There’s a plaza at the intersection of 75th Street and First Avenue in the Upper East Side mostly occupied by pigeons, passerbys and the wandering, transient citizens of New York. It’s an odd place to conduct an interview. Perhaps that’s why Willis Earl Beal wanted to meet there last week to talk about his forthcoming album Nobody knows..
If there’s anyone who understands the ephemeral, fortuitous and murky nature of life, it’s Beal. He is the unlikely offshoot of an avant garde folk movement that has erupted in pockets—Cass McCombs’ wanderlust songwriting, Bonnie "Prince" Billy’s Kentucky blues-punk—over the past few years. But Beal still stands out as an outlier, even among artists who make similar music, even among those who grapple with the dissonance of subsisting from art.
When we met, at 2 p.m., Willis is reclining on a dirty park bench. His face veiled in a dark mask. He’s totally unfazed by my arrival, sips casually from a brown paper bag and puffs a haze of thick, flavorful cigar smoke. There’s an antisocial air about his activity. Still, Beal is warm and animated as he talks, an adept conversationalist and a convincing campaigner for a different kind of lifestyle.
"If you’re part of any industry—beyond the money stuff because that’s a whole other issue—you will make money based on people’s ability to understand what you are,” Beal said toward the beginning of our hour long conversation. “If you can be put in a box, then it’s easy for the public to reach you and then it’s easy for them to decide if they want to give you money. As an evolving person, like we all are, I don’t know how to sell myself and I also don’t know if I want to continue doing that."
He emerged through an unlikely Found magazine cover story in December 2009, a four page interview with writer Davy Rothbart led the magazine to also release a limited collection of his poems, art and the initial CD of his first album Acousmatic Sorcery. A lengthy Chicago Reader profile in 2011 added to the conversation and Beal’s story became something of an enigma.
The singer was subsequently signed by XL Recordings who re-released his initial album Acousmatic Sorcery in 2012. Approximately a year later, after gaining media attention and touring internationally, Beal will now release not one, but two albums. Nobody knows. will come out in just a few weeks on September 10, but he has plans to drop a second album this winter.
"If you can believe it, I’ve already recorded another record in addition to Nobody knows.," he said. "We’ll do it around Christmas time and charge people a few extra bucks. I really wanted to give it away for free, but I can’t just give shit away for free. I consider it to be the experimental version of Nobody knows., I want to call it Who Knows. Nobody knows. is my straight record as far as I’m concerned."
Creativity’s a beautiful thing. Having to tell people to pay attention to it is not a beautiful thing.
"All these songs kind of materialized at the same time, but the way I organized the playlist, it should’ve come first. But everything happens as it should. When people hear that record, the first three songs they won’t even believe it’s me. It’s more dense lyrically, the songs are longer, and I’m singing in more of a baritone rather than that high soul register. I’m doing kind of a Scott Walker imitation. Creativity’s a beautiful thing. Having to tell people to pay attention to it is not a beautiful thing."Continue Reading