A couple years ago, I met a musician in a fancy bar on the Upper East Side named Willis Earl Beal for an interview. He was wearing a hat and a Zorro-style mask and he got in a fight with the bartender about whether or not he could keep his hat on. After things were settled, we sat down and had a conversation about, well, everything. He was a ball of emotions—a walking contradiction, talking in circles, admittedly pretentious, sounding a bit like he’d spent the week reading Philosophy 101 books but not really caring because he really did present these ideas with true conviction. It was pretty fascinating to watch him struggle with his inner turmoil, and is still to this day one of the most memorable conversations I’ve had in my career.
"No matter what the surroundings are, the person remains," he told me. "You always have to look at yourself in the mirror. Success is an illusion. If you start out trying to do something merely for riches and to fuck girls, you don’t have anything. It’s out here if you want it, but it comes at a price."
At the time, he was promoting his record Nobody knows., a swirling record of titanic emotion all driven by his booming, baritone voice. He’d claimed to be homeless for a bit before recording it. He told me about the dumpy apartment he lived in at the time. He seemed like an old soul meant for a life before the internet. The album came and went, unfortunately not landing like I (and he) hoped. He lost his deal with XL Records, and kind of went quiet. Last year, he self-released another LP called Experiments in Time. Again, it didn’t succeed too well commercially, but there was a special corner of music lovers who were thankful for more Beal. To be frank, it makes sense Beal’s music wouldn’t resonate with the average person. It’s deeply personal, complicated, and truthfully sometimes difficult to listen to because the emotion behind the music is so urgent.
Now, Willis Earl Beal is back, again, with a new record. Since our conversation in a Woody Allen-esque bar in New York City, he’s wandered to the Pacific Northwest where he’s recorded among nature, finding himself living in a small shack just house outside of Olympia, Washington. This time around, his project is called Noctunes, and once again, it’s a beautifully dark experience. Noisey is premiering one of the lead singles called “Survive,” a twisted and pulsing track that’s, to no surprise, driven by Beal’s dynamic and massive voice. The lyrics are pure and full of conviction, with Beal pleading with the listener to just get by, floating over the pulsing tribal-esque drums. It’s a nice indicator of the rest of Noctunes, which plays with the idea of the human condition and the difficulty of swimming through the shit that we’re faced with every day.
Stream “Survive” below. Noctunes is out on August 28.