Willis Earl Beal has a biography that sounds as if Charles Bukowski could have penned it. Beal's lived, at times, a harsh life, drifting between countless miserable part-time jobs, the military (he enrolled in the Army for a short time) and homelessness.
Over the last few months, however, the 28-year-old singer's once-bleak prospects have improved dramatically. He just released his debut album, "Acousmatic Sorcery" (Hot Charity/XL), a lo-fi effort that veers between beat-poet blues, bruised soul and art-rock weirdness, and his name and story have appeared in outlets as diverse as Pitchfork and GQ.
In a recent interview, the former Englewood resident, who now makes his home largely on the road ("I don't really live anywhere these days," he said) and appears at this summer's Pitchfork Music Festival, opened up about sharing a label with Adele, auditioning for "The X-Factor" and trepidation over his quick ascent.
What's your mindset at the moment? I imagine the attention has to be a little overwhelming.
I suppose you'd expect a person to be really happy and excited at this point, and I guess for all intents and purposes I am. But I don't think I was properly equipped for this kind of thing, especially with touring and seeing yourself on the Internet. I'm having some identity issues, and also some priority issues I'm trying to iron out.
What does the phrase "Acousmatic Sorcery" mean to you?
The "Acousmatic" part, I guess that's just the combination of acoustics and electrics--an old process with new ideas. Then "Sorcery," like, everything that's happening now I preconceived. I thought about it all before it happened. I interviewed myself countless times and sang to audiences when really there was nobody there. It's not as though I thought I knew what was all going to happen, but I conceived it so vividly at the time...that it seems like I built up enough energy to where it had no choice but to happen. It was never this thing where I thought I had this fantastic, glorious ability. I still don't. At best I'm a pretty good singer, an OK lyricist and a bull(bleep) musician. But I do have a very clear vision of how I want things to sound and how I want things to look. I think I'm a credible artist, but like all things I think it's more hype than anything, personally.
Is it surreal to be on the same label as Adele?
I suppose it is, but when I think about the trajectory and the stuff that I've been though, then not really. It's no more surreal than all the other stuff that's happened.
What was your life like at this time last year?
My girlfriend had just broken up with me, and I was on my way to Chicago, crying on the airplane. When I got back to my grandmother's house, for dramatic effect I suppose, it was raining. That summer was probably the worst summer of my life. I couldn't find a job. I couldn't sleep by myself, really. I couldn't listen to the radio. I couldn't listen to music. Everything reminded me of Jessica. It was just bleak.
How did you pull yourself out of that funk?
I didn't, really. I had this little Schwinn bike that I keep being photographed with, and I'd ride that all over Chicago. I was never the type to ride really fast anyway, and I had nothing but time. I'd go to this abandoned warehouse on 22nd and Ashland ... and drink beer and eat whatever it was my grandmother had fixed in a Tupperware bowl. But eventually I ended up trying out for "The X-Factor." I think this was last summer, if I'm not mistaken. I got four yes votes and they sent me to Pasadena, California. I went out there, (bleeped) it up ... and came back into town. To make matters even stranger, my ex-girlfriend called out of the blue and we started talking again and things started going up, up, up, up.
Do you ever regret putting your phone number out in public (Beal's number is available on his official site, and he used to post it on flyers he distributed around Chicago)?
No, I don't. There have been times I was feeling bad and someone would call and tell me they were feeling bad and tell me to sing them a song. I'd sing them a song and they'd tell me they were feeling better. I think it's some kind of crazy "(bleep) you" to entities like Facebook because that's what I feel people are missing. They're missing that strong, close, personal connection. People post, "Oh, well, yes, I'm sitting on the toilet and here are some pictures and this is my baby," but it's not personal because when you dislike a person you un-friend them and that's it. With this sort of a thing, I talk to people directly. A guy from Greece called me ... and he was telling me about what a hard time he was having. You want to talk about surreal. That was surreal. Not being on the same label as Adele.
Willis Earl Beal
When: 9 p.m. April 19
Where: Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave.
Tickets: $10-$12, 773-227-4433
Willis Earl Beal personality test
What's the last album you bought? Tom Waits: "Bad As Me"
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? "Something by Philip Glass. I've got this thing called 'The Glass Box,' and I alternate within that."
Song you never want to hear again? Lady Gaga, "Born This Way"
Best concert you've seen in the last year? "I don't like concerts, but...my own."
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? "I don't really know any new bands."
Favorite movie ever? "Synecdoche, New York"
Chicago's best music venue? "You know, I don't get out much. Let me think. I guess Chicago's best music venue would have to be the Jackson El stop."