Hard-bitten troubadour finds that the touch times don't stop once you've got a little shine.

Perhaps it's because he was just balancing on top of a rickety wood stepladder—a Jack and Coke teetering one step below—but Willis Earl Beal is feeling precarious about his place in the world. "I not only feel like I'm not going to survive as an artist, but I feel like I'm not going to survive as a person," says Beal, 28. He's in a Brooklyn studio, taking a break from his SPIN photo shoot and talking about some criticism he's taken since the April release of Acousmatic Sorcery (Hot Charity), an enchanting heap of blues caterwauls and percussive raps. "I've given people everything that I have, and they've chewed me up and spit me out," he says, in response to charges that his music trades in Depression-era retro dress-up. 

Hardly, although his bio reads like a Damon Runyon tale: Half a decade earlier, after getting fired from his 16th security job in Chicago, Beal boarded a bus to Albuquerque, New Mexico, inspired by the desert vistas. There, he spent time in a homeless shelter and began accumulating thrift-store instruments and writing songs—130 of them. Found magazine released a Beal box set last summer, and a record deal soon followed. 

His raffish story echoes the songs of his hero Tom Waits, and the rumpled Beal looks the part. "I identify with that outlaw aesthetic," he says, "but at best I'm just a derelict, drinking malt liquor in the subway." And while he garners almost as much attention for his style as his music, neither were planned. "My best advice in terms of fashion is don't try," he offers. "Don't every try."