INTERVIEW

The extraordinary story of the 27-year-old who’s survived homelessness, an army discharge, exorcism and the X Factor USA.

willisearlbeal

Willis Earl Beal is someone many people have heard something about. You may have heard that he’s XL’s new singer-songwriter signing or listened to his first single, ‘Evening’s Kiss’ on a blog or two. You may well have heard that at one point, not so long ago, he found himself unemployed and sleeping rough. You may have discovered that he makes his telephone number freely available for anyone to call him at any time of the day or night. That he thinks the Internet is “evil” and that he’d shut down Facebook given the chance. You may even know that he took part in last year’s X Factor USA and maybe you’ve watched the bemusing videos online that prove it. But it turns out none of us really know who Willis Earl Beal is, because up until recently he didn’t have any idea himself.

It’s 36 hours after the 27-year-old has played his first ever UK gig in a Dalston sweatbox. In fact, it’s only a couple of days since he set foot outside of American soil for the first time. The man himself is unhurried, walking with a cowboy’s gait, talking with a meandering drawl and greeting with a stiff handshake. An old-timer in a new-timer’s body. It’s mid-afternoon, but he swigs from a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale (“I discovered this stuff during X Factor,” he smiles, [more on that later]) and jokes about how his first taste of British culture, just nights before, had been walking into a kebab shop in east London. He ordered “some chicken thing on a spit between two pieces of bread – it was kind of unpleasant,” he says. Not nearly as unpleasant as some of the experiences the singer has survived during his extraordinary life so far.

Growing up in Chicago, Willis Earl Beal was a self-diagnosed loner. His mother was a traditional Christian Baptist. As a teenager, he found it tough to make friends, struggled at school, and joined the army, but was later discharged on medical grounds. In his early twenties, he decided it was time for a radical change. Tired of breathing in the heavy city smoke, he’d dreamed for years about an idyllic life close to the desert. He’d seen it in the movies. In August 2007, he packed up his modest possessions and moved 1,300 miles to Albuquerque, New Mexico. It wasn’t what he’d expected. The ever-sunny mirage of endless prosperity and opportunity he’d imagined had the same grubby underbelly as any other mechanical metropolis. Soon he had no income. And shortly after, no zip code.

“When I was homeless, I just started to sing on the streets – that kind of thing,” he says, peering from behind a pair of plastic glasses and playing with his chin. “Once I’d gone through a series of misadventures, I would write things down on napkins and be like, ‘Oh, well that sounds good’.” Those were the first songs Beal ever wrote – the same ones later recorded using a cassette karaoke machine, which appear on his forthcoming debut album ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’. It’s reminiscent of his heroes right through from Bo Diddley to Daniel Johnston. Instead of quitting Albuquerque, he vowed to dig himself out of the situation. He moved through shelters, queued to get work as a daily labourer and eventually saved enough money to put a roof over his head. “When I finally got a little hole in the wall for myself to live, I would collect instruments,” he recalls. “I’d never been trained in instruments in all my life, but I felt like I had something to express and played them in the best way I knew I could. I didn’t see it was good or bad, just a necessary thing. Just like going to the toilet or anything else. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, well I want to be a superstar’.”

He’d left home looking for a fresh beginning, but instead found new lows.

“I don’t recommend homelessness as a means to discover some kind of deeper part of yourself,” he says firmly, looking at the floor and shaking his head. “I don’t recommend homelessness at all. What I saw out in Albuquerque was a lot of kids who were like, ‘Well, I’m rich, let’s just go away from home and not be shallow. I’ll be a homeless person because that’s going to bring me closer to whatever.’ That’s not the answer.”

But it kind of did help Beal find the answer, or if not the answer, then at least make sense of a few inner truths. “Being homeless, it helped me, but at the same time I realised that everything I’d been looking for I had in the beginning. This whole thing was a spiritual journey and nothing more – it was a search for myself. It wasn’t about trying to get into a scene or trying to write songs. The fact that this has happened is just affirmation or confirmation that if you’re innocent and you have prayers in your mind, then you can’t go wrong.”

Saying that, what happened next did go wrong. In summer 2010, Beal separated from his girlfriend, left Albuquerque and returned to Chicago to live with his grandmother and brother. Again he struggled to find employment and was sat hopelessly on the collection of songs he’d written out in the south west. In between bouts of reflection and home-cooked dinners, the family would sit down every Thursday night in front of the TV to watch American Idol. They’d heard about the upcoming launch of Simon Cowell’s X Factor USA and auditions were taking place in the city soon. “It was kinda like, ‘Hmm, I can sing – why not?’” explains Beal, looking back. His grandmother thought it was too big of an opportunity to miss. She stuck the train fare in his trouser pocket and packed him off. “She’s always been supportive of me,” he says affectionately. “No matter what. The other people in my family are a bit kind of ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ My grandmother just gave me the money to get up there. She said, ‘You wanna sing? Go ahead’.”

Call it innocence, call it inexperience, but once again, like his arrival in Albuquerque a couple of years previously, The X Factor was not what Beal was expecting. He had a sense, trudging alongside the smoggy highway out to the suburban arena where auditions were being held, that they wouldn’t get along. “I was thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing? What is happening in my life? I’m 27-years-old and I’m trying out for a talent competition’. But what was I going to do, turn around?” Reluctant to waste his grandmother’s train fare, and not seeing any other immediate opportunities, he walked on.

“It was God awful,” he remembers with an expression that’s more wince than smile. “We stood in the rain. Some chick almost caught hypothermia. This nice fat lady and her two daughters let me stand under her umbrella. We finally got up there and sang this shit and we were soaking wet. We had been at this stadium all day and they said, ‘You’re good’.” Beal had made it through. Next up he’d perform under the glaring studio lights, with an audience that included some of his family, and in front of the judges (who at this stage were Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, L.A Reid and Cheryl Cole).

“Simon had actually told me to shut up because I was babbling,” he says, putting on an English accent to continue the story. “He was like, ‘You’re going to be an absolute nightmare to work with, but it’s a nightmare I’m willing to have’. And Cheryl Cole – Jesus Christ – I was singing directly to her. Those eyes! She was looking right at me. She just loved me.”

He swaggered off stage with four yeses and a passport to Boot Camp. But besides that solitary high he found himself thrown into a claustrophobic circus he detested. Look at the YouTube clips – there’s discomfort and fear in his eyes. The experience was eating him. “You listened to Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ like 63 times, learning dance moves,” he says of the environment. “What did the choreographer guy say? He said you’ve got to learn to ‘work it’ for the judges and I thought to myself, ‘Yep, I’m a prostitute’.”

Surrounded by fame-hungry wannabes (“bashing on pianos every minute of the day”), by the time it came for him to sing for the judges again his soul had shattered. “I’d already given up prior to even going up there,” he says. “I thought, I’m just not supposed to be here. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but this is not it.” That day he smuggled in a bunch of beers, locked himself in the gents toilet and got drunk. At showtime he wobbled out onto the stage and forgot the words to Tom Waits’ ‘Goodnight Irene’. His X Factor journey was over, without any ‘best bits’.

“Outside the beer and burritos, it was an awful experience. I’m glad I did it. It’s something else to talk about, but it was very unpleasant.”

Truth be told, we could have just picked up the phone to hear more about Willis Earl Beal’s improbable story. In fact we did, but it rang and rang. In the early days he left flyers in shops and bars with his phone number on and a magazine put it on their front cover. Now he puts it on his website promising to “sing you a song” if you call. He has people who phone him regularly as well as the occasional surprise (a man claiming to be Mos Def, once). “There’s been a few nuts,” he admits, with an easy grin, “but it’s been largely positive.”

It’s a gesture which embodies Beal’s almost frightening openness, in his music and his conversation. He answers every question with a mixture of humour, honesty and almost heart-breaking self-depreciation. Those at his first UK shows a few weeks back would have seen the T-shirt he wears and the home-made banner he performs in front of, emblazoned with his personal slogan, “No-body”. As we talk he also pulls up his cardigan sleeve to show the same words tattooed on his forearm. “I came up with a moto to go with it: ‘I am nothing, and nothing is everything’,” he says. “It fits with my feeling which was, ‘Obviously I’m not much, because nobody thinks much of you, but then there’s something there.’ I’ve always felt protected. I’ve never been able to fall. I’ve tried really hard to fuck my life up but I’ve never been able to.”

All of which points to the idea that Beal is either a folk-playing cat with nine lives, has the most rotten luck, or that personal faith means some divine force is watching over him. “No, no. It’s something different,” he says, before recalling how his mother once had him exorcised by a preacher (“I would wake up in the night complaining of seeing witches and shit”). The experience was hollow, and had the off-putting result of turning Beal onto atheism. Now he says he’s worked out the balance of his own beliefs. He says that through all his falls he’s had reassurance, from somewhere, that everything is going to be alright.

“My skills are marginal, rudimentary at best,” he confides. “My singing ability is pretty good I guess. Lyrics? A bit cliché but I think they work alright. Quite honestly, it’s not my talent that got me here. What happened was that I believed. Parallel synchronised randomness, electro-magnetic brain waves, radio signals out to the universe with a concentrated intention.” He’s not joking.

“It’s going to sound real crazy but there’s some wizardry at work,” he continues, pointing out the title of his debut album, ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’. “Once I got out to Albuquerque, I don’t know if it was delusion or not, but I started to receive tangible signs that I was going in the right direction. I’d see shooting stars on cue, I’d speak to the sky, I saw faces. I wasn’t even on drugs. No alcohol. No drugs. Just a guy who never grew up. A guy who never really fully believed that he was a loser.”

“Before, I used to wonder, ‘How come I was left alone? How come I can’t play music like other people? Why can’t I have a girlfriend? How come I got kicked out of the army for failure to adapt? Why wasn’t I a scholar at high school? Why can’t I be a part of something?'” He pauses for a breath. “Now I’ve come to the conclusion that the whole reason I exist right now as Willis Earl Beal, ‘The Singer’, is because that’s my thing – being alone. That’s where it all came from – complete nothingness. No talent, no opportunity, no money – and things exploded.”

Our time together is nearly up. Today he’ll return to the studio – he’s writing some new material and also rerecording some of those very first songs, this time on equipment he didn’t find in a recycling bin. He says he’s feeling content and extremely lucky. By his own admission Beal’s made some bad decisions – ones which have left him shivering on the street in winter, his grandmother taking calls from strangers at midnight and left him stood drunk “dressed as a bum” in front of Simon Cowell on national television. It’s all laid bare as a detuned, un-airbrushed, lowest-fi outpouring on his debut album. Beal is a real bluesman, an open storybook, through and through.

“I don’t have any regrets, I’m glad this all happened,” he says, finishing his bottle of Brown Ale and drying his mouth with his sleeve. “Whether I get a whole lot of money and people love me, or whether I don’t get any money and people hate me I don’t have any regrets. All I’m trying to do here is make enough money so I can live a comfortable life with my girlfriend. I want to be a man. I want to have a family. I want to do all the things you’re supposed to do once you’re a man. That’s all I want. But as far as trying to be Lady Gaga, being some kind of prodigy or starting a cult – I don’t want that.”

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