Photo by Chris DapkinsWillis Earl Beal -- the star of Tim Sutton's sophomore film Memphis, which premieres tonight at IFC Center -- was sipping tea and reading a positive review of the film in the Village Voice when I sat down to talk with him. The musician-turned-indie-film-star shifted his attention not to me but to an American Apparel ad: "The Starbucks of clothing," he pointed out. All of this would have seemed fairly innocuous if his eyes and the upper half of his face weren't covered by a black, Zorro-esque mask -- an eccentricity that I soon learned was the norm for a performer like Beal. When I asked what the deal was with the costume, Beal looked at me -- although I can't be sure -- and calmly said, "Right now is a time to be truthful so I'm revealing myself by wearing a mask." I knew this interview was going to get weird.
In his speech, Beal is lyrical, existential, and weary -- much like the character he embodies in Sutton's moody portrayal of a soul-seeking blues man (also named Willis). In Beal's words, "the film Memphis is less a film about artistic block or a black blues musician, and it's more about transcending reality." And although Beal's role was originally written for an "older guy who was past his prime" the part was tweaked to fit Beal when the director saw a clip of him performing one of his songs. "When he saw me singing, Tim knew that he had to reshape his film and that's what he did. Meeting him was very conventional - we hung out and we smoked marijuana." Like masks, smoking weed with your potential film director is par for the course in Beal's world.
After working with Sutton to create the character of Willis, Beal hesitates to even call it a character. "For conventional purposes, it is a character. For me it's not. There's really no separation between the character and me because I just feel like a bad actor in my life," he lamented. "I don't know how to be a real person anyway. So there's no separation for me between the alienation that that character experiences and what I experience -- the problems that I cause for myself in my pseudo-intellectual torrent."
Photo by Henny Garfunkel
Although he toured with Cat Power and was signed to an imprint of XL Recordings -- a label that also launched Adele, Vampire Weekend, and M.I.A -- Beal remains fairly under the radar, though he's quick to mythologize himself. "I'm making myself bigger than I am," he explains with self-awareness, "but if I'm not the legend of my own experience then I'm not going to be the legend of anyone's experience," said Beal. He's got a point. With a classically soulful voice that can evoke gospel and move his fervent fans to tears, most of his magical thinking is deserved.
But now Beal is an independent artist after leaving his record label and his latest album, Experiments in Time was self-released last month. From the start, Beal branded himself as an outsider and at this point in his career, he's tired of being classified as a 'black blues musician.' His persona and music aim at offbeat, or at least less easily categorized. Most of his influence comes from white musicians -- or "the old guys," as Beal calls them -- like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. This brings us back to the elephant in the room -- the mask. "You see a brown man and the first thing you see is that. You know? He just looks like another black guy. But I put on a mask and suddenly that's what people ask about. They don't talk to me like a black person. I'm trying to communicate a lot of things by wearing a mask. It's probably conventionally pretentious but I don't mind being pretentious a little bit. Kanye West doesn't mind."
At the mention of Kanye West, associations can be made to black musicians striving to break out of traditional boxes both musically and culturally -- both musicians grew up around the same area in Chicago. But when I ask Beal if he models himself after West the immediate answer is a loud, resounding no. He explains, "I want very much to transcend culture. I have no reverence for culture. I have no reverence for Kanye West but I understand Kanye West, I think." Just as quickly as Beal brought the rapper up, he regrets it and backtracks. "Why did I bring up Kanye West? That's how he is! He's omnipresent! Maybe he is a god. I don't know."
After spending years moving from state to state, joining the military, and being homeless for a time, Beal now lives in Washington State -- leaving Kanye's Chicago, and what seems like many lifetimes, behind. "I just want to sustain myself with my music, I want to do things that are truthful, and that's it. I just want to live in this zen-like way where I give and I receive," Beal said, explaining the move. "I used to live on Lexington Street in Manhattan. And I used to have a lot of money when I was with a label so I'd go down to this cigar shop and get a cigar and hang out in there and pretend like I was older than what I was," he said in a rare fond memory of the city. "But I can't take it," Beal went on to say. "I drank myself into a stupor at times. I'd be in a bar drinking when things were at their worst. An hour later there's a man yelling at me or I'm in a taxicab, or I'm vomiting in the hallway. For me, personally, I can't deal with New York. I'm too sensitive. I can't take it." Although he has the same provocateur spirit as Mr. West, Beal clearly has no ambitions to be as famous. He likes his quiet life in Washington that consists of going on nature walks and listening to Dylan -- the old guys -- and at 30 he already refers to 20-something upstart musicians as 'young kids.' "I always," Beal confessed, "enjoyed the idea of being old."