ariel Pink and King Krule eventually did it, so who knows? Harder sounds, however, can be found on my album, A Chaos Paradigm.

You work on many other projects apart from music, including film and visual art. What other works are you currently involved in?

There's a short film directed and written by Dan Buyanovsky that was inspired by and uses the music from my song "Die" off the latest LP ALMS. Sort of a music video but, really much more.

Also, there's a new EP called Sad Sam on Bandcamp featuring an old song I did with Chicago legendary rapper Sharkula and some new material.

Additionally, though I do not know when, exactly, I will be possibly doing voice-over work for an animated film series called Joe about a personified cup of coffee in a surreal world that discovers from the doctor that he is decaf and the alienation that he must endure from his family and friends. No joke.

I've also got a collaborative EP with a Belarusian group called Druidance produced by Vladimir Christopher. The first song is called "3 Angels" and there are three versions so far.

Shout out to Sharkula aka Brian Wharton for patrolling the streets of Chicago 'cause that's more than I will do. Shout out to Moodie Black aka Chris Martinez. Shout out to future Poet Laureates Isaac Kirkmanand and Jeremiah Walton. Shout out to film director Rio Finnegan. Shout out to Portable Disko Various Moods for constant vibes. Shout out to Sarah Besnard at ATC-Live. Shout out to Matt DeWine for Pieholden Suite Sound. Shout out to Jacob at Sound Royalties.

And shout out to my girlfriend Amie for inspiring my latest music and contributing so much to my life.

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