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Willis Earl Beal is a singer/songwriter born and raised in Chicago. We weren’t successful in contacting him until our third attempt, due to storm activity and low reception in the area. Granting a very interesting twenty-minute interview ahead of his upcoming tour. While the only reference point of Australia he has is from movies, Willis is very happy to “be in a new place”.
Take us through your debut album Acousmatic Sorcery.
WEB: I really don’t like that record. I’m coming to Australia to perform and I want people to see me perform, but I prefer that people don’t listen to that record because that was just from a time in my life when I wasn’t taking music or anything else seriously. The fact that Acousmatic Sorcery has been released is kind of embarrassing. (Although) it’s got me this far, so I have to give it some credit, if you know what I mean.
What’s your latest release Principles of a Protagonist all about?
WEB: The way that I feel about everything, everything is very particular, and after I’ve done it, then it’s over. It is very difficult for me to promote something, because I don’t have any condition to it after I’ve already done it. It’s a movie that is based upon a story that I wrote about the summer where my girlfriend and I broke up. I went back to Chicago after having been out in Albuquerque, New Mexico for three years. I didn’t have a job and I had a link car because I was poor. It was a very strange time in my life. I should have been looking for a job, but instead I was spending these days in my grandmother’s house and going up the street to buy snacks from the local store. It sounds boring, but the book is about my subconscious making fun of my conscious mind and taunting me. I’m going back and forth in and out of time. I go into the past of my life then I go back to the present; it’s like a tragic comedy sort of thing.
Why did you create a short film for Principles of a Protagonist?
WEB: Honestly, I vaguely mentioned the idea of doing a short film and my manager and others really liked the idea, but I hadn’t fully decided. They suggested that I carry on with it so they said, “Why don’t we submit the script to some animators and why don’t you draw some pictures?” I drew a couple of pictures so the animated film was going to be based upon my drawings, but it won’t actually be my drawings. It would definitely be based upon the story that I wrote. It was an accidental decision. I wrote the story a long time ago but was never interested in making it a film, so that’s why I have credit with directing it.
Why don’t you like live music?
WEB: It is very pretentious. When I listen to people, I form my own ideas about music and it’s a soundtrack for my life. When I go to see live music, my thoughts about the music in my life and my imagination are overshadowed. It leaves me with a very bad feeling. The fact that I’m now a live performer feels in congress with what I want to do. It is like a mystery; it’s not very mysterious for me to get on stage and sing to people. It’s not that I’m ungrateful for the opportunity, obviously. When I perform I give one hundred percent. It’s also pretty nervewracking because it’s very personal to me. I don’t play instruments live, I just sing, so I have to compensate with performance and theatre for the lack of other members on stage.
Has your success hit you all at once?
WEB: It seems to have hit me at once, but I don’t think it did. I think what has happened was a series of connecting circumstances. The catalyst of all that was me having an imagination and preconceiving it. I just got off tour with Cat Power and I started admiring Cat Power in 2007 before any of this was a reality. I thought to myself, “I could imagine myself up here with her singing”. It wasn’t a serious idea in my mind, but it was something that I focused on because of my extreme delusion and my lack of other things to do. It was just my involuntary prayer that these things started to finally occur and line up. There are a lot of signs that lead up to things. I believe in signs and I think I’m still on that trajectory.
How have you taken the success?
WEB: I don’t really feel that I’ve been successful, but I do feel like it’s in contrast to my previous life. It is successful because I’m not working at a medial, what people call low-level job. I don’t think it’s low level if you excel at it, but I just couldn’t excel at it so that’s why…but I’m not at that point anymore and that was a very difficult point in my life, so that is why I think it was a success. As far as conventional ideas being a success, I don’t have those. The more known you are, the more insecure you become. I was already a very insecure person. Now I am having confidently to fight against this idea that Acousmatic Sorcery was supposed to be serious; the idea that I’m not a legitimate musician. It’s hard to fight in trying to make people take you seriously. Ultimately you realise it’s a losing battle because nobody can validate you. You can only validate yourself and it’s another reality. It is not necessarily better or worse than anything else.
Do you enjoy fans watching your show?
WEB: It’s weird. I go in there and I feel extremely frightened because I’m exposed; it’s just me on the stage. After the show, people come up to me and tell me that they enjoyed it and that is enjoyable. After all, that’s the reason why most people do anything. They want to be told that they’re good. They want people to say that they like it. Obviously, that’s an aspect of live performance that I enjoy, but it’s such a trecherous thing because your life is there on the line. You are giving your heart right to them and they can either choose to take it or choose to smash it down, so you never know. That’s the thing that is very scary to me.
What can we expect on your debut tour of Australia?
WEB: I say that I’m a performer that thrives on intimacy. I’m a little bit nervous about the festival experiences because I’m not The Black Keys or I’m not Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m just one guy with a reel-to-reel machine. Whether you see me at a festival or at a sideshow, I feel that you will get a very visual and intimate (performance) and a very real experience, not to mention the fact that I sing pretty good. It is like listening to your drunk uncle singing by the radio (laughs). That’s the best description I can tell you. If you like drunken uncles then come to my show.
Willis Earl Beal – Australian Tour Dates
Wednesday, 2nd January
Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
Thursday, 3 January
Goodgod Small Club, Sydney
Photo by Jamie-James Medina