What Ever Happened to Willis Earl Beal?
After his promising career evaporated four years ago, the songwriter disappeared. Inside an 18-month long, transatlantic journey chasing down a musician-in-exile.
Art by Dominick Rabrun
The Fortuna Inn is the last sun-battered motel at the end of Drachman Street, a few doors down from the Meat Rack Bar & Grill, on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Through the cracked windows at the back of a second-floor room, four-foot palm shrubs are scattered around an arid, empty swimming pool. In the alleyway out back, Biro-scrawled graffiti depicts a cartoon Satan hovering above a swastika. Planes pass overhead twice an hour, interrupting the persistent jingle of an ice cream truck a half-mile away.
In December 2016, one of the king-sized rooms on the second floor belonged to Willis Earl Beal, a 32-year-old musician with a reputation for self-sabotage living in what seemed to be a self-imposed exile. Every morning and evening, he'd stand for two hours outside the Goodwill downtown, busking; most nights, he'd stay with his girlfriend, Amie, in her studio apartment nearby. But since quitting his job hauling boxes around a Target warehouse in November, he'd spent most of his afternoons in his room recording his new album, Turn, the latest in a long line of ambient, synth-inflected LPs.
I flew from New York to Phoenix one Friday that December, took a shuttle to Tucson, and walked two miles the Fortuna, where I'd booked a three-night stay in the room beneath Willis's. I'd spoken to him on the phone a dozen or so times already, but he'd been reticent to talk about a few things, and I figured it would be better to speak with him in person. I wanted to find out how he'd been living in the two years since he'd changed his performing name to Nobody, walked away from his lucrative contract with XL Records, and faded into semi-obscurity.
That Friday, Willis picked picked me up in front of the Fortuna in his grey 1992 Buick Century. He was dressed in the same uniform he'd worn onstage in his pomp: a black fedora, black T-shirt emblazoned with his Nobody insignia, black button-down with the same logo stitched onto the pocket, black jeans, and black cowboy boots. A black highwayman's mask lay, eyes-down, in the back seat.
He drove me to Amie's studio apartment—she was at work—talking about worst-case scenarios along the way. He was worried, he said, about hitting someone with his car; the thought of that happening gripped him from time to time, and he found it hard to shake. But for now, he wanted to make some food.
At Amie's, with taco meat cooling in the pan behind him, he slipped into a sermon. He pointed into the future with a plastic spatula and talked about the interconnectivity of all things: his new album, his presence in Arizona, the weed he was about to smoke, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan. "All connected," he said. He served two tacos up into a clear tupperware, ate one, and handed me the second. Then he sat with his legs crossed on the dusty brown carpet, smoking weed out of a blue ceramic pipe. He lit the bowl with a red Bic, sucked in the smoke, and exhaled slowly, leaving a thick cloud around his perfectly picked two-inch afro, before cutting through the haze with a slow-motion karate chop.
And, for the first time, he talked to me a little about his now-faded fame. He told me that he regretted what he referred to as "the sickness," his all-encompassing term for materialism and greed. "I had 18 grand in my account and I was complaining," he said before pausing, staring towards me, and disrupting the marijuana smoke with a hyena-cackle laugh. "Man, that was, like, five, six years ago."
I pointed out that it had been just three years since he'd gone on tour in support of his second album, Nobody Knows.
He paused for a moment and let his smile hang. "I am such a fucking idiot," he said, staring at the greying wallpaper to my right. "Sometimes I think I’m like Forrest Gump, a real fucking idiot, you know? I thought it was that long ago."
He turned back towards me and opened his left fist: "Time is like sand slipping through my fingers."
Myths are just stories that we load up with symbolism and meaning. They don't have to be made-up; they just have to carry the burden of our interpretations. At his critical and commercial peak, brief though it was, Willis's backstory was rehashed so many times in interviews and reviews that it became a myth, then a cloying parable, then a cliché, then a millstone.
I'll keep it brief.
He grew up in a lower-middle class household on Chicago's South Side in the 1980s. He was a precocious kid who sat inside and wrote screenplays rather than getting into dust-ups or worse. As a teenager he wanted to become Batman and, just about as soon as he was old enough, he joined the army to train up for vigilantism. His intestines started to tie themselves into knots while he was there, however, and he was discharged from the military before returning to Chicago and bouncing around hospital beds. In 2007, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he spent some time sleeping rough. He was so lonely there that he started sticking hand-drawn flyers up around town. At first, he was hoping to find a girlfriend. "I like oatmeal, train stations, night-time and chamomile tea," one poster read. Soon after, he wanted people to hear the music that he'd started to toy with, so he left demo CD-Rs in coffee shops around town. Above all, he just wanted to be invited to parties.
All this caught the attention of Found Magazine, a cult print publication, who decided to put Willis and his work on the cover of their December 2009 issue. A few people started paying attention. He kept producing flyers after moving back home to Chicago in 2010 and, the next July, they caught the eye of Leor Galil at the Chicago Reader. He wrote a mini-profile on Willis which, in turn, created a small buzz around The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, a 17-track CD and accompanying set of poems that Found were putting out that summer. He ended up on the X Factor, where he made it to the "bootcamp" round where Simon Cowell told him to "shut up." But that was never going to be his path. Willis was well on his way to cult fame; cult fame would have suited him.
Willis hates this story for a number of reasons. He thinks it's boring, for a start. He can't stand the fact that people used to rehash it whenever they wrote about his music; he hates that it's probably the first thing that comes to a person's mind when (or if) they think about him now.
But above all, Willis hates the backstory because it typecasts him: the homelessness, the South Side childhood, the lingering presence of the terms like "lo-fi" and "soul." It turns him into a minstrel, a black man performing a white man's idea of blackness for a white audience that wants a frisson of danger and an air of authenticity.
On that second night in Tucson in 2016, Willis and I drove into downtown Tucson, where he was going to busk. He'd only made $20 in the morning, and he didn't want to stop until he'd doubled that. He stood outside the Goodwill beneath a sign that read "THIS WAY TO YOUR FUTURE" with an arrow pointing towards his head.
As Willis was pulling his highwayman's mask over his eyes, one of his acquaintances, a middle-aged white guy in a baseball cap, walked past. Willis asked how he was.
"Living the dream, my man," the white guy responded. "How about you?"
"I'm a rich man!" Willis shouted back. "I got plenty of money! I got all my money! All my gold coins stacked up in my hotel!"
The white guy asked what he was doing out here, then.
Willis replied with an ecstatic and absurd southern affectation: "Trying to spread the word of Jesus! Trying to put some Jesus in these people!" He gestured towards the empty street.
As his friend walked away, Willis pressed play on the iPod Nano above the battery-powered amplifier to his right. The thin-stringed introduction to "Flying So Low," from 2015's Noctunes, trickled out. On record, it sounded like something that Angelo Badalamenti would have dreamt up. On an all-but-empty street in a desert city on a Saturday night, it was uncannier still. Willis closed his eyes behind the mask and sang in an agony-filled falsetto. "The mountains rise and I fall / Into the ocean / The monsters know / That I don’t got my potion."
"The industry is this thing that propagates itself to work," Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, told me over the phone in the spring of 2017. "If you have someone who is a true, real artist who's got it, they're the most vulnerable in the industry." Willis, she said, "has been let down repeatedly."
After its release in 2011, The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection ended up in the hands of Jamie-James Medina, a British photographer living in the Bronx with an unparalleled reputation in the independent music scene. Medina immediately sought Willis out. With little negotiation on either part, he signed to Medina’s newly-created Hot Charity/XL imprint on a five-album deal.
Things were good for a while. Willis had some money and the faith of his label. He was on a subsidiary, but he was essentially sharing roster space with Adele and James Blake. In 2012 he released his first album for Hot Charity, Acousmatic Sorcery. Culled from Special Collection, barely cleaned up at all, it introduced a wider audience to Willis's work, scratchy and imperfect though the songs may have been. Hot Charity sent Willis out on tour first with the then-vital indie group STRFKR, then with Cat Power, one of his idols. He was starting to outgrow the "cult" tag that the reviews were playing up.
"If you have someone who is a true, real artist who's got it, they're the most vulnerable in the industry." — Cat Power
For his second full-length, Willis went into the studio with Matt DeWine (who'd worked live sound for Willis already) and Rodaidh McDonald (who's produced everyone from Adele to Bobby Womack to King Krule). On its face, the collaboration looked perfect. But, as Willis told me in his tatty room in Tucson, he wished it "hadn’t had any outside people," that it had just been his work on the record, no producers, no second opinions. In the end, Nobody Knows was an over-polished affair. At times, Willis possessed a unique power through the clarity, but it erred too often into parody or, worse, indifference. On the mostly a cappella round of "Wavering Lines," his voice was engrossing, but on the bright "Coming Through," featuring Cat Power, Willis was too clean and carefree—not himself.
The album's hit, worst of all, was "Too Dry to Cry," all bluster and sexual innuendo. He wrote it while "horny and sad," and that comes through clearly: "I got nine hard inches like a pitchfork prong / So honey lift up your dress and help me sing this song." Willis had started to worry about his status within indie music, the way that he was playing to regressive expectations of blackness; "Too Dry to Cry" was him howling himself further into that narrative.
Medina, according to Willis, wasn't helping. Willis told me that he was expected to be "the next fucking Aloe Blacc," a soul singer who could appeal equally to Pitchfork readers and their Motown-loving mothers. He started to feel the pressure of the industry around him. He starred as the lead in Memphis, a quiet and existentially troubled film about a soul musician struggling to find his voice. Willis sat with director Tim Sutton in interviews at Sundance 2014, where the movie premiered, candidly discussing a number of incidents that nearly got him fired from the set. "[Sutton] wanted me to go to Beale Street [Memphis' main thoroughfare] and act like a damn fool, and I’ve been kicked out of clubs and been drunk in the street, and I’ve done a lot of things to humiliate myself in my real life, and I didn’t really feel like it," he told Rolling Stone at the time. When the Beale Street shoot was cancelled, Willis "trashed the place," knowing all the while that his reputation would take an impossible hit as a result. "In a way, it was going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy because I’ve ruined everything in my life always," he said then.
Photoshoots and interviews started to pile up: "Every fucking five minutes, [Medina] would be sending some photographer to take my picture." Finally, Willis decided that, if he couldn’t just turn down the press, he’d rebel in his own small way. In his next photoshoot, he decided to wear a black phantom mask, covering his entire face.
"I was like, 'This is how we're going to take photographs today,'" he told me in Tucson. "'And I won't take the mask off because I'm afraid that I'm being projected in a certain way, and I think that you're coupling my race with my music. My race and my music have nothing to do with each other.'"
"I thought I could choose. I thought I could change whenever I wanted to, and you can't." — Willis Earl Beal
Medina, Willis said, was particularly unhappy about that. He accused Willis of sabotaging his career, of being a "difficult artist." Really, Willis was at breaking point. "I'd started to feel the wheels of exploitation," he told me. "I started to understand the process. I started to understand what was going on. I thought I had a choice. I thought I could choose. I thought I could change whenever I wanted to, and you can't."
A lukewarm commercial response wasn't helping. His European tour was cancelled in early 2014 due to a lack of ticket sales. By way of an apology to fans, he released A Place That Doesn't Exist, a surprise EP, without XL's permission. It was a gentle-sounding album: roughly produced, occasionally atonal, almost drone-like. Another EP, Curious Cool, followed a couple months later.
Willis says that Medina grew distant, pressing him to work alongside indie artists like Nicolas Jaar rather than allowing him autonomy. Medina was, Willis told me, non-committal about releasing Experiments in Time—the soft, synthetic album that he saw as his rebirth. So he put that out for free too. In a lengthy interview with Matt Fink at UndertheRadar soon after that, he laid his frustration out clearly. "I realized that I was more of a novelty than the second coming of Robert Johnson[...] I'm not anything like that," he said. "I'm a modern artist anyway. I'm a modern musician. I'm not trying to be a throwback. I have influences but a lot of stuff got attached to me that was unfair, and I just felt like I was misrepresented."
But even that interview turned into a minor nightmare. It was aggregated by a few blogs, who retained the lines that sounded accusatory and cut the lines in which Willis said he had no problem with his label, that he just wanted the freedom to work somewhere else.
Two records into his deal, financially stable but still reliant on XL, suspecting that the man who signed him had lost interest, Willis decided that it was time to walk away.
Medina initially declined to be interviewed for this piece before responding with a one-line email: "Willis is an incredible talent & I will always wish him the very best."
That Sunday in December, as he did most weeks, Willis went to the San Xavier del Bac Catholic Mission on the southwestern outskirts of Tucson, asking me to watch for police cars that might spot his expired plates en route. He would usually have been listening to his own music through the speaker velcroed to the dashboard, but he was depressed and anxious about his court case the next day—something he'd declined to mention before—a "drug paraphernalia" charge for a small ceramic pipe in his car. He was worried that he’d face a fine that he couldn’t pay or, worse, lose the car entirely. So rather than listening to something melancholy or intricate, he chose to listen to Floridian rapper Riff Raff’s debut album Neon Icon—a boastful record about cocaine and redneck stardom—from beginning to end, so loud that I couldn’t hear him talk.
After a 30-minute drive, Willis pulled up in the Mission’s parking lot, turned off the speaker, rummaged for a tupperware of homemade tamales in the back seat, handed me one, and began to peel off a corn husk. Staring forwards towards the ornate white church, its two towers glowing in the early sunset, he began to cry and started on an exhausted invective: "Most people have this drive to do things. At least you’ve got to want to survive. I guess I want to do that much. But sometimes I don’t know."
Then he turned his frustration outwards: America, the police, critics of his music and persona, teddy bears. Why couldn’t we come here, to an eighteenth century church on Indian reservation, and simply enjoy the land and its beauty? Why did the police keep pulling him over just because he didn’t adhere to a law that he believed was immoral? Why did critics assign number and letter grades to his artistic expression? And why did people try to make these bears cute when the animals themselves are naturally inclined to kill us?
He left the car and walked through the twilight towards the small hill to the church’s left, 60 feet of jagged rocks leading up to a white wooden crucifix. He scrambled up the side towards the top singing Frank Sinatra’s "Strangers in the Night" with a soft vibrato as he went. He sat down beneath the cross and stared out at Tucson’s modest residential lights, towards the desert in the distance. I asked if, given the troubles with police and money, he wanted to go back to the way things were before he broke from his contract with XL.
"I don’t have aspirations in the way that most people do to play music," he said. "I would prefer to play music just for the joy and rush of doing so, not so that people will put green pieces of paper in my hat. I’d ideally have enough actual green—weed and grass and plants—where I wouldn’t need that green, and I won’t need to follow their rules."
I asked how he intended to do that.
"Unfortunately, and ironically, by acquiring as much money as possible, which is a bit of a catch-22. Because in order to do that, you must make them like you."
Turn quickly outgrew itself and became Turn, Circle, Sun & Moon, an 18-track LP of cosmically-minded ambient songs, built from layer upon layer of keyboard synthesizers and hushed vocals. On iTunes, it's listed as an Easy Listening album and, left on in the background at midnight, it might be. But it's unsettling. Its beautiful moments are always off-balance, pained, a fraction of an inch off of perfection, like a ballet dancer with a broken leg. "You" is a love song—"It's you / That turned my world around"—but its harmonies fly between the coherent, the attritional, and the atonal. It's weirdly thrilling. "Fortuna" has him in his deepest bass, singing about cockroaches and prostitutes and pickups, but the uncanny strings seem to have been plucked from another song, another time of day. Throughout the album, though his words seem meticulously planned, Willis's structures seem to have been written in real-time.
A couple of months after I got back from Tucson, in February 2017, Willis came to New York to play a few songs from the album. He'd been excited about the show for months. He was headlining the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg, a venue he'd played to a sold-out crowd with Cat Power on his way up in 2013. The show was barely promoted in advance.
I met him at the bar a couple hours before he went onstage. I drank a beer for every one of Willis's whiskies, and I was drunk within an hour. At one point, while Willis spoke to the bartender, a scrawny man in his early 20s tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I knew that I was sitting next to Willis Earl Beal, the artist. "And you're just talking to him. That's amazing," he said.
"This is an intervention. I love you all, I really do. Even if I don't know who the fuck you are." — Willis Earl Beal
There were no more than 60 people in the room when Willis took the stage alone a little later and told everybody to sit on the floor—that this was not a concert, it was an evening at the Church of Nobody. He plugged his iPod Nano into the PA and tried to find the instrumental track that would back him on his first song. While he searched, he talked to the crowd, who sat silently.
"It doesn't start with the first note," he said. "It's always the first word, the first act. Thought is an action. When I imagined this song, and I imagined myself here, it was a long time ago. Now I'm here. The performance, or non-performance, hasn't stopped since then. There's no separation between you and me. This is an intervention. I love you all, I really do. Even if I don't know who the fuck you are."
A slurry of bass drums and jarring synths slunk out of the monitors with a pre-recorded speech in the middle of it all: "There is no enemy because there is no war." It lasted for four minutes, which Willis spent wrestling with a huge black Nobody flag—he was trying to drape it over his shoulders, but couldn't get it the right way up. He wandered down into the bemused crowd, but struggled to get back on stage afterwards.
"Welcome to the Church of Nobody," he said when the speech concluded. "As a rule, don't clap or cheer. If you don't want to be here, please leave."
The show ended a little over an hour later; there were maybe two dozen people left by then.
In July 2017, Willis and I fell out. I was moving back to London from New York, and he was upset that I had been reluctant to publish anything on his work or our conversations. He said that I was selfish, lazy, and untrustworthy, and there's a good chance he was right about all three. "I have paid my dues and I am a respected artist," he wrote in a text message. "Most people have LIED to me and others have been passive aggressive or evasive. I don’t believe in what you say anymore."
Three months later, he posted a photograph to his Facebook page ("The music of Nobody AKA Willis Earl Beal"). He was on Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch, London. I sent him an email asking if he’d like to have a drink. He said that he was "on set all day," but we could meet in the evening.
When we met at the bar of The Curtain, a five-star hotel where Willis was staying, he was still dressed in his Nobody uniform, though the highwayman's mask was gone. He was, for the first time since I'd met him, relaxed, well-rested, always a moment away from a warm smile. He’d been flown out, at a week’s notice, to film a commercial for the insurance giant State Farm. He’d never auditioned for the role, and he seemed to be the ad agency’s first choice. In the minute-long advert, Willis would sing a piano-led cover of Simple Minds' "Don’t You (Forget About Me)." He would dress in a flannel shirt and his familiar black fedora, playing a homeless man in a shelter at Christmas. The job paid well.
At the bar, Willis ordered three tacos and passed one to me when they arrived. I asked him about the last year of his life, the chance at a fresh start, and that line he’d given me about his success being a "Catch-22."
He said that he regretted things he’d said in past interviews with other publications—that Rolling Stone piece around Memphis, in particular. He was still upset about his persona, but he seemed more peaceful about things now. "Really, my music will have a very hard time living up to everything that has been said about me," he said.
I suggested that he’d played along with that at times.
"I did, absolutely," he replied. "I did because I didn't see... I failed at everything I ever tried, prior to all of this shit happening. Prior to 2012, all I did was fail, fail, fail, fail. All of that shit that they like to talk about, that's all failure. And that's why they like it. That's what I believe. They like it because they like to show black men failing. They like to show black men in the street. They like terms like 'lo-fi' and 'mentally unstable.'"
He paused briefly as the waitress came over to ask if he'd like another beer, then he dropped back into his thought. "Because I didn't have a clear idea of what it is I wanted to accomplish as an artist, I let them do it," he said. "And it was happening gradually. It was a process. And now, you know, my involuntary anonymity might have been a blessing in disguise. Because I kind of feel like, optimistically speaking, this is a new start. I'm a new artist now."
Willis Earl Beal's Turn, Circle, Sun & Moon box-set can be purchased directly from the artist on Facebook.
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