Willis Earl Beal has artists like James Blake, Damon Albarn, and Mos Def all wanting to work with him. That in itself is impressive for a 27-year-old musician, but even more impressive is the fact that Willis Earl Beal has never promoted himself—at least, not like the typical artist in a modern world. Willis doesnt have a Facebook account. He doesn’t do Twitter or Bandcamp, and until 2011, he hadn’t ever performed in public. He did, however, put out flyers in his hometown of Chicago. The flyers (like this one) often came with sketches and messages like, “call me and I will sing you a song” along with a telephone number. He told people to write to him, call him, spread the word about him, and he left CDs containing his raw home recordings scattered around the city. This was Willis’ promotion plan.
And it worked.
Willis Earl Beal signed a record deal with XL Recordings (Radiohead, Adele, Tyler, The Creator, The xx, etc.) and is planning to release his debut album in March. It’s clear that this deal is about more than Willis’ music. The music is there, and it’s good, but it’s about him. His music is as eclectic as you can get when you’re dealing with a karaoke machine to record. He’s got a really strong voice, but he doesn’t always choose to use it, and just when you think you’ve got him pegged for some kind of lo-fi Tom Waits vs. Jandek hybrid, you get “Evening Kiss.” There goes that label.
The thing that is consistent about Willis Earl Beal, however, is this unmistakeable aura you get from him. The story, the recordings, the lyrics, the look on his face in the few photographs that you can find. He’s an odd character, but one that is hard not to become fascinated with. You can talk all you want about “it’s all about the music,” but that’s simply not true, and it never has been. From outlandish rock stars to mysterious enigmas, the artist’s story has always played a role. There’s something in our human nature draws us into unique stories about the unfamiliar, and Willis Earl Beal is one of these stories. We don’t completely understand him, but we want to. His recordings are a glimpse into this character, and that makes the listening experience feel more meaningful and more rewarding.
When I saw the flyer with his telephone number, I doubted that I would actually reach anyone on the other line, and I was hesitant to even call. But I did. The phone rang, and instantly my heart started to beat heavily. Was I really about to call this guy and ask him to sing me a song? I paced in my apartment as it rang three more times. Right before the fourth ring, a man picked up. “Hello?” I didn’t say anything. “Is someone there? If you’re there, say something… is anyone on the other line?” I held my breath. “Okay, I’m going to hang up now, call me when you’re ready to talk.”
I’m not sure why I didn’t say anything—I guess I still get nervous to talk on the phone with people I don’t know—but I knew right away that I’d have to call back. I waited 20 minutes, then called again.
Hey, is this Willis?
Yeah, this is Willis.
Hi, my name is Jacob. I heard your music for the first time tonight, and saw one of the flyers with your number on it. Do you still do that?
Do I still sing songs for people, you mean?
Yeah, I still do that.
Do you get a lot of people calling you and asking you to sing?
Yeah, I do. When I first set that up, I got about 80 calls and I would do it most of the time. I’d say 70 out of the 80 times, I would sing.
One of the things that really intrigued me is your story. I’ve always been fascinated by artists like Jandek and Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel, and I’ve always kind of related to them—people who want to do creative things and share them but aren’t interested in being the center of attention or really putting themselves in the spotlight.
Oh yeah, Jandek. I just watched Jandek In Corwood last night.
[Laughs] Really? I own that movie. That shit is crazy.
Yeah. I have Ready For The House and Your Turn To Fall, so yeah, I know Jandek.
“James Blake has expressed interest in working together, and then we were thinking maybe I should do something with Jamie xx. But so far, I’ve always worked alone.”
What are your plans for music? I read that other artists like James Blake and Mos Def are fans of your music. Are you aware of that?
Yeah, James Blake has expressed interest in working together, and then we were thinking maybe I should do something with Jamie xx. But so far, I’ve always worked alone. I guess now that I’m getting noticed, that might have to change. I just hope that transition is seamless, you know what I mean? But I do want to add some new sounds to my music.
So your new music is going to sound different, not all acoustic?
I want to go for a junkyard industrial kind of sound. If you’ve heard Tom Waits, you know, that kind of sound.
Has anyone tried to get you to go in a different direction?
Some people have talked to me and have wanted me to be a neo-soul artist. And nothing against neo-soul, but that’s just not what I want to do.
You’re with XL right?
Yeah, I just signed with XL Recordings.
“I have a friend in Portland, Oregon, so I’m going to go there and record by myself and they’ll let me do whatever the fuck I want. So that’s how this next album is going to be recorded.”
They seem like a good label to be with, like they give their artists freedom and don’t really force them to do anything that they don’t want to do.
Oh, yeah. Definitely. They are very cool, they’ll let me do whatever I want. I have a friend in Portland, Oregon, so I’m going to go there and record by myself and they’ll let me do whatever the fuck I want. So that’s how this next album is going to be recorded.
So I guess why I called, and I have to ask, but it’s fine if you don’t want to, but will you sing a song?
Sure, I’ll sing a song. I don’t end up talking this much to most people. Most people just want me to sing.
Yeah, well I was really intrigued. Your story is really interesting.
Well, I guess I’ll sing a song now. I can’t sing Jandek, because you can’t really sing Jandek songs. This isn’t my song, but it’s one of my favorites.
[This is where the song would have gone. I recorded it, but in the process of uploading, the file was lost and couldn’t be recovered. Maybe it’s better that way. Standing in my apartment, listening to Willis sing over the phone, just for me, was a unique, wonderful, and strangely personal experience. You’d think it might be awkward, but it was the furthest thing. He sang a something that sounded old and soulful, but maybe that’s just because it was Willis singing it, or maybe it was just the fuzzy quality of the telephone audio. I don’t know what song it was, and I didn’t ask, and it didn’t really matter.]
There you go.
That was awesome. Thank you.
You’re welcome. Thanks for calling me. Google me, and tell some people about my music.
I will. Good luck with everything man.
Thank you. Peace.
And that was the time I called Willis Earl Beal.