Willis Earl Beal needs a job.
The vagabond singer-songwriter moved to Portland earlier this year—after bouncing from Chicago to Albuquerque to Brooklyn to Lacey, Wash.—bringing with him a slew of critical plaudits and outsider cred. But apparently positive Pitchfork reviews don't impress prospective employers. In addition to his financial struggles, Beal got divorced, spent two weeks in jail for alleged "criminal mischief" and discovered Portland isn't the artistic utopia it's cracked up to be.
His year wasn't all bad, though. Beal signed to Tender Loving Empire and in August released Noctunes, an album that traded his mangled art-blues for ambient dreamscapes and got him mentioned in the same breath as Brian Eno and Vangelis. WW caught up with Beal while on tour in Europe to discuss his up-and-down 2015.
Willamette Week: How would you classify this past year?
Willis Earl Beal: My kneejerk reaction is "shitty," but I shouldn't say that because a lot of great things have happened. So I'll say "cathartic."
Cathartic in what way? It seems like there was a lot of that going on with Noctunes.
I guess. I mean, everything I have to say about the record is on the record. I talk a lot, and the record itself doesn't talk much at all. I guess the only cathartic part about it was being in control, knowing what sound I wanted to accomplish, and then doing so to my exact specifications. Being compared to Brian Eno and Angelo Badalamemti and Vangelis, that was some good shit. I'm not saying it's true, but being mentioned in the same breath as those cats—this is only the beginning, and I'm 31. I just wished I had started doing this stuff as a teenager.
So you mean it was cathartic in terms of getting to make the album you wanted to make?
And in a lot of other ways, too. I met a great woman, found a lot of truth, got a lot of hypocrisy exposed, figured a lot of stuff out for myself, and there's a lot of stuff I haven't figured it out. But this last year it was like I jumped off a cliff. That's how I feel.
What do you mean by that, exactly?
Well, I had been married, and then that all ended. Music-wise, I got signed to a new label at the same time that happened, and I met a new woman—not a new woman, she's been here for 25 years, but in my life she was new. And just going to a new place, as usual, and trying to figure shit out.
How'd you get hooked up with Tender Loving Empire?
I just made the music and they came after me. I was going to go to Sub Pop because they were interested. That was cool. When Sub Pop was interested I was just like, fuck, I could be on there the way Kurt Cobain and them started out. That would've been cool. But it came down to Tender Loving Empire over Sub Pop, and I chose Tender Loving Empire because I realized I'd be stepping into a big conglomeration, and I'd be making the same mistake over again. It'd be a mistake not just of the label itself but because of me. My needs were, I needed someone to come down to Olympia, Washington, and help me get my shit, and I needed someone I could talk to on a regular basis. I didn't need some big, huge label. I needed a small label. Somebody I could be friends with and communicate with. Tender Loving Empire has been for me every step of the way. They didn't give me no money, but they spent money on me.
I imagine they give you a fair bit of autonomy creatively.
Autonomy like storing my shit at their office, and paying for motels when I didn't have a place to sleep.
You've mentioned in other interviews that you haven't found Portland on the whole particularly welcoming. Do you still feel that way, and was that surprising to you given the reputation Portland has?
Yeah, because Richard Brautigan is one of my favorite poets. So I read a lot of Richard Brautigan and a lot about those beat guys and that scene, and I'm a romantic person at heart, so I figured I would go down there and make it. Get a job mopping floors, and just make it. I did make some friends. They're a band called Tribe Mars. The main guy let me and [my girlfriend] stay in his house, in a room. That's really the first community I've ever had. At the same time, I find Portland to be extremely gentrified, and very, very white. But the whiteness isn't the problem. It's more just like, everything is so specialized, and it just doesn't feel open to me. That's the most fair way I could put it. That said, three days before Thanksgiving I was outside, singing on the street. And I made more money out there than I'd made in the while on the street. And so if there's one thing I can say about the people of Portland, they're generous when they're told to be generous.
You've also described experiencing some overt racism in Portland.
I don't know, man. Who knows if I experienced overt racism or not? The cops are racist, of course, but then again cops are generally like that these days anyway. So I can't blame Portland for that anyway…oh, yes I did. I did experience some overt racism. I was called a nigger by one dude, and then I was riding my bike with Amy down the street one night, and some drunk dude was standing out in the middle of the street, in front of my bike, and he's like, "You're a black man." He was trying to antagonize me. So my girlfriend and I just chased him down the street. We were going to kick his ass, both of us. It was at 43rd and Hawthorne. He went into that 7-11, and then he tries to give me a kiss and a hug, and the guy in there tells me to leave him alone.
The only thing I've ever wanted to do is create a community around me—not necessarily around me, but to be part of a community. When I go abroad and people come to my shows, that community is there. When I'm standing right there in their face, I run away from it. I want to be more natural. I don't want to be a special person, I want to be a part of a bunch of special people, and I want to be self-sustaining. I want to work hard at exactly what I put in it. I don't want special treatment. It's like, I'm either being treated in a special way or I'm being ignored. It's a very strange dichotomy.
You talk about the desire for community, but this year you got into a bit of legal trouble and people helped raise some money to help you out.
That's what I mean, I'm either being treated special or I'm an outcast. I'm not going to say anything about what happened, but I'm glad you brought that up. I have a tendency to focus on the negative, but there were a lot of people who raised money to help get me out of there. It turns out I didn't need the money to get out, I got pre-release. I didn't even end up going to trial, so it was fine. But it still went to food and paying certain things I had to pay. That was a few people in Portland, like, five people in Portland. I don't know who else sent money. That turned out to be $300. I've got people who love me, but c'mon, $300 in the grand scheme of things is not a lot of money. That's a small community of people who care enough about me to put down their hard-earned money to get me out of there. It was a good experience, actually. I'm not going to talk about why I was in there, but I will say while I was in there, it was a good thing for me to be in there. I didn't drink alcohol, I didn't smoke weed, I didn't do anything else. I did a lot of push-ups, played a lot of basketball, watched a lot of Univision. I wrote a song or two, wrote a couple love letters. It was good. I mean, not good, but in retrospect.
So is Portland more or less your home at this point, or are you looking to move on?
Portland's home right now. Maybe until March, maybe later, maybe sooner. It all depends on if I can pay my rent. The only reason I'm even touring—I'm not touring for the love of music or anything, I'm touring because I have to. It just so happens that my tour manager, I wanted to see him again, because he's my friend, so that's good to see him again. And people are really nice out here, they give you food and beer and shit, but I don't think I'm going to earn much in the end. Tender Loving Empire basically gave me a bunch of money by giving me a bunch of merch to sell and not asking for anything in turn. You come back, tour is over and it's like, all right, what are you going to do now?
So you wouldn't tour if you didn't have to?
I really would not. I would travel, but I would not tour. I like traveling. I'd do transatlantic traveling, I'd travel by boat and smoke marijuana cigarettes like Humphrey Bogart. I'd just stand out there, wearing a trench coat.
How do you look at music in general for you? Is it important to you, or does this ongoing search for stability get in the way?
Music is surging in me at all times. I've talked to a lot of people about songwriting. Sometimes people will send me emails, asking, how do you write a song? If you have to ask, you'll never know. Writing a song is the simplest thing. It's just a matter of really, actually feeling things that are happening, and then having faith you will put pen to paper or put fingers on the keys and play some shit. You can't control it, like most things. I'm still very passionate about music, I just don't put too much pressure on myself to do anything about it.
Is the dream to make a living as an artist, or does that complicate things?
My dream is to sustain myself in a way in which I can actually help other people. And if that's being an artist, fine. If it's doing something else, then fine. I'm always going to make music. Honestly, the dream is to not sell music, and to just put my hands in the literal soil and just work and ate and make things and give it away and own my own land.
You said in one interview that you'd ideally have a career in landscaping.
I don't know, man. I don't want a career. I just want to live, I just want to work hard and live. I've met some up-and-coming entertainers, and they hand you their card and they have big, bright smiles, and they're beautiful people, but they're so interested in success in a marginalized way. That's just not me. I'm not going to be the next Jason Derulo. Not disrespect to Jason Derulo. He's got a wonderful voice. Tell him I said that. He'd probably be like, "Who?" Jason Derulo doesn't know who I am.