Preview: This story will appear in FADER #79, on stands soon. Willis Earl Beal plays with Wu Lyf tonight in New York at Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Willis Earl Beal sounds like this world is not of his reality. He has the wild, bluesy, near-breakdown voice of a passionate natural who’s better off brandishing his amateur rags than tailoring them into a suit. Discovered by Found magazine via a flyer he’d made which was picked up off the floor, the magazine cemented his “outsider” status with a limited record release. His home recordings have an amniotic sound quality—some tracks were literally recorded from a microphone stuffed in a plastic bag and drowned under running water—and seedling lyrics bump lazily into their own burgeoning poetry, thematically overlapping with tender awkwardness, while a single-stringed acoustic guitar has its way with equally minimal percussion. Acousmatic Sorcery, Beal’s first official, label-backed release, feels steeped in this kind of permanent embryonic state.
At 27, Beal has earned his reputation as a curious lone character, having cobbled a career out of an itinerant lifestyle, alternating between homelessness and squalor in Chicago and Albuquerque, an unwillingness to hold even the most menial job, sleeping on his grandmother’s porch (which he still technically calls home) and singing songs to strangers over the phone. Once the public got wind of this, the lore of Willis Earl Beal spread: here was an unknown artist who popped up out of nowhere, seemingly unconcerned with the idea of anybody else ever listening to or buying his music. After its initial run through Found, Acousmatic Sorcery was picked up and reissued as the first release on XL imprint, Hot Charity, spurring a good amount of recognition—Beal claims even Bruce Springsteen was asking about him.
Beal’s confused about it all though. “I think about the prospective expectations that people might have. I don’t think they or anybody really understands what it is I do because I hardly understand it. I don’t have any musical talent. I sing pretty good and I write okay lyrics but as far as conventional musical ability, that’s not what I have. And I never intended for it to be like that. I just wanted to create interesting sound art for people to listen to. And I’m glad I got discovered, but I’m kinda wary of it.”
Although he’s “not really interested in performing live,” he is already heading out on his first tour, with SBTRKT, the electronic producer who’s also known to shy away from public recognition by always performing in a mask. “I feel overexposed as a result of seeing other people’s response to what it is I’ve done in private,” says Beal. “I wish I could perform with a potato sack over my head. Anonymity is a beautiful thing. Anonymity creates freedom.”