Willis Earl Beal Art's Unknown

Willis Earl Beal Art's Unknown
Photo: Ben Pobjoy
There may be no better artist to embody the beautiful chaos of contemporary culture than Willis Earl Beal. His 2012 album, Acousmatic Sorcery, was a dizzyingly diverse collection of boom box recordings made while the Chicago native was exiled for a time in Albuquerque. These were discovered by XL Recordings, who thrust him onto international stages backed only by a reel-to-reel player, along with a few instruments he couldn't really play.

Yet Beal's powerfully soulful voice and Dylan-esque lyrics spoke directly to anyone searching for an identity within the corporatized world, a sentiment displayed on the "Nobody" T-shirt he wore for every appearance. That concept is the foundation of Beal's new album, Nobody Knows, a cri de coeur that fully fleshes out the primitivism of Acousmatic Sorcery with the aid of producer Rodaidh McDonald, and cameos by Cat Power and TV On The Radio's Jahphet Landis.

Beal considers Nobody Knows to be his proper debut, since the material likewise had its origins in Albuquerque. But when initial sessions began during an extended tour break in Amsterdam, he needed encouragement to recall the songs. "It was supposed to be my vacation, and they didn't tell me that the real reason I was going there was specifically to record," Beal says. "Every morning I'd go down to the coffee shop, get a pure skunk joint, a hash muffin and a cup of coffee and sit there for an hour. I'd come to the studio laughing my ass off, totally zoned."

What Beal hopes for most is that Nobody Knows disproves those who believe he's a novelty act. "The music itself highlights an individual's struggle, that ends up being a universal struggle," he says. "I'm not trying to make a cult, I'm just asking people when they see me with the 'Nobody' symbol on stage, or see it on the record, to think, that's me, that's how I feel."