Nobody Is Nowhere: Willis Earl Beal Talks ‘Noctunes’ and His Hazy Future
After a cross-country move and a separation, the songwriter returns with a new LP and a slew of stories
Willis Earl Beal is hard to get ahold of. A mid-afternoon call to the casually drifting Chicago-born musician goes straight to his voicemail, which, naturally, isn’t properly set up yet. He’s supposed to be talking about Noctunes, his latest drowsy, ambient release in a string of nearly uncountable scratchy solo soul recordings. His manager, who hinted days earlier that his unavailability could be a possibility, doesn’t seem to have much an idea why he’s AWOL, either. We wait.
Hours later he calls back — confused about who’d been trying to get in touch with him and why — and offers an explanation for why he’s been out of touch. “Well, it’s because I’m homeless,” he exhales, then pauses a beat. “… Once again. But thanks to the gratitude of the residents of Portland, it hasn’t been as hard as one might think.”
Part of that’s because more people are willing to help Beal out than the last time he found himself without a consistent place of residence; and that is because, quite frankly, more people know who he is now. At the moment, during the run-up to this new album, he and his new girlfriend are bouncing around the Evergreen State, staying with friends of his new label, Tender Loving Empire, but nothing’s permanent for the man who calls himself Nobody.
“You never know when someone is going to want you to leave,” he says. “My girlfriend and I are always prepared to put a tent in the park.”
The traditional telling of the Willis Earl Beal Myth begins with a period of transition after a Kerouac-ian sojourn out West stalled in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he started recording castoff sound experiments. Dates are hard for him to pin down, but at some point in 2009, a scrappy publication called Found Magazine discovered one of the many flyers that Beal drew and posted around the city. Quite taken by his instantly magnetic personality (evidenced by a quietly charismatic X Factor audition from around the same time), they put him on their cover. Sometime after that, XL Records imprint Hot Charity came calling, and then all of a sudden he was releasing records with guest vocals by Cat Power and playing festival stages across the world — a disorienting, meteoric rise for the humble, slow-talking songwriter.
Equally fuzzy is Beal’s memory of the timeline following the release of 2013’s Nobody knows. He was living in New York, got married to his longtime girlfriend, toured a bit, and then he stagnated. He was “having a hard time” in the wake of a messy departure from Hot Charity over the bureaucratic log jam that kept him from releasing music on his own timeline, so his wife “appeased him” and they moved to Washington. Their time in Tacoma was brief because “it wasn’t quite what [they] expected” (he says in definitively vague terms) so they decamped to Olympia, where he heard that the vibe was more in line with his sensibilities; that is, more “eclectic.”
But Beal still found himself an outsider in his new hometown. At the advice of the beloved eccentric journalist (and personal friend) Nardwuar, he attempted to get in touch with both the DIY czars at K Records and the buzzed-about punk scene that the city now supports. He didn’t really stick in either environment. “K Records are some fuckers man,” he says, “and the punks in Olympia really need to get their heads out of their asses. I’m just like the next man, I don’t want to work. But I thought that punk was supposed to mean something. I play R&B music, and I’m more punk than they are.”
Regardless of his feelings about the place, it was there that Noctunes began to take shape. Living in a doublewide trailer on a lake, Beal started making songs that were neither R&B, nor punk, nor the gritty soul of his past records. Beal was beginning to feel tensions and doubts about his marriage because his wife “felt like she wasn’t doing what she needed to be doing” and he was spending a lot of his time moping around — a malcontent, or in his own words, a “sad sack.” So he began recording again late at night as she slept. Continuing the somnambulant homespun recordings of a self-released 2014 CD called Experiments in Time, he began crafting dead-eyed drones while smoking weed to combat lifelong anxiety and insomnia.
To that end, Noctunes lives up to its title. Its “nocturnal tunes” are near narcoleptic. Keyboard lines drone and envelop with the vast shimmering stillness of the lake he looked out at during his stoned twilight recording sessions. His once-booming vocals have been reduced to gentle whispers, cobbled-together folk music deconstructions turned to watery lullabies. “All the other shit I did is not me,” he says of the shift. “My most popular song is ‘Too Dry to Cry.’ But I hate that song. People only listen to the part where I talk about my dick. I hate all that fucking yelling. No fuckin’ fake-ass bravado in this record.”
That instrumental vulnerability suits the record’s pained subject matter, which so often dives deep into themes of abandonment and romantic dissolution. The elliptical ballad “Stay.” finds a narrator trying to white-knuckle a relationship where he’s “been too proud.” It functions as the record’s tender and convincing show-stopper, but it takes an even more bittersweet tone given how things worked out in real life for Beal. At some point after the record’s completion, his wife paid the last three months of rent on their trailer and returned to New Mexico without him. “She hightailed it, and I can’t blame her,” he says. “It just goes to show you, man, don’t be negative. Be a positive person, because if you’re walking around with all this bullshit in your brain, it can come true.”
But on the eve of this new record (out August 28), 100 miles removed from that trailer, it’s clear that he’s come to terms with that loss and with any perceived slights from his previous label. He’s part of a new smaller support crew, who he signed with after talks with Sub Pop stalled and Tender Loving Empire’s owners piled into a van and drove down to visit him in Olympia. And then he added one more vital part to his new team. “I met my new lady, Amy,” he says. “So she came with me [to Portland] and we’ve been trying to make it ever since.”
And however uncertain things are, Beal always ends up making it, and for that reason, for the moment, he’s at peace. “I’m at a point now where I’ve come to a lot of personal discoveries and understood things for what they were,” he says. “I no longer blame XL Records for anything. I’m just a cog in a wheel, man. Things are gonna keep on moving no matter what.”