Willis Earl Beal – The Surprising Sound of Albuquerque

I swear it’s not my intention to turn this into a music column, but bear with me. I didn’t hear much New Mexican music growing up. I had images of cities I’d never seen—Detroit, Washington DC, London—based solely on their music, but Al Hurricane and Robert Mirabal weren’t exactly well-known in the upper Midwest. (Although I did see Scared of Chaka in a basement once and Santa Fe’s Grimple slept on my floor.) So, it’s perhaps strange that one of the more interesting musical stories I’ve been involved with is tied to Albuquerque.

Some of you might have seen Willis Earl Beal riding his big chrome bike around town. For a while he was spending his nights behind JC’s New York Pizza Dept. But that was before I met him at the Wendy’s on University and Central, where he was applying for a job. He’d just been let go from the La Quinta on San Mateo. He gave me some CD-R’s of his music, which he’d recorded alone in his apartment, and within the first few seconds I knew the guy had something. He had a voice, but he also had songs, and lyrics that were memorable and unique. Not bad for someone that had never performed his music or played with anyone else. Reading some poems at a slam or two was as far as he’d gone.

It’s also possible someone reading this has a Willis Earl Beal CD-R lying around because he left them all over Albuquerque. On busses, at coffee shops, in newspaper racks; anywhere that people might pick up a randomly placed piece of art. The CD-R’s often came with drawings and stories. If you grabbed one—hey, you might have a collector’s item. I’ve never even seen one myself.

My girlfriend and I rehearsed a few times with Willis, working on some of his songs. The first time we played was in a barn in Belen, looking out at the snow-capped Manzano Mountains. We couldn’t find anyplace else where we could get away with drums and amplification on short notice. Eventually Willis moved back to Chicago and, through some twists and turns, was signed to a subsidiary of XL Recordings, the label that releases records by Adele and Jack White.

While I always think of Albuquerque when listening to Willis, his is no desert-baked Americana by any means. The music is actually a little hard to explain. It can be soft and soulful one moment, raw and dissonant the next. His first album, Acousmatic Sorcery, was comprised of the same rough recordings he’d made in his apartment. Nobody Knows, released in 2013, also contained songs mostly written here. Now, with his third record, A Place That Doesn’t Exist, I’m still hearing Albuquerque (despite the title and one song ABQ clearly can't claim, happily). Bright Copper Noon, Babble On, and The Axeman were on those early CD-R’s. He’s also giving this record away, just like he used to do. If you want to have a listen, the record is officially streaming at Consequence of Sound. However, at the risk of a little self-promotion, if you’d like to download the tracks, you can go to my blog, City of Dust. Willis asked if I would host them and, of course, I agreed; a small gift for a city that has inspired so much music.

Willis Earl Beal portrait by Dustin Aksland. Used by kind permission. Check out Dustin's website for more great photos. Davy Rothbart won't mind if I reproduce the cover of Found Magazine #7 here. (That 505 phone number is no longer active, by the way.) I took the banner shot, at least. Click photos to enlarge.

John Mulhouse is an Albuquerque-based frequenter of gravel roads, ghost towns, and empty buildings. His blog, City of Dust, features photos and hidden history from all corners of New Mexico and beyond. He publishes a ghost-town-photo-a-day on Facebook.

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Tags: A Place That Doesn't Exist, Albuquerque, JC’s New York Pizza Dept, Willis Earl Beal, music

Comment by Adelita on February 5, 2014 at 10:09am

Very cool.  Thanks for introducing him to us!

Comment by Johnny_Mango on February 6, 2014 at 1:22pm

Wonderful John!  Just keep wandering and let us peek over your shoulder.  Nice.

Comment by John Mulhouse on February 6, 2014 at 8:00pm

Thanks, guys! I'll keep wandering, no need to worry about that!

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