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Willis Earl Beal Explores an Uncertain Voice on 'Nobody Knows'

'I wanna make a mark so I can get the hell out," the singer says

Willis Earl Beal performs in Lorne, Australia.
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
September 4, 2013 11:25 AM ET

In June 2010, Willis Earl Beal left Albuquerque without any of his belongings. He'd drifted there after a stint in the Army, spent some time sleeping in the train station or outside a pizza shop, working security or other odd jobs. There, he also began using a karaoke box and a few radio cassette decks to record music.

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But his sudden departure was triggered by a familiar source: he and his girlfriend called it quits and subsequently, the town lost its charm. So Beal hightailed it back to his hometown of Chicago, leaving his stuff behind with all those home recordings.

"A month later," Beal recalls to Rolling Stone, "my landlord sent my tapes to Chicago with a sad letter saying, 'This is why the Buddhists say you can never depend on anything.'" Willis splits a dumbstruck silence with a still bewildered chuckle. "If I didn't have those tapes, I wouldn't have a career right now."

With those tapes, Beal cobbled together his debut Acousmatic Sorcery, which was released by Found Magazine in 2011. A year later, the LP was re-released by Hot Charity, an imprint of indie giant XL Recordings. The guy who once dropped CD-Rs of his music throughout Albuquerque, who tacked up fliers around Chicago promising he'd sing if you gave his grandma's house a call, now had the resources of a label rolling deep in that sweet Adele money. He opened for Cat Power and did the festival thing, performing songs also from those Albuquerque tapes, which included tunes that appear on his honed, harrowing, hyper-aware follow-up, Nobody Knows, out September 10th. 

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About half of Nobody Knows was recorded in Amsterdam: Armed with hash muffins, joints and coffee, Beal recreated his Albuquerque process, tinkering until the right notes caught his ear. He told sound guy and co-producer Matt DeWine to hit record, laid it down, then played it back while he toyed with a new instrument, and so on (parts were outsourced to more experienced musicians when necessary). Then, Beal sang — his voice showing a wide range, capable of blue moon howls ("Too Dry To Cry"), lithe existential lullabies ("Wavering Lines") and somber soul ("Disintegrating"). 

"The soul of the song lies in uncertainty," Beal, who has no actual musical training, says. "If there's no uncertainty to begin with, then the song is dead … I have a lot more fun doing what it is I do because I'm in this sort of state of arrested development. But on the other hand, you have very little control when you're like that. Not only in art and music, but also in life. You have to sort of throw your cares to the wind and just glide." 

This is Beal in a nutshell: Confident in his ideals, in so much as he's also conscious of their every accompanying contradiction. He's living out this musician's odyssey, but worries the rug's about to be yanked out from underneath him. He followed his heart to art and music, but now his work is part of a capitalist exchange. He loves to write and record, but hates touring and admits he's not equipped for this business. "I want to make a little mark," he says. "I don't know what kind of mark I'm gonna make, but I wanna make a mark so that I can get the hell out." But despite, or maybe because of, all those dualities, Beal believes he's getting what he wants: "Some sort of spiritual, psychological, metaphysical awakening. I'm experiencing this side of the spectrum, just like I experienced the other side." 

 

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