In a fascinating, insightful interview with Under the Radar, lo-fi soul singer Willis Earl Beal explained his reasons for leaving his label, XL Recordings/Hot Charity, and choosing to self-release his newest album, Experiments in Time. With refreshing thoughtfulness, Beal expressed his disenchantment with the music industry and his desire to be something other than “a part of the hype train.”
The trajectory of Beal’s career (a word that makes him cringe) has been anything but conventional. His first appearance in the media came after his self-illustrated personal ad flier, which he posted all over his hometown of Chicago, was used as the December 2009 cover photo for Found Magazine (a publication that collects and catalogs interesting found objects). Thanks to the popularity of Beal’s illustration, Found later released “The Willis Earl Beal Collection,” a box set of Beal’s art, poetry and music. After the release of the box set, Beal’s music career took off, and he soon signed with XL Recordings.
Unfortunately, Beal noted in the interview, his own unfamiliarity with the industry combined with the fact that he was signed to one of XL’s newest imprints led to the inevitable split:
I feel like the people that signed me—not XL but the subsidiary—I don’t really [think] they understood my perspective. I think they went into it bright-eyed and wide-eyed, and I think they were very naïve. And I think that I was very naïve, so I believed I was going to be this instantaneous rock star. And there was some hype around me in the beginning, because there was this backstory.
Beal confessed that he “acted like a damn fool on the road … because [he] had a false sense of reality.” He was frustrated with the ways he saw the media and even his own label try to pigeonhole him into genres and cliqueish music scenes where he felt he didn’t belong. Ultimately, Beal said, his vision for himself as a musician didn’t align with his label’s, joking that he didn’t want to be a “trendy-ass Ed Sheeran dude” whereas the person who signed him “didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time thinking about all the lonely psychopaths that listen to music in the middle of the night while riding their bikes. And those are the kind of people I [Beal] want to make music for.”
The decision to self-release Experiments in Time comes from a desire to create and release music organically, without the involvement of a self-interested middle-man:
What I am saying is that when capitalism and art get involved in this whole rock and roll mentality, it dilutes everything and it makes everything be about trends. Sitting down with a guitar or a keyboard or singing a song to yourself—that’s what it’s about. You feel something, you put it down, and you share that with people, and you get feedback.
Experiments in Time, which Beal calls his “lo-fi symphony,” will be released digitally on www.CDBaby.com on August 8.
Listen to “Coming Through,” Beal’s collaboration with Cat Power, below: