Willis Earl Beal claims that he has turned his life into a myth as a survival mechanism. And yes, the life of this 31-year-old artist, soul-folk-experimental musician and actor already contains more storylines than most.
That would include a discharge from the army, homelessness, leaving demo tapes and personal notes every possible place, groomed to be the next Adele by super-indie XL after busking the streets, drowning in ill behaviour and rock star allure, then rejecting fame and the music business – consequently leaving his label and self-releasing his latest album, Experiments in Time, which embraces a mystical lo-fi naiveté, and starring in Tim Sutton’s Memphis, which will be playing the Unknown Pleasures Film Festival on Wed, Jan 14, followed by a Q&A. Beal will be performing as well, on Fri, Jan 16, at Roter Salon.
Do you believe in God?
Why would you ask me that? I don’t know. I believe in what everybody should believe in, which is nature and the interconnectedness of all things. You could mean a million different things. You know, believing in God is something that is irrelevant. I just think it’s about the faith that keeps the person going on, and as long as it is there that’s what counts and that’s what keeps people to wanna be alive and create. Because they think there’s something out there.
Is living life more challenging than creating art?
Music is – I wouldn’t say simple. But music is very pure. It is something that I can revisit time and time again because it’s recorded, and I get the same feeling when I do. Life feels way more complex. You can go back to the same spot, where you lost your virginity or where you drank your Coca-Cola for the very first time, and you associate a feeling with that place. And you go back to that place and it’s not the same. So I find life significantly more difficult than any artistic endeavour.
To make art is to take part in life?
Life is 100 percent art and they’re inseparable. Life is the ultimate artistic endeavour. And that’s the problem that I have: If I’m feeling something about a song that I created and I keep revisiting it and that affects my life outside that song and I see everything as a microcosm for life, I start to read a lot into things that might not even be there. There’s no way to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. And then you’re asking for trouble because you might end up alone, caught in your own brain.
One’s own head is a dangerous neighbourhood.
Yeah, it’s the only trap that really exists.
Are you a narcissist?
Everyone is a narcissist. Some people pretend they’re not, but I think that’s a lie. All human beings think about themselves all the time. Even when they’re helping other people. I mean, this is only my feeling, ‘cause what do I really know about other people? As far as I know, the world might not even exist. What I am trying to say is that I think everybody thinks about themselves 100 percent of the time. Selflessness is non-existent and we’re all just trying to get the best situation for us no matter what, even if the best situation is martyrdom, nailing yourself on to a cross and saying, “Oh, I am a martyr, looking out for everybody else and now I’m gonna die.”
The fact that good and bad only exist through one another is very troubling.
I think life is a curse, but it’s also very beautiful and that’s one of the definitions of beauty – how lethal it can be and how misleading it can be.
Your music takes me deep into your world and deeper into mine at the same time.
It makes me very happy that you would say something like that, because that is intentional. I really hate most things in art because they wanna take the attention away from yourself. It’s understandable that they’re proud of their work, but it’s so self-indulgent. It’s my intention to create something to remind you that you still exist, that you are in this world and that there’s someone out there that feels similar to you. So I try to write about things, sing about things, perform things in a way that is universal to the individual soul.
Some people have the capacity to touch others, and others don’t?
We all have that capacity. It would benefit people to see it that way; then things wouldn’t be so dull all the time. People complicate things all the time. Something comes directly from my heart and is very simple and you either get it or you don’t. They turn it into something that is either irrelevant or not irrelevant and life is so much more complex than that. Everything is just a part of a big puzzle. Leave your intellect for a while and just feel. That’s all I want. I want to create a feeling in other people and I want them to create a feeling in me and then we can all just wear paper bags over our heads and hold hands.
Did leaving XL and taking care of business yourself provide you with the freedom that you wanted?
It made me feel a lot better because I don’t have to answer to anybody. I sometimes talk to labels about potential deals and they say, “Oh, we like you, but you gotta change some things!” But I don’t wanna change anything because that’s who I am and that’s what I do and why would I change something for you? I’m glad that I have the confidence now to speak up for myself.
Did acting in Memphis come to you easily?
I wanted to be an actor at first and I wasn’t successful. And eventually stumbled upon music and went down the music path and that led me back to acting. But ironically enough, it just so happened that my first real acting job wasn’t acting at all. I was just playing an archetype that I knew very well, and so it was really a strange transition. I mean, that feeling of playing yourself. Who are you really? A lot of things that you always thought were real are coming down and then you feel like you’re exploiting yourself. And you think, “Hey this is not me twice! Not that it isn’t me now – it wasn’t me in the first place. So everything that I am being now is an illusion!” So, me and the director got into a little bit of a disagreement. We resolved it once we realised we were both good people trying to do a good thing but it was hard, and I would be very hesitant to do another.
Will you bring a band to your show in Berlin?
No, I won’t bring anybody. I’ll bring an Ipod with my backing tracks on it. It’s all about intimacy and showing the entire microcosm of somebody’s life. It’s theatre. And when I played with a band, it took some of that theatre away. It might have also added things, but it felt more like musical masturbation on stage. And also, I don’t want anybody to take your attention away from me. I want all the attention for myself!
WILLIS EARL BEAL W/DJ LOBOTOMY Fri, Jan 16, 22:00 | Roter Salon, Linienstr. 227, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa- Luxemburg-Platz
Originally published in issue #134, January 2015.