Willis Earl Beal is not the typical up-and-coming artist. Though Pitchfork may be interviewing him and though he may be touring with SBTRKT and though he may now be signed to Hot Charity - an XL imprint – Beal’s notoriety is of a much different kind.
He began his music “career” in Albuquerque by leaving CD-Rs on park benches or street corners. He continued his unconventional ways after moving back to his native Chicago, posting flyers around the city with his phone number or address. He asked for friends, sang songs to his callers and drew pictures for his writers. Beal would perform at train stations downtown before returning to his grandmother’s house, where he still lives. He told the Chicago Reader that he would play with the feral cats near her house and dance to Bo Diddley songs while the neighbors stared in disbelief.
Though the neighborhood may have thought Beal an oddity, others saw his genius. While in Albuquerque Found magazine published a special issue on him. Unfortunately he disappeared from New Mexico before anything could grow from the new attention. As a result, the tours and record deals have just now begun, and his debut album is still yet to be released.
Yet the odd YouTube videos of Beal and his lone single already show his greatness. His songs range from soulful ballads sung a cappella (and filmed under bridges, in some instances) to rough and tumble Tom Waits-y romps. All of them, however, contain the kind of heartfelt, earnest, and yet unrefined lyricism you’d expect from a man like Beal:
Tears don’t flow from my eyes, no longer go for the lies
I don’t protest or resist, I’m not invested in this
I’m backing out of the fight to give my spirit tonight
He sings on “Evening’s Kiss”. His voice here is soft and tender, eking out over plucked guitars. But on “Same Old Tears”, Beal sings with abandon, so powerful and confident that one can’t help but wonder how Chicago’s train-riders ignored the man as they passed him in the subways.
And now sipping from the cup
I have given all my fuck
I feel afraid but I am tough
Sailing on a sea of luck
I shed the same old tears
Another video of the same series (“Wavering Lines”, both filmed for urbaneyez.com) shows Beal breaking hearts as he sings about broken bikes, Colt 45, and a roll of cash in his sock. Lines like “I got a bladder full of piss and I’m gonna let go” hint at his darker side – the side that recognizes the anger in the heartbreak and the knowing disillusionment that can only come from a man who plays with feral cats at his grandmother’s house. This side of Beal is on display in “Take Me Away”, his growls played over pounding drums that sound like they’ve been recorded through a crumbling wall and his voice transformed into something gritty and tenacious.
Tom Waits‘ influence on Beal is most evident in these songs, but despite that fact, Beal sounds unique. The combination of that special voice, the willingness to alter it for different aesthetics, and the simple beauty of his Southside Chicago songwriting allow him to transform whatever tradition he inherits into a style entirely his own. He told Pitchfork that he’d like to continually change styles, to – like Waits – always do something new and not let his listeners’ expectations limit the music he makes. Already obvious in the few songs available, Beal is making music unlike anything else coming out.
Though Beal may be touring with dubstep artists, he seems of a different era than his contemporaries. Yet the fact that he could have made a Myspace and chose to post flyers instead makes Beal’s music a perfect complement to the modern music scene. He speaks to fans of Waits, overlaps with trendy acts like Girls and Kurt Vile, but he does it in new – or is it old? – ways, and in doing so guarantees a genuine artistry that has become increasingly hard to find. Beal admits that his flyers were no publicity stunt, but the result of a very real loneliness. Rather, Beal’s public persona is an honest look into the mind of a man perfect for performance.
The story of his discovery is essential to understanding his music precisely because his music reflects it so flawlessly. Each of his songs contains the seed of this story. The genuine, earnest honesty is always there – the unique understanding, the strange insight of a man who is and will always be an outsider. But at the same time, there’s a connection, an overwhelming beauty to the songs, even in their dirtiest moments, that strikes one as an experience. This is art. Beal makes real music, music that touches and music that begs for an emotional response. In that, Beal is no outsider. He is an artist in the vein of Waits, Jeff Mangum, and even someone like Townes Van Zandt.