All Photos By Morgen Schuler
The very last thing Willis Earl Beal would want me to include in his introduction would be an allusion to Robert Johnson. Since he emerged a few years back as a DIY purveyor of idiosyncratic soul, Beal has bristled at comparisons to the Mississippi axeman who, according to folklore, created the blues at a certain crossroads.
Thing is, when I met the Chicago native this past winter, Beal was at just such a junction, he explained. He and his wife had recently moved from New York to Lacey, Wash., the latest stop on his drift toward creative liberty—or possibly back to artistic obscurity.
He had no plan or desire to promote his then-latest album, Nobody Knows, by touring, he told me. His relationship with the well-regarded indie label XL Recordings, which had helped propel him from semi-homeless unknown to New York Times–reviewed act, had begun to fray. He was chafing at the commercialization of his music and the demands of touring. (He played locally at Barboza’s opening in 2012, the same year he kicked a Dutch fan in the face and was detained by police.) He’d even begun wearing a black fabric mask to hide behind onstage.
More worrisome: His $145,000 advance had dwindled to $6,000. Then, without the label’s support, he self-released A Place That Doesn’t Exist, a ragged eight-track EP, in January, soon after moving to the Northwest.
I first met Beal on Capitol Hill, having spotted his face in the crowd. He looked lost. And familiar. So I ask him, “Has anyone ever told you that you look a lot like a singer named Willis Earl Beal?”
“Yes, and thank you,” he says.
“Are you Willis Earl Beal?”
There’s a pause as he weighs his answer, then lets down his guard. “Yes.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon at Linda’s Tavern. Take me to where there are people with tattoos and liquor, he’d asked. A few hours before the start of happy hour, the place was empty. As the whiskey shots and rounds of beer did their work, our five-hour talk didn’t feel like such an awkward imposition. He wanted to talk. He needed to vent. We discussed topics up to and including his resistance to the classification of his music and his appreciation for the works of feral youth and rapper Chief Keef.
“I don’t want people to hear ‘black’ when they listen to my music, I want them to hear me,” he says. “All of these people are just grouping me together with these blues artists. I reject that. I reject being labeled. That’s why I envy people like Chief Keef, because he doesn’t care. He can just be himself and not deal with other people labeling or characterizing his music. I just want to express my reality just like him.”
The reality of Beal’s hardscrabble life is complicated and genre-averse. He’s been homeless; he’s worked in fast food and for FedEx. He writes poetry, draws, and identifies with Charles Bukowski, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits. After a short stint in the Army followed by a medical crisis, he ended up in Albuquerque with a girlfriend, where he began to write songs with thrift-store guitars and karaoke machines. He publicized his music with handmade fliers, one of which came to the attention of Found magazine editor Davy Rothbart, who published a 2011 collection of Beal’s music and writings. XL took notice of Beal, then back in Chicago, and his 2012 lo-fi album Acousmatic Sorcery drew national attention and praise. Soon he was out touring and recording with Cat Power.
Two years later, Beal sounds exhausted and jaded by his relatively brief music-biz career. “I loved Nobody Knows, but I was done with it,” he tells me. “It’s almost like Nobody Knows was my industry record, and A Place That Doesn’t Exist is my anti-industry record. There’s an anti-capitalist message in Nobody Knows. So it’s almost like if you purchased Nobody Knows, you could see this coming.”
His label didn’t see it coming, and Beal is leaving XL, choosing also to self-release his new Experiments in Time via the website CD Baby on August 8. Most of Experiments was conceived and recorded in New York, he says. Some tracks, however, he was inspired to write after reaching the Pacific Northwest.
So why did Beal move here? There are multiple reasons. Because our state’s progressive bent reflects his own, Beal says. Transplanting here in January with his wife, who works as a nurse, was also the realization of a long-held dream: to live in solitude, surrounded by trees. But perhaps more important, Beal says that living in New York City was stifling his creativity.
“I couldn’t hear the music in New York,” he says. “The lines are too rigid and distinct. I could see the people actually physically walking the lines. They dress the same. They all have that same voice that has proliferated to nearly everywhere in the United States. You can’t see the lines here.”
In returning to the DIY realm, of course, Beal gains full control of his work while losing access to the machinery and marketing the label provided. “It’s not about XL,” he says. “I put them through all types of hell trying to get [Nobody Knows] exactly how I wanted it. But don’t make the mistake of believing that fame and fortune is going to give you something great. It will change your life in some aspects. Maybe you’ll see some different countries and shit like that. But there is a price to be paid.”
Beal sounds ready to accept the risks of being a truly indie, unsupported artist. Months after our initial encounter, I reach him by phone just as he’s about to set off for a walk in the woods. I ask whether he’ll tour behind Experiments in Time. “No,” he replies. “I’m not nervous. You don’t need a lot of money when your standard of living is as low as mine.”
In that way, his path may have come full circle: back to recording on primitive equipment and promoting the music by his lonesome. Only now he’s not limited to leaving copies of albums with handwritten messages at coffee shops. Today Beal has a fan base that follows his work on Facebook and willisearlbeal.com. Beal says CD Baby will also help fund one of two videos he hopes will help stimulate sales (artists receive a healthy cut of the online music store’s proceeds).
The new album, he says, “will be a minimalist symphony, full of lo-fi electronic sounds and stark imagery. It’s going to be a reflection on my limitations as a musician. It has to do with me trying to figure out who the hell I am.”
Five years into his career, the answer remains elusive. Beal’s life has changed radically. He overcame obscurity in Chicago, burnt out on fame in New York, and now lives in relative seclusion near a lake in suburban Olympia. Maybe it’s better that way. To move forward, to find the answer to that question, maybe Beal had to go back.