Less than a year ago, Willis Earl Beal materialized in my living room nearly an hour late for an impromptu video shoot. He was wet from the rain and wore a tee-shirt brashly announcing “Cool New Person.” I was hesitant to record demos in the rain so I ushered Willis toward a loading bay tucked away in an industrial enclave in NorthCenter, Chicago.
Willis was eager to perform and came prepared with a several original songs as well as a Beck’s ‘Lonesome Tears’ that bore special meaning to him. Willis had been lonesome himself having just gone through a bad breakup that left him despondent and searching for his place in this world. His wanderlust had brought him back to Chicago where he found space to rest his head.
Disguised in this melancholy tale, are the life experiences that form the foundation for an artist to flourish. A poet is only as good as their lyric, and a crooner only as good as their soul and throughout his journey, Willis had come to assemble a catalog of memories, characters and heartaches that seemed more destined to a man twice his age.
I hit ‘record’ and let Willis do his thing. We recorded 4 songs that evening, as the sun set over the train tracks and the rain fell gently from the August skies. His voice reverberated around the concrete walls christening an otherwise dingy cove in Chicago. He sang with passion and soul as though his songs brought him meaning, a meaning that others in the world could relate to through a shared experience.
Once the UE videos went online, the response was swift: agents were summoned from overseas and within a mere weeks, Willis was signed with XL Records imprint, Hot Charity. From there, Willis played a cavalcade of shows in Europe before returning back to sweet home Chicago where he will be performing at Pitchfork this weekend. His debut record Acousmatic Sorcery, features songs that were written and recorded years ago, but the majority of his new work remains to be heard by his growing fan base around the world.
It is a tale of rags to modest riches and UE is proud to have been part of an evolving story from the underbelly of Americana.