Photo by Jessica Lehrman
Willis Earl Beal is the type of person you just remember. Last year, just before he released his second record Nobody knows., I met up with the singer-songwriter at Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and we talked about, well, pretty much everything. Behind a mask—like, this dude is literally always wearing a mask—Beal shared his perspective on life, one that is steadfast on remaining full of wonder but held back by frustration; his interview responses constantly get lost in a circle of self-awareness. His music, an innovative blend of neo-soul and traditional songwriting, is the same, but where he really shines is with his voice, a booming baritone that's the sonic equivalent of a linebacker running through a brick wall. Earlier this year, Beal and his former label went separate ways, and he self-released his newest album, Experiments in Time, a record that continues down the path he's set for himself, keeping the themes of his music veiled—yet clearly trying to say something grandiose.
But Beal has also recently stepped outside of the role of a musician. Currently, he's starring in a new film called Memphis, directed by Tim Sutton, about a musician trying to make it. The film, like Beal's music, looks inward, dealing with what the human condition actually is. A few weeks ago, I called Beal up and we caught up about his previous year, and talked his transition to acting. We're also happy to premiere one of the tracks from the film, "Flying So Low," which you can stream below.
Noisey: How has your year been?
Willis Earl Beal: More than good or bad, there’s just been a lot of emptiness. A lot of just plain emptiness. There’s no interpretation of it whatsoever. That’s how the majority of my year has been. It’s to remember that sometimes, when you’re just sitting at the table looking at the cat.
Willis Earl Beal - "Flying So Low" (produced by Scott Bomar)
What does acting allow you to do that you can’t with your music?
Well, I don’t act, so it’s the same. It’s just more me, you know? Music is the unbridled expression of me and how I think and how I live and how I feel. Being in this film, for me, as uncomfortable as my real life.
It’s interesting you don’t consider yourself acting, even though you’re in front of a camera.
Well, I’m not in front of a camera now and I consider myself to be acting. So when I’m in front of a camera, I consider myself not to be acting. It’s a trade-off, always, but it’s really the same thing and I’m just moving around the pieces. Walking around in my daily existence, I feel, is really artificial, like a bad actor. The transition from one to the other is actually pretty easy, believe it or not—I mean, it’s difficult, but it’s no more difficult than real life.
I don’t personally feel like I would have a long career in acting. I just don’t believe in acting anymore. I used to believe that acting was a good medium for me to express myself through. But that’s directly contrary of it. You cannot express yourself through acting. You are expressing some version or aspect of your personality, but I always hear actors say how after they finish a film they don’t watch it, so what do they get out of it? I don’t know. Probably something, but I do things so I can revisit them and learn from them. I don’t just do it to have it varporize. I’m trying to claim time. I’m trying to hold something. I know you can’t hold time, but film is the closest thing we have to holding time as possible, that you can get.
Do you feel the same sort of interaction watching the film as you do listening to your music?
Yeah, it’s exactly the same. Because it’s a film of waves—I mean actual, physical waves that eminent from the screen. When I listen to my music, I personally experience that same thing. It’s more vibration. With film, it’s more—I see the waves more. Actually, no, it’s hard to express. I feel the waves of music. I see them as a result of feeling them. With film, I see the waves, but there’s nothing to connect them to. It’s totally in the air. But with music, the feeling is directly correlated to a vibrational pulse. That’s the difference. But there’s always waves.
It’s interesting you look at that in a physical sense.
I think I’m dealing with the real world. It’s not a perception. It’s reality. The reality of all things manifest themselves in some physical form. I believe in the soul as energy and energy as force. I don’t see why media should be any different. Everything has its own frequency. When you create a film or you make music, all you’re doing is assembling things from reality that are already in existence. You’re not creating a new thing. You’re just restructuring your reality. It’s not new, but it is new at the same time, so this thing has no choice but to affect you in a physical way. It affects you differently because the waves that are coming from this thing, the frequency that’s coming from this thing are different because of what you altered, chemically. It’s going to have a different effect on you, than say something else, like the wind blowing through your hair. It’s like a dream. Have you ever held a physical object in your dream? You’re not holding a physical object in reality but who is to say what reality is? If you were, in fact, holding a physical object, and you felt it, who’s to say it’s not reality. I’ve had sex in my dreams. Real, actual sex. Things are a mystery, but I also think it’s very straightforward. These ideas seem radical simply because we’re not in tune to it with our daily lives, because I think that living in this construct of existence makes us very unaware and out of tune with what is.
How do you see all of this intersect with your art and music?
I can’t really talk about anything else. It’s not like this phase. The music—I don’t even know what music is, honestly—is just a vessel where I get to talk about stuff like this and I get to explore this stuff for myself. Music is a very small representation or document, it’s like a report, to me. Music is, I don’t know how to put it, this small version or summary of what I’ve learned. Sonically and vibrational-wise and informational-wise, it’s this document.
How was the response been to the release of Experiments in Time? You left your label.
Initially, I was very encouraged because CD Baby reached out and were like, hey, we want to help you promote it. So I felt like finally I was getting some traction of my own. I left my label and I didn’t how it was going to work out. This was after months of calling people, trying to send you a message, and trying to scrape up any contacts I had so I could promote myself and take control of my career. At that time, I felt like, initially, I was winning and victorious. But then once the record came out, and I initially got a good review, then I started getting bad reviews. It occurred to me that I am doing something that’s totally off the scale—therefore I cannot be judged. These people, whoever they are, are making comments about something they have no idea about, and for no reason other than just to spew garbage. It’s like, I’m being criticized by the same people who criticized Lana Del Rey and Drake and whoever, and I am not on that scale. These people are pop musicians. I am not a pop musician. I am a human being. I am not a part of that. Obviously, when you get a good review you feel good. It’s been difficult. But now I’m having a very interesting experience, and you might say I’m being taught a lot about the nature of existence and what things mean and what they don’t mean. Things mean what you want them to mean. That’s the truth.
Why look at reviews if it’s going to drive you insane?
Because I know they exist. They’re out there. There’s this whole reality with what’s happening, and I have to see. Why do people want to go to space? I don’t know. That’s crazy to me. But people want to do it. It’s the same thing with reviews. You don’t know why you want to go to space but you want to go to space. Like a moth to the flame, my friend.
Eric Sundermann is always reading the comments. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy