[All photos by Jessica Lehrman. Click for high-res.]
Willis Earl Beal does not want to take off his hat.
Late on a recent Thursday afternoon, the musician argues with the bartender at Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side. Here, in the bar that Woody Allen built, Beal’s been told that wearing his signature black fedora is against the rules. A double pour of Johnnie Walker Red sits in a glass between the two men, and Beal can’t understand the reasoning for this rule—or any rules, for that matter, but we’ll get into that later—asking the bartender if he believes in it. Believes in what? The bartender is confused. Beal asks him again, pushing harder, placing his hands firmly on the bar’s surface. Still confusion. Still questioning. Beal wants to know: does he believe?
Eventually, after realizing he might be asked to leave, Beal calms down. Sporting a Zorro-esque mask over his eyes (oh yeah, by the way, he’s also wearing a Zorro-esque mask), he takes his scotch and we look for a table among the clinking glasses. He asks me if the magazine will cover his 40-dollar drink. We won’t, but I say yes anyway, and front the bill. He thanks me. He says he’s flat broke or else he’d pay. He likes to do interviews at the Carlyle because the magazines always cover his drinks, but the bartender serving him is not the regular bartender (that bartender doesn't care about his hat). He could never afford to drink here on his own. We find our way to a dimly lit corner, sit, and I ask about the exchange.
“What difference does it make if I decide to wear a tutu and a fake mustache and one shoe? It’s all completely archaic,” he says, following a sip. “I see the women who walk the streets of New York City, the streets of Chicago, the streets of Brussels. It’s like they’re wearing a uniform. It’s not, but the thing is, I wish it were a uniform. It would be better if it were an outright uniform with the same symbol on it and then we’d all know what we were, instead of believing ourselves to be free. I’m not free. No one is free.”
The 29-year-old is obsessed with the idea of freedom, what it means, and how it’s connected to identity. It’s something he cannot stop talking about in conversation and, unsurprisingly, his new album, Nobody knows.—a swirling, chaotic 13-song LP of neo-soul and blues out September 10th on XL Recordings—focuses on this intersection of thought. These themes have rung true throughout all of this man’s creative outputs—2012’s label debut Acousmatic Sorcery, a collection of visual artwork made of pencil drawings, and an acting role, staring in Memphis, an independent film about a blues musician currently premiering at the Venice Film Festival.
What’s more is that he continues to push on all these elements, specifically musically. Nobody is a considerable step-up from Acousmatic—which now feels like an echoy hodgepodge of experimental folk and blues stuck together with scotch tape. Nobody arrives in full-form, like a heavyweight champion ready to defend his crown, cleaned up and richly developed. Produced by Rodaidh McDonald (the xx, Savages, How to Dress Well), featuring guest spots from TV on the Radio’s Jahphet Negast Landis—better known as Roofeeo—(drums), the Killers’ Ray Suen (violin), and backup vocals from Cat Power, to put the record in a specific genre is a difficult task. Like Beal himself, it knows exactly what it wants to be—but has no idea exactly what that is.
A waiter in a three-piece suit fills our water glasses, and Beal is fidgety and frustrated. He knows he sounds like cliché, but he doesn’t know how else to express what he feels. As he speaks, he turns his head sharply to the side, almost like a nervous twitch. Where does he fit in the world? “I’ve always been a poser.” You assume he’s an outcast. He says no, because “even the outcasts had the outcasts.” He doesn’t understand the value of money—“a social construct made of leaves”—and explains the process of life to me, how you grow up, how you become a person. We start out simple—no guilt, only excitement for living. We eat. We sleep. We play. We exist. But it’s then the world that teaches us to be afraid, to wear a mask—in his case, both literally and figuratively. And then, again, he’s talking about that damn bartender.
“I don’t know him personally, but we’ll use him as an example,” he says. “The iteration of that man is going to work, retire, and die. He’s going to stay inside the lines. He’s going to have comfortable times. He’ll go through malaise, but he won’t know what it is; he won’t identify it as that. He’ll get tired. So he’ll sleep. And he’ll wake up the next morning, go to his job, contribute to his country, be a good American, and die. That sounds all very organized. I’m falling into it, right now, just by virtue of you asking me to buy me this drink. I don’t have that money right now, because I spent it all on food and drink. So it’s not that I don’t want to have a vessel for the people. It’s not that I don’t want the opportunity for resources. But I’m trying to highlight the fact that that’s what it’s about.”
The thing is, though, what is it? Beal can’t identify that specifically, but he knows it’s out there—whatever it is—and he’s determined that he will find it. He must.
/ / / / /
“It pales in comparison to what people go through every day,” Beal says. “Basically, I was a fucking hipster who decided to be like Jack Kerouac. It was all novel to me because, as an unrealistic dreamer like I am, I never imagined I’d continue to be homeless. I was just on vacation.”
Beal is talking about the two months he spent sleeping on the streets of Albuquerque, something he did by choice after he decided to move west from the city of Chicago, his hometown, after a failed stint in the military. This might be the sort of thing—moving west just to do it, bro—that TIME magazine uses to justify writing cover stories about the entitled millennial generation, but regardless, Beal claims he did this in search of something. What that something was, unsurprisingly, he can’t specify. But he felt pulled; like it was needed in order to survive. And living that type of life gave him comfort, but mainly because he had no idea the gravity of his decision-making. “The comfort, that came from my own delusion.”
During his time in Albuquerque, Beal worked a multitude of entry-level jobs, his favorite as a security guard, and started to write and record music on CD-R’s, which he would randomly leave in public places alongside his illustrations. Eventually, Found Magazine discovered him and ran a cover story on his origin and budding success. Shortly there after, the Chicago Reader also put him on the cover, writing about how he was an artist who “wanted a cult following,” whatever that means.
Those homeless days are over now. Beal lives with his longtime girlfriend in a “one room shack” on the Upper East Side. People know the name Willis Earl Beal. They know he lived on the streets. They know he sings about loneliness and sex. They know he’s questioning you. He’s that weirdo hobo who draws funny little pictures.
But now, Beal’s quest is to make you forget that person. For his own sanity.
“I’m bitching, you know?” he says, almost exasperated with hearing himself speak. He takes another sip. “I shouldn’t be bitching. But what I’m trying to say—no matter what the surroundings are, the person remains. 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.”
Even behind a mask, agitated and unsure, Beal carries an abundance of confidence. He wants to be the center of attention. He thrives on it. He won’t tell you that or admit to it when you push him, but it’s obvious the approval of others is at the forefront of his mind. When he’s put on stage to perform—whether that stage is with a microphone in front of a crowd or if that stage is a conversation with a reporter in a bar on the Upper East Side while wearing a mask—he’s at his best, most performative, and most convincing. He shields himself from judgment by covering himself in earnest self-awareness, claiming that he doesn’t know why people are attracted to his music.
He’s a walking contradiction. “I don’t give a fuck about music,” he says, but then he’ll tell you that he spends too much time locked in his apartment listening to his own record on repeat. He’ll ask you to explain, slowly, why you like what he does. And when you give him your reasoning, that your fascinated with his ability to convey human emotion in such a pure way, he’ll question you, and accuse you of “just saying that.”
Beal has tied himself in a mental straitjacket, unable to shake the crushing pressure he feels from the world.
“Everything feels like a trap,” he says. “You look in the mirror, it feels like a trap. Your lyrics—you put your heart and soul into your lyrics—and when you play your music, you’re just recycling your old thoughts.”
Nobody knows. investigates—both overtly and subtly, which you can tell simply from the title—Beal’s obsessiveness and restlessness. A despairing and pleading record, it’s peppered with lust and the need for companionship, but preoccupied with how one person could ever connect with another. Beal asks the Big Questions. The ones that might make us roll our eyes—why do people exist in the way that they do? Does anybody actually exist in the way that they want? —But it’s all proposed with complete sincerity. He doesn’t want to seduce you or isolate you. In the eyes of Beal, we’re all prisoners to struggle, prisoners to “the absurdity of the metropolitan society and modern ‘existence,’ quote-unquote,” he says. “There’s no way to exist without about a thousand bucks in your pocket.”
Nobody is free. Nobody is real. Nobody knows, indeed.
/ / / / /
There’s Beal now, fucking the floor, sporting skinny jeans and a skin-tight t-shirt, moving his body up and down, slowly, carefully, pointedly; behind him, a checkered steel wall reflects a swirl of blue and white light as pounding drums swallow him, pulsing to his movements, repeatedly, loudly, vibrating through the venue like a ripple. Then, in a flash, Beal’s up off the ground, standing with the microphone in his left hand, pressed against his mouth; the stand in his right hand, pulled between his legs. “I got nine hard inches like a pitchfork prong,” his monstrous baritone voice echoes through “Too Dry to Cry.” He strokes the pole, pausing before the next lyric, “so honey lift up your dress, and help me sing this song.”
Beal is on at Joe’s Pub, a nightclub in Manhattan’s East Village, a few weeks prior to his new LP’s release. It’s a sticky Monday evening in August, one of those late summer nights that has you regretting wearing jeans, and this is the first time Beal performs Nobody knows. with his live band. Before now, he’d only backed himself with tapes. But he’s surrounded himself with talent, featuring Grant Jefferson on bass and guitar, Cerebral Ballzy’s Melvin Honore on bass and keyboard, and Landis on drums and acting as music director for the tour. This past summer, Landis spent time in rehearsal with Beal figuring out exactly how to recreate Nobody in a live setting.
“Willis borders on the line of genius,” Landis says, who met Beal a couple years ago after Beal opened for Cat Power at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. “He’s lived so many lives in such a short amount of time, but he’s so honest. Even when he’s wearing a mask, he’s not hiding anything. He’ll wear a mask, and he’s still 100% transparent.”
On stage, behind that mask, Beal glides back and forth like a ghost. His presence manages to be haunting, but gripping; aggressive, but charming; violent, but graceful. Whipping a cape with a giant “NOBODY KNOWS” inscribed across one of his signature self-portraits (a hand-drawn teeth-bearing face with X’s for eyes) around himself, he’s up on the stool, down on his knees, jumping, shaking, dancing, twisting. He stomps his boots. He raises his arms. He points to the back of the crowd, to no one in particular but with everyone in mind. He’s a force, convulsing inside of the music, letting it guide him to nowhere and everywhere at the same time, twitching, flipping around, swinging the microphone like a propeller. Between songs, he’ll crack jokes, pulling a brown bag out of his pocket, taking swigs of the pint of Jack Daniels. At times, this all may seem a little dangerous. Somebody might get hurt, and that somebody might be you. Don’t worry—you don’t notice, because of that voice.
That voice. That voice is raw. That voice is eerie. That voice is boisterous. That voice is fiery. The voice is fervent. That voice is nostalgic. That voice is disturbed. That voice is tenacious. That voice is a bowling ball launched from a bazooka through a six-foot deep concrete wall braced by a group of pro wrestlers from the year 1998 so jacked up on steroids that they each have six biceps.
Because the fact is—outside of all the antics of mask-wearing and cape swinging and what does it all mean, man-ing—Willis Earl Beal can fucking sing. He knows it—and he wants you to know it, too.
By now, Beal's finished his 40-dollar scotch, and we’re talking about what it means to have an ego, about what success can do to a person, both mentally and physically. I tell him about my struggles as a writer. He tells me about his struggles as a human. “If you’re saying fuck the system, that means you’re aware of the system. That means you’re oppressed,” he says. “You’re just as oppressed as the guys inside. I’m oppressed. If you want to make a change, you have to compromise. You gotta get in there to truly get out of it.”
The thing about Beal is that, when you’re in his presence, he sucks you in, making you think and feel the way he does. It’s almost scary the ease with which he does this, too. Maybe it’s the assurance with which he speaks. Or maybe it’s his charming self-deprecation. At one point, he takes the glasses on the table. “This is life,” he says, visually illustrating his point, shifting them around, carefully showing that this is how the world works, how we’re all fluctuating from one part of life to the next and the next.
“Being humbled is having gone through a series of things, having discovered something, and now you’re a tame person, comfortable in your own skin,” he tells me. “That’s not me. I’m just as pretentious and self-absorbed as I always was. I hope that I can be a humble person. My number one goal in this life is to be cool—not wear a leather jacket cool, but be chill. I don’t want to be another egomaniacal artist. Yes, another record is coming out—just like 50 million other records that are coming out. What fucking difference does it make? Yeah, I like my music. So what? You know? I don’t even know… I don’t even know how to talk. It sounds like I’m being… like I’m trying so hard to be real, like right now. And I can’t without sounding like something. It’s driving me nuts.”
He trails off, pausing for a moment to look around the room. Glasses clink. The piano flutters. The man in a suit behind the bar serves the man in a suit in front of the bar.
“I swear to god I’m not on cocaine.”
Eric Sundermann is an Assistant Editor at Noisey. He’s on Twitter — @ericsundy