afropunk exclusive: willis earl beal on staying true to himself and new album release #soundcheck

August 6, 2014

Willis Earl Beal is in a class of his own. When he captured the indie scene’s attention in 2012 with Acousmatic Sorcery, he was branded an “outsider artist,” but the label never quite fit. Beal has less in common with the Daniel Johnstons of the world than Tom Waits. That is, he’s an artist who makes emotionally honest music on his own terms. After releasing two albums with XL imprint Hot Charity, Beal is striking out on his own. We spoke with him recently about his forthcoming record Experiments In Time, and what it means to be true to yourself in the face of the music industry.

Interview by Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

So this is your 3rd record in the past year.

It’s the first official record, but I guess you could say it’s the 3rd. I mean, who pays attention to Soundcloud? I’m mostly unknown, anyway, you know?

You’re certainly more known than other DIY artists.

For sure, yeah.

You were a street performer before Acousmatic Sorcery blew up, and you’re now going back to doing it on your own. What perspective has that given you, going back to being more or less DIY?

I think this idea that I was a street performer before I got signed is exaggerated at best. I did a few things on the street, but there were guys out there who really did get by based on music, and they had the talent to do it. I was some random hipster.  Just some random kid just trying to do something for a while, and it just happened to work out.

How did getting signed change things between those two extremes? It seems like you’re trying to find a middle ground now.

Prior to this being my livelihood, I didn’t have one. I went from job to job, and was at the mercy of the bosses. Certain people have given me an opportunity to have a voice. And I’m thinking maybe I can have a means to sustain myself outside of those of the proletariat, and I’m trying to capitalize on that. In addition to that, I’m just trying to have that voice. I’m trying to have a community. Trying to communicate. I’m trying to do that without any kind of restraints. Prior to all this happened, like I always say the only thing I wanted to do was to have some friends and have some people who wanted to see me in person. I never thought that I’d have a label. I never thought that I was a talented person. In fact my music used to be quite terrible as far as I’m concerned. So it was only a means to possibly get myself invited to a party. So when the label came, that was surprising to me. I’d imagined it a million times, a label coming to me, but that was child’s play. I’ve imagined many things. I imagined I was going to be a cartoonist, a private investigator, an assassin, among other things. And it just so happens that now I’m a “recording artist”, quote-unquote. It’s like Hunter S Thomspon said, you know? “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” I don’t really consider myself to be anything, honestly.

I want to shift the paradigm. I want to make people think. I want to make people see that it’s not that hard to write a song. It might be a shot in the dark to think that you’ll make it in the music industry. For me it was entirely luck. But if you want to do it. If you want to write a song, you can do it. it’s very simple. All you have to do is have a little patience with yourself and say what you think is the truth.

That honesty has gotten you labeled an “outsider artist.” What does that term mean to you?

I can understand why I’m called an outsider artist, because of people’s limited perspective. There’s a general perspective of what music should sound like, and there’s an alternate perspective. And we live in a world of duality, so inevitably I’m going to be put in the metaphorical basement of outsider art. I think the stuff that’s classified outsider art is great. But more often than not when you call something outsider art, it’s because you think it’s crazy. “Oh that’s crazy. They must be either stupid, or crazy, or oblivious.”

There’s a connotation that the artist isn’t aware of what makes their work great.

It’s not even that. People use the term “outsider art” are pseudo-intellectuals, and will convince themselves that they do like it because it’s outside the mainstream. Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit, but I think my music is more accessible than a lot of the stuff that’s classified as outsider art. And if it is outsider art, then I guess maybe I’m not what I thought I was. So that’s my relationship with that. In other words you never know you’re stupid or ugly until somebody tells you. I don’t think that outsider art is bad, I just think it’s an insult that they call me that.

To me it denotes a level of obliviousness on the part of the artist that I don’t sense from you. It seemed to me as someone who has followed you for a number of years that you were embracing the term.

Well you go back and forth on it. Like everybody says I’m this? I must be this. And then you’re like “no I’m not, I shouldn’t have said that.” So yeah, I embraced it for a little while.

It’s like that vague definition of DIY; where punk didn’t mean punk anymore so they started using the word indie and then indie didn’t mean indie anymore and so they started using the term DIY. I’m gonna make art how I’m gonna make it.

So if that’s punk, DIY, or outsider, then that’s all the same to me. But I might not be anything pretty soon, because I don’t know if anyone’s going to buy this record. Who knows. Maybe I won’t be punk or DIY. Maybe I’ll be a custodian.

If being independent doesn’t work out, would you go back to a label?

I would partner with a label if they were interested. But I would have to tell them what I wanted. That would be the difference. Before I didn’t know what to tell them. I think they were probably willing to accommodate what I wanted. But since I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know what to tell them. I let people take over, and I shouldn’t have. And honestly, I have to thank those same people that I seem to disparage, because without them I wouldn’t be talking to you on the phone now. I’m not against labels. If it happens, it happens.

Did you feel like they were trying to push you to be more mainstream?

I don’t think that XL wanted me to be more mainstream. I think they were OK with everything that’s coming out. There’s a new mainstream. You’ve got “mainstream mainstream” which is like Katy Perry. And then you’ve got the other mainstream which is like Lorde and Frank Ocean. And I think they wanted me to be part of that mainstream with Frank Ocean. Where you get invited to the Grammys, but are still considered edgy. But that’s a whole circle jerk that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to be involved in; or why I would want to be involved with that. You’ve got to get your song produced by this person. or produced by that person, and it’s just a lot of crap.

When you’re taking that scale, it’s about money more than art most of the time.

Well Childish Gambino is decent. He doesn’t need to be out in the front making the same efforts. But he’s at a point in his career where he doesn’t need to be concerned about that. Childish Gambino’s record gets released, and there’s someone paying for that promotion. His posters are plastered all over the downtown hipster areas, so he’s straight. He doesn’t need to be mainstream. But me, I’m lower than all those people. I’m lower than Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler the Creator and all those cats. I’m no-one. I’m not a part of the cool club. Which is fine, I’ve never been a part of the cool club. They are the part of the mainstream. These other people. Those Disney stars, they’re not even part of the equation. They’re going to make their money no matter what. They’re making their money of the suburbanites. That’s the real new music industry. And that’s also why I decided to leave. I know I could never be a part of that industry. These people aren’t my friends. I don’t know them. I don’t know their producers. I’m not associated with all of that.

These people just seem to have the hookup and they’ve got all these different producers at their disposal, and there just seems to be some sort of wall of people that are all in the same circle and the labels are all connected and the groups are all connected. This person knows this person’s management. I wasn’t even in contact with my booking agent on a regular basis. When I used to go to the festivals, we didn’t have any sympatico. We didn’t know each other. There wasn’t this thing. There seems to be this class of artists, and they’re all in that class. And they tried to put me in that class. And that’s why I got invited to Pitchfork, and I met the guy from Pitchfork, and it was nice. He was nice. But they saw that I was just some random crazy person who wasn’t quite willing to play ball. But honestly, I tried. I just wasn’t a part of it. I just didn’t meet their standards. And mind you, I’m being very vague., Nobody rejected me or anything, but I feel it.

I like that two mainstreams idea. Especially since people who achieve that Katy Perry level success, it’s almost not music, it becomes more of a fashion product. You’ve mentioned capitalism a lot, but you describe yourself as having an anti-capitalist philosophy. How do you apply that to your music, when in a way, you are a businessman as you’re trying to set off on your own and do this?

Well, having an anti-capitalist philosophy in these days is pretty moot. I don’t have a spear in my hand. I can’t butcher a boar. I never learned how, growing up in the city. So I have to be a capitalist to some extent. I don’t particularly like needing money to do everything and not being able to use my physical ability to get what it is I need to survive, and being surrounded by all these corporations and not just trees. And the corporations say you have to work for us and we’ll give you the meat, we’ll give you the means to get the meat. But you can’t go out and kill the meat yourself because that’s more than likely private property. So I’m like a caveman trying to go out and get resources. That’s why I simultaneously have an anti-capitalist viewpoint, but I am, for lack of a better term, a businessman.

Is there anything else about the record you want people to know before it comes out?

Well first of all, all proceeds go to the Willis Earl Beal KFC fund. No. Not KFC. A local business. Second. Number two about this record. This record is very dreamlike and ambient. It’s not the blues. It’s like soul and gospel combined with Gregorian chant. I call it kind of a lo-fi symphony. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before. I produced everything this time. It’s not like Nobody Knows where I had to pass my record on to 4 different people before it was acceptable. This one here is all from my house in Washington. I don’t think it’ll be a blockbuster. It’s like being in my head. It’s like being in my day to day brain.

Free Bonus Track:

Experiments In Time will be out on August 8th. Click here to get it once it’s available.

Photos by Morgen Schuller