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Willis Earl Beal: super unknown

This below-underground Chicago songwriter wants something that might be impossible to get on purpose: a cult following

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While browsing at Myopic Books this past February, I saw a peculiar flyer: "I want some friends & stuff," it read. "I am not a Weasel." It included a name—Willis Earl Beal—along with a phone number and a drawing of a slender black man, apparently a self-portrait. I tried calling the number that day—and then several more times over the next few months. In late May, I finally talked to somebody at the other end.

Beal, 27, turns out to be an aspiring artist in several disciplines—he draws, plays music, and writes poetry and fiction. "I like to believe I do art because I have to do it—it's like vomit," he says. "I don't do art because I love it so much. Not that I don't, but it's a natural thing."

Beal hasn't formally released any of his songs, but in the process of getting to know him I've heard quite a few of them. His eccentric acoustic antifolk is soulful and earnest, and his lyrics are moving—he often writes about the difficulty of connecting with other people, as you might expect from a man who posts flyers looking for friends. In some songs he's discouraged about women; in others he wonders how to figure out what everybody else already seems to know. At one point he sings about showing up at a bar in costume and realizing he's the only person there wearing a mask.

Unfortunately, the odds that you've heard Beal's music are slim. He's been writing and recording for four years, but he has yet to perform in public. And the closest he's come to putting out an album has been leaving CD-Rs in public spaces around Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lived from August 2007 till June 2010.

Despite his extremely low profile, though, Beal already has fans—including Davy Rothbart of Found, a magazine that publishes found materials like letters, snapshots, and to-do lists. A reader gave him one of Beal's flyers at a Found event in Albuquerque, and Rothbart put it on the cover of the seventh issue, which hit stores in January 2010. Inside was a four-page interview with Beal. (I hadn't seen that issue when I found the flyer in Myopic, or I might've had a better idea what I was getting into.)

Now Found is releasing a 200-copy edition of a box set called The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, which will include Beal's poetry, artwork, and the 17-song album Acousmatic Sorcery. At press time Rothbart hoped to be ready to take preorders on Thursday, July 28.

If the set comes together, it won't just be a beginning for Beal; it'll be the end of a long road. Due to a combination of bad luck, strange circumstances, and his own idiosyncratic decisions, he's had a hell of a time releasing his own music. He has all the tracks from Acousmatic Sorcery in order on two cassettes—he dubbed the songs himself from several unsequenced CDs of his own material—and since March he's been talking with Rick Riggs, co-owner and engineer at Roscoe Village studio Handwritten Recording, about converting the whole "album" into a digital format. Problem is, that would've cost him $100, and Beal is essentially un­employed—in early June he quit a job at FedEx, which paid $130 a week, after less than two months. Right now he's living at his grandmother's house on the south side and doing occasional temp work.

Beal also doesn't own a computer—to check e-mail and apply for jobs, he visits the Saint Sabina Employment Resource Center about a mile from his grandma's place. He knows it's important for musicians to use the Web, but he prefers to stay offline. "Do you sell your soul or do you get on the Internet?" he asks, implying that they might as well be the same thing. Staying off the Web, he says, would "get these young people understanding what it's like to hustle as opposed to just typing."

Needless to say, Beal hasn't posted his music to Bandcamp or Soundcloud or Facebook or anywhere else. But there are a few of his songs on the Web. After my first attempts to call him failed, I found some of his music on a blog called City of Dust. A post from October 2010 titled "The Sound of Young America" has three mesmerizing home-recorded tunes—including the haunting "Monotony," which I couldn't help but play over and over. Beal recorded them while living in Albuquerque, and the man behind the blog, John Mulhouse, got his hands on them after seeing the Found piece and contacting the magazine in spring 2010 about how to hear Beal's music. The Found article had invited readers to write in if they wanted some, but the magazine had never gotten any from Beal. Rothbart suggested that Mulhouse, who lives in Albuquerque, contact Beal directly—after all, his number was on the flyer on the cover of the magazine. More than a year later, that call would lead to The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection.

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