Willis Earl Beal wandered through most of his 28 years on the planet without a steady job or much direction until his loneliness become so consuming that he began to sing. Now he finds himself as a labelmate of Radiohead, M.I.A. and Adele. His debut album for Hot Charity/XL Recordings, “Acousmatic Sorcery,” is out this week.
Beal grew up on the South Side and attended high school in Richton Park. An ill-fated stint in theU.S. Armyfollowed, along with countless dead-end jobs. He relocated to Albuquerque, N.M., in 2007 in search of … well, it’s not clear exactly even to him what he hoped to find there. He was homeless for a time, then finally ended up working another series of soul-sapping jobs.
“I developed an interest in singing, because nights get lonely out there,” he says. “I was riding my bike or walking everywhere, with nowhere to go. I bought some recording gear – boom boxes, microphone, karaoke box – just to experiment.”
He latched onto the music of certain artists that he would listen to over and over again, and wrote 130 songs of wildly varying quality in response.
“I was seeking an emotional connection with whomever and wherever I could find it,” he says. “When I heard somebody I related to, a particular artist or type of music, I would investigate the music I liked to the utmost. But there was not a lot I liked. The sounds I ended up creating after discovering certain artists were just a response. It was more of a dialogue. I felt the need to give my interpretation to what it is they were telling me. I felt the same way they felt and I wanted to interpret that. It was more delusional than anything. It had less to do with music and more about companionship.
“I had a compact disc player. Everyone else had iPod. But I liked to listen to old records, to understand the entire artistic scope and go on a journey with these people. I would listen while riding my bike at nighttime and it was very romantic. I developed real close relationships with people like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Jandek, Cat Power. It wasn’t like I had an obsession with them, like a stalker. It was just, hell, I don’t have any friends. These people are writing lyrics like they’re my friends. So I’m going to sing something and record it, and we’ll have sort of a spiritual dialogue. And then I can be in the audible pantheon of those people in my own brain. It wasn’t like ‘Now I’m going to be an artist.’ It was more a matter of survival.”
He began posting flyers around town that included a self-portrait, his address and phone number, with a promise to sing a song for anyone who called or provide a drawing for anyone who wrote.
“I pretended it was some sociological experiment, but it was more serious than that,” he says. “I was going stir-crazy and I just wanted a girlfriend.”
The flyer worked in unexpected ways: It drew attention to Beal’s recordings. He was written about in Found Magazine, which issued a limited-edition CD of Beal’s home recordings last year.
Though Beal has no musical training, wasn’t even all that interested in music until he started making it a few years ago, his home recordings are distinguished by a pliable, astonishingly powerful or wrenchingly tender voice. At times, as on the ragged field holler “Take Me Away,” he approximates the growl of Tom Waits or an old blues singer. At other moments, such as the reverie “Evening’s Kiss” or the heartbreaking “Monotony,” he’s a folk-soul balladeer. He plays rudimentary guitar, plucks a harp-like childrens instrument and pounds out rhythms on pots and pans, trash cans, pails.
“Begrudgingly, I like not having any musical training,” he says. “I feel like I’m always on the outside, but in a way that gives me the fire. Being ignorant gives me this force, it gives me subject content for the lyrics, and extra intensity. I always have a melody in mind, but I don’t realize what kind of talent I have until the tools for making it are put in front of me. On any given day, I can have loads of talent or no talent at all. One day I’ll leave all full-chested and think, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m an artist. I’m a composer. I could score a film!’ And the next day, nothing. I’m just staring at the wall, thinking, ‘Maybe I’m in the wrong profession.’ ”
Now 11 of his homemade recordings are being presented to the world on “Acousmatic Sorcery,” and he’s more than a bit conflicted about it.
“I’m not excited about the record these days,” he says. “I was excited about it when I did it (in 2007-10). I feel sort of detached from it these days because I’m ready to move on. I never intended for that record to be heard by a whole bunch of people. It’s a skeleton, an outline. I’m a bit embarrassed. My Dad said people at his job wanted copies and I said, ‘Dad, it’s not that kind of record.’ It‘s for people who dig conceptual art, which is just a fancy way of saying it’s for people who don’t mind that it’s terrible. I feel like I’ve grown up from that sound. I feel I have so much more to offer.”
Willis Earl Beal with SBTRKT at 10 p.m. Saturday at House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn, $18.50 (advance) and $20.50; houseofblues.com.