Willis Earl Beal

[EDITORS UPDATE: Willis got paid! He signed with XL Records/Hot Charity and has tour dates scheduled all over the world. Watch more Willis videos exclusively at UE.]

The universe works in mysterious ways. Sometimes when you put yourself out into the world, nature has a way of figuring out the rest. At least that’s the path that Chicago-native Willis Earl Beal has followed in his underground ascension from obscurity to begin assembling a cult following in the folk music scene.

Beal, 27, is a Chicago artist that popped up on my radar after appearing on The Chicago Reader’s blog. Writer Leor Galil wrote a thoughtful piece on Beal that detailed his seemingly-random journey from Chicago to Albuquerque, and then Albuquerque back to Chicago after a bad breakup with his girlfriend. Beal had come to the attention of local Albuquerque residents after creating a hand-drawn poster [inset] that invited girls to call him. The poster also caught the attention of Davy Rothbart, publisher of Found Magazine, who in turn published it along with a collection of Beal’s poetry, artwork and recordings.

As I was reading Galil’s piece, I learned that Beal had never even performed live or made proper recordings, and I started to wonder exactly why he garnered such attention. But Galil had brilliantly managed to backtrack through the nebulous blogosphere to a post on the blog City of Dust that showcased some of Beal’s home recordings. It seems that Beal had managed to piece together some low-fi demos – which was almost a feat in of itself – considering he doesn’t have access to a computer and doesn’t own a cell phone.

I listened with curiosity to the recordings and knew instantly that Galil was on to something. Beal’s vocal talent was undeniable. He showed a mature range that call to mind hints of Otis Redding.

Meanwhile, I had been searching for a vocal artist to mic up and start shooting screen tests with some of my new equipment. I figured Beal might be a perfect fit and reached out to Galil who in turn gave me the phone number to Beal’s auntie’s house where Beal has decamped since arriving back in Chicago.

I called the land line a few times but to no response and no answering machine. But coincidentally, Galil informed me that Beal had been playing in the subways and was seeking to have a live impromptu performance in front of The Bean in Millennium Park. There, I met Willis and exchanged digits and told him that I’d be willing to help him out. More than anything it seemed that Beal was just looking for good company in Chicago because he’s out of work, living with his Aunt and seeking an avenue to pursue his craft.

A few days later, we arranged a time where we’d shoot a screen test on my roof at sunset. Chicago weather, being what it is, naturally dumped rain on us that evening and I soon found myself at my place with pouring rain, waning sunlight, and an apprehensive Beal staring at me wondering what I had in mind. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity so I improvised and brought him to a little industrial cove in my backyard that has a covered cargo-bay loading area.

There, I shot these two demos of Beal bearing his soul to the world on two original recordings so he could finally point talent scouts to a video demo. (I’ll let Beal’s songs speak for themselves.)

After the recordings, I invited Beal back for a beer and he told me about how he had been contacted by a local booking agent for a gig at The Town Hall Pub – a venue that has launched the careers of Chicago’s own The Cool Kids. He told me about how he had been invited to perform a set of 8 songs but his plans to get together a band to back him had fallen through.

This brings up another interesting point because up until now, Beal had never even performed with other musicians.

I told Beal that I had some talented friends who played various instruments and that I could try and arrange a meeting. I then contacted Matt Murch, whom I’ve known since I was about 10, and his coworker Tim Johns. Murch and Johns had kicked around the idea of forming a band on the side but had never really found the time to get things together. I arranged a jam session and the three hit it off.

So suddenly, and strangely, Beal has his first reputable live gig and a set of musicians to back him and I’ve somehow inexplicably become what might be described loosely as a band producer. Like I said, the universe works in mysterious ways…

Come see Willis Earl Beal & the band play live
September 15 @7:00pm
The Town Hall Pub
3340 North Halsted

-jho