Willis Earl Beal Talks Disappointment, Struggle and the Path to 'Nobody Knows'
Published Sep 11, 2013This week, eclectic lo-fi songwriter Willis Earl Beal released Nobody Knows, a record grounded in the improvisational musical approach and free-flowing Dylan-esque lyricism that marked his 2012 debut, Acousmatic Sorcery. The new album comes after the Chicago native was forced to adapt to the reality of the music business, following years of working menial jobs and occasional stretches of homelessness. What that reinforced in him was a dedication to his art that did not waver when it came time to make Nobody Knows, whose concept, says Beal, was inspired by his personal philosophy that people are all connected.
"The purpose of this record is to highlight the struggle of one person, but to make that person just generalized enough so that a listener could almost believe it's their own conscience or their own thoughts," Beal tells Exclaim! "There's a beginning, a middle and an end, and the end is a kind of peaceful resignation. The beginning is a complete obliviousness and the middle is a disintegration, or a delving into some sort of darkness. There's a peak, and then you come out of it. I wanted to highlight that, and I wanted to try to bring people together and make them understand that old cliché that we're all one."
Recorded largely in Amsterdam with producer Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, Savages), and featuring cameos by Cat Power and TV on the Radio's Jahphet Landis, Beal describes Nobody Knows as his official debut, saying that he was deeply disappointed by the number of critics and fellow musicians who heard Acousmatic Sorcery — a collection of songs recorded with toy instruments on a boom box, but nonetheless a showcase for Beal's powerful voice and equally staggering writing ability — and labelled him either a novelty act or a primitive blues singer.
"I wanted a modern experimental, updated sound," he says. "I wanted to create lullabies. I wanted to make music like Lana Del Rey, honestly. When I first heard 'Video Games,' I said, 'See, that orchestral, jazzy torch singer sound, that slow, romantic ambient, cinematic sound is what I want and that's what I'm capable of, but I've got to play this fucking lo-fi thing.' That's no disrespect to the blues, but being from Chicago, being black, being from the south side, all that shit played a part in how they looked at me."
Beal is continuing to expand his artistic horizons, having just starred in director Tim Sutton's feature, Memphis, which recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The role turned into a rough approximation of himself, and he says the experience was another important step for him toward achieving some kind of self-awareness that to this point has eluded him.
"I just feel like I've been lying my whole life, and so many years have been wasted," Beal says. "I'm at a point now where I'm ready to discover some type of religion or some type of truth. And it's weird that my truth happens to be Nobody. It's very poetic and nice, but I really hope that I accomplish my goal and not succumb to whatever paltry little attention I get and think that that's going to tide me over for the rest of my life."
Nobody Knows is out now via Hot Charity/XL.