Chicago outsider artist Willis Earl Beal sings blues better than anyone else under 70

The first track to be released from this heart-warming and heart-wrenching underground artist is worth a listen - and another listen. And another.

05.01.12

Words by: Charlie Jones

The self-portrait says it all. Sketchy and not-quite-lifelike, the hand-drawn eyes that stare out of Willis Earl Beal’s picture of himself are at once a little bit imperfect, and at the same time entirely sincere, entirely his. Every little piece of art that Willis Earl Beal (no website), an under-underground singer-songwriter from Chicago, has released into the world so far has given those who happen to see or hear it a little, fleeting glimpse into his emotions, humour, desires and earnest nature.

The story of Willis Earl Beal is one worth knowing. “See, I’m not some flashy, excessively sweet food. I’m more like a biscuit. I compliment meals & sandwiches,” he once wrote on one of the many handwritten flyers he distributed around his home city of Chicago. Decorated simply with his pencil-drawn self-portrait, his phone number and unembellished descriptions of himself, the flyers encouraged any “nice, pretty girls” and anyone else to call Beal, who was at the time living on little money, and mostly working socially-isolating night shifts.

“See, I’m not some flashy, excessively sweet food. I’m more like a biscuit. I compliment meals & sandwiches” – Willis Earl Beal

One of his flyers, by a stroke of luck, made its way into the hands of the editor of FOUND magazine , Davy Rothbart, who featured Beal on the cover in 2010. For normal people, scattering sketches around a huge city would be a pretty slow way to get ahead, but for Beal, it brought windfall after windfall, as Rothbart fell in love with his music and released 17 of his songs in the Willis Earl Beal Special Collection , which also contained a boxset of poetry and artwork. Now, Beal has become the first artist to sign to XL Recordings’ new imprint label ‘Hot Charity’ – a pretty bold accolade for someone who considers himself a biscuit. However, as Rothbart perfectly told the Chicago Reader back in July 2011, “There’s this raw kind of beauty in the work of people who are living life as outsiders. Like Willis would say, they’re the biscuits of the art world.”

Beal’s is not music that’s perfect for one thing or another. It is perfect at being itself. It seems to have its own little backwards timeline, its own pocket of existence. Rough-cut, distant, gentle, it speaks to you as though it were a friend on the end of a phone line; it may not sound crystal clear but it speaks directly to you, in a voice that trembles with honesty.

Listening to the track itself will explain it best. Stream ‘Evening’s Kiss’, the first song to find its way to the internet from Beal’s upcoming debut album, below.

You can find more of Beal’s older music on a blog called City of Dust , or if you’d rather hear his voice down your phone line, you might want to give him a call on (773) 295-2135.

Hot Charity will release Willis Earl Beal’s debut album ‘Acousmatic Sorcery’ on the 20th March 2012.