Willis Earl Beal
Willis Earl Beal will be playing End Of The Road Festival 2012.
He made dozens of songs using whatever spare instruments and materials he could find in Albuquerque’s flea markets, thrift stores and alleyways; a red electric guitar, forgotten acoustic guitars, a lap harp, a makeshift drum kit created from pots and pans.”
Willis Earl Beal isn’t an easy person to find. He isn’t on Facebook and never had a MySpace page. No Twitter account, nothing on SoundCloud, not a single BandCamp page with his name attached to it. All I had to guide me was a curious flyer I found tacked to the wall of a used bookstore on Chicago’s west side displaying a rough drawing of a slender man with a bizarre message thnot a Weasel”, signed willis earl beal and a phone number.
Speaking to Willis on the phone is a peculiar, often thrilling experience. He dips in and out conversation – dropping the phone to turn up the TV or radio, or argue with his brother in the background. He’ll pause mid-sentence to rid debt-collectors on call waiting or if you’re lucky, sing one of his many songs. ‘Of course willis earl beal can sing’, I thought the first time this happened. Beal’s songs were immediately arresting, his soulful croon sincerely underscoring lyrics about everyday tedium, fear, and death. Sometimes he’d simply place the receiver up to a speaker and play me his existing recordings. The tunes sounded sublimely messy – his drumming sometimes skipping the beat, his overdubbed melodies sometimes sounded clamped together, his guitar chords sometimes rang in and out of tune – but it felt urgent, vital and real. I felt like I had stumbled upon a mystery and those enchanting songs kept me on the hunt. I finally met Beal a few weeks later and wrote a story about him that graced the cover of the Chicago Reader’s B Side.
Now, after years of toiling in obscurity, Hot Charity/XL Recordings will release Beal’s debut album, Acousmatic Sorcery, on March 19th. The album’s 11 songs are taken from a series of recordings Beal made while living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After living in the Chicagoland area for his entire life, Beal felt compelled to be near the desert, an idea he had long romanticized. “The desolate atmosphere was always in my head,” Beal says. He arrived in Albuquerque without a plan, a place to live, or enough money to live off of. He lived on the streets while trying to land a job and began singing to help him cope while sleeping rough. He spent days drawing and printing up his flyers, distributing them all over his new city. Eventually Beal found work as the night porter at a motel.
It was during the late-night shifts that the 27-year-old musician from the south side of Chicago found his voice and taught himself to make music. The recordings are a result of what one creative mind could do with a few found instruments and objects; a cassette-based karaoke machine and a $20 microphone. Somehow Beal managed to create warm, visceral and moving music seemingly out of nothing, just a little bit of imagination – it’s practically magic done without any fancy gadgetry, hence the name Acousmatic Sorcery. He made dozens of songs using whatever spare instruments and materials he could find in Albuquerque’s flea markets, thrift stores and alleyways; a red electric guitar, forgotten acoustic guitars, a lap harp, a makeshift drum kit created from pots and pans. Beal selected the songs for Acousmatic Sorcery because he feels they offer a look at his development as a musician – creativity vs. ability. “They represent my dreams as much as they represent my lack of real musical ability,” he says. Perhaps most importantly: “They represent my experience in Albuquerque. I was there. It happened.”
The downcast Evening’s Kiss recounts a particular trip to a local diner, where an attractive waitress who Beal found likeable happened to work: Beal would dress up in a suit in an effort to impress her and in the hopes of perhaps wooing her, but on this night something felt amiss. “I felt like ‘Jesus Christ, I’m just a fraud. I’m here and I’m deluding myself into thinking that this person, this waitress, is actually interested in me,” Beal says. He grabbed a napkin and scribbled down some heartbreaking lines about losing out on a desired dream, about “the evening’s kiss got me fading away.” At that moment the sky seemed to part and rain fell over the desert and everyone in the diner began to cheer.
As the summer came to an end, Beal plotted his journey back to Chicago. “I started feeling real, actual loneliness that meant something. I would sit around in dark shades, dressed nicely and trying to look cool but I didn’t feel cool on the inside. I had found what I was looking for.” As he traveled across America he continued to receive phone calls as his flyers made their own journey, appearing on the cover of FOUND Magazine, a publication made up of discarded ephemera. One caller introduced himself as “Mos Def” and together they plotted to write a script based on Beal’s life, with Mos Def playing the lead. One caller asked for help with her homework. Another caller using the name Steve The Tranny asked for career advice and the two plotted to audition for a new show called The X-Factor. Neither made the cut and once again the empty sky seemed to part and rain fell over the desert and everyone in the auditorium began to cheer.