Willis Earl Beal sounds like your favorite vinyl: scratchy, with a cosmic understanding of the word “cool” and a distinct otherworldliness.
The bluesy lo-fi singer pairs smokey vocals reminiscent of Nat King Cole with an avant-garde sensibility that recalls Tom Waits. Beal is a singer in his early 30s, but his soulful sound remains both timeless and lonely. He draws from life experience ranging from reading poetry at open mics on the south side of Chicago to a battle with homelessness in New Mexico. But Beal has minimal “classical” music training.
“I know the sounds I want to make and I have faith that it’s sincere,” Beal tells EW. “I have faith that somebody will receive it.”
In 2014, Vogue introduced Beal as the “already mythic bluesman” and he’s racked up accolades from Rolling Stone, The Guardian and Pitchfork. Beal is also a visual artist and actor; his film Memphis screened at Sundance Film Festival last year.
If you ask Beal, however, he may just tell you that he’s nobody. In fact, he tattooed the word “nobody” on his arm, using money he earned donating plasma while living between houses in Albuquerque.
“I’m still not famous,” Beal says. “I’m still only worth what I’ve got in my pocket.”
Briefly signed to major British label XL Recordings, Beal is once again making music free of a major label.
“The difference is the music itself,” he notes. “It’s lot more refined and intentional. My early stuff was not really intended for people to hear. And this stuff here is just the perfect example of how I’ve become my own favorite artist.”
For his Eugene show, Beal says he plans to wear a mask (resembling the mask of Zorro) beneath a blue backlight, and without a spotlight. That way, he says, the audience will only see his silhouette and hear his voice.
His latest record Noctune was produced in (and influenced by) the state of Washington. There he finally had the time, space and solitude to figure out what kind of soundscape he wanted to create. These days, Beal discusses vague plans to “settle down” in Portland.
“I find the geography of a place affects me far more than the people do,” he says. “I had traveled out to the desert in New Mexico, and now at the trail end of all the crazy shit that’s happened to me, I’m surrounded by trees.”
One-man band Skin Lies joins Willis Earl Beal 9 pm Wednesday, May 13, at WOW Hall; $10 adv., $12 door.