ABOVE: SAM BEAM. IMAGE COURTESY OF 4AD
Since he first broke onto the scene with the hushed vocals and tape-hissing acoustics of his 2002 debut The Creek Drank the Cradle, artist Sam Beam, better known as Iron & Wine, has emerged as one of modern music’s most respected songwriters, with a catalog full of densely lyrical imagery on love, life, and death. Beam has propelled himself forward with an equally rich musical growth, moving from the polished, rhythmic finger-picking of Our Endless Numbered Days and the more pastoral grandeur of The Shepherd’s Dog, to the session player-backed horns and textured synths of Kiss Each Other Clean. This week, Beam continues to stretch his expanding palette with his newest effort, Ghost on Ghost, a record that, with its added strings and lounge-room cool, revels in its own relaxed vibe.
Checking in from his home in Austin, Beam spoke about the development of the record, its central “couple,” and doing the best work you can with what’s available to you at the time.
MIKE HILLEARY: So it seemed the that one year I chose not to go to South by Southwest was the year everyone I would want to see chose to attend, including you.
SAM BEAM: I’d sworn it off for a long time, but they roped me in this year. We had a great time. It was a lot easier than I remember doing it a while back, because we weren’t in hotel rooms. I could sleep in my own bed.
HILLEARY: I bet that is a nice advantage for all the Austin artists.
BEAM: You have some hope at the end of the evening, a glimmer of optimism.
HILLEARY: What kind of sets did you wind up doing?
BEAM: I did one with the full band, then I did a couple radio things by myself, and then a show at the United Presbyterian Church on the last evening doing some solo acoustic stuff. It was fun. I got to mix it up a bit.
HILLEARY: I love the Presbyterian Church. I really like it as a venue.
BEAM: Yeah, it’s nice. I wasn’t going on until midnight, and you know, solo acoustic at midnight isn’t on my priority list as a listener, but it’s nice because people can focus and as a performer the acoustics of the room makes it a nice place to do that kind of thing.
HILLEARY: Well performing solo acoustic stuff is certainly a bit different for you nowadays, particularly in light of your most recent works. Tell me a little bit about Ghost on Ghost. When did you start working on it?
BEAM: Well we went into the studio a year ago this past February, but I don’t really sit down to write records you know from start to finish. I kind of work all the time, and when it comes time to go in the studio again, you sort of look at what you got and try to pick out songs that would work together.
HILLEARY: So what was it about these particular set of songs that you felt you could collect them together and call it an album?
BEAM: You know, it’s so subjective. What ties songs together for me, someone else would scratch their head and say, “Okay, whatever.” Shepherd’s Dog had a dog referenced in all the songs. Kiss Each Other Clean had a river in it somewhere, for the most part. You’re just looking for something. And so for this one I noticed I had a lot of songs with this central couple. It was either this couple against the world or a couple against their situation or this couple against one another, but they were the central image that I had in a lot of the songs. I felt there were these common factors in these songs, so it was fun to collect them and see how they work together. I even put [a couple] on the cover of the album.
HILLEARY: That cover photograph is very striking.
BEAM: Yeah, I’ve always liked Barbara Crane’s stuff. She did this series of Polaroids [called “Private Views”] taken in the ’70s in Chicago which I always thought were fun. But I like that image. I like how anonymous the people are, and how the gestures are so suggestive. So we used the Polaroid and put a big, gilded, ornate frame to sort of enshrine it.
HILLEARY: One of the things I’ve always admired about your records is the recognizable progression you’ve display as a songwriter with each successive release, particularly when it comes to experimenting in new instrumentation and arrangement. Where do see this Ghost on Ghost standing in that progression?
BEAM: Well, those things are always easier to talk about in hindsight. When the next [record] comes out, it will be easier to talk about this one, but what I was intending to do was something a little more sophisticated than the ones I had done in the past. Quote-unquote sophisticated. I didn’t feel like these songs were as angry as the ones on the last few albums. They had some form of narrative, but it unfolded in a gentle kind of way, for the most part. I was bit more relaxed. I hadn’t worked with strings before, and I always liked those textures in R&B music and torch songs. I’ve always liked string sections. I’m a sucker for melody, so it’s fun to have strings add more layer of melody in the arrangement. I just kind approached it fairly intuitively. Like I said, it’s easier to look in hindsight and say, “That was the record where we tried this.” While we were in the middle of it, we were just kind of making decisions on the fly, developing it in a way that felt right for some reason or another. But I definitely wanted to do something that was a bit more sophisticated than I had done in the past—that was more complex but at the same time came across as simpler.
HILLEARY: Do you think the version of yourself that made Creek Drank the Cradle could have imagined what you’ve done with this record, expanding beyond the bare acoustic accompaniment?
BEAM: I think that version of myself was definitely interested in those things, but I didn’t have the capacity to do it. I’ve definitely learned a lot over the decade, but I was always enamored by that kind of music. I was just doing it by myself as a hobby. I didn’t have people around me who could help me accomplish those things. I think those early songs could be treated [in a new] way to create something interesting. At the time I was writing songs and recording them in a way that was basically making the best of what I had, which was an acoustic guitar and banjo. You write the songs and you know what kind of production it’s going to have and you push the production and tweak the songs for the sound you might be getting. I think it would be fun to return to those things and maybe do it that way but at the time I was never able to do that.
HILLEARY: Do you ever see yourself cycling back to those sparse beginnings down the road?
BEAM: Yeah, maybe. [laughs] Things usually work in a circle in one way or another. I don’t have any plans, but that’s pretty common. Like I said, I kind of treat the process pretty intuitively. What I do like to do both at the same time. That’s what’s fun about shows and concerts are that you can do both. You don’t necessarily have to pick one or the other.
HILLEARY: I imagine it must be interesting for you, when you take these songs on the road, deciding how you’ll present them at any given time.
BEAM: It should be. That’s what you’re trying to do: create a backbone that you can build the body on however you want to. I feel like that’s the idea. At the end of the day I do write songs just for me to perform.
HILLEARY: You mentioned earlier that your past couple records were angrier than Ghost on Ghost. Why were they?
BEAM: I remember The Shepherd’s Dog record being not necessarily a political record, but a reaction to socio-political situations in America. And it didn’t manifest itself as protest or propaganda songs, but there’s a lot of surreal imagery that was born out of really me being surprised Bush got re-elected in ’04. And it was less about Bush as it was about me realizing I didn’t understand the culture I was in or that I didn’t relate to the culture. In that sense it’s a surreal rite of passage where things aren’t necessarily how you would like them to be, but you have to come to terms with it in one way or another. It was more of portrait of a maladjusted version of America, feeling helpless to a certain extent, feeling angry, but also in love with the surroundings at the same time. The normal human complexities. And then I feel like the last record Kiss Each Other Clean was kind of a holdover for those things, still working those things out. This one, even though some of them were started or even completed about the same time, serendipitously they’re more relaxed. I think the subject matter’s just different. That said, “Lover’s Revolution” is a fairly angry tune, but there you go. Contradictions are fun.
HILLEARY: You’ve mentioned the word relaxed a few times. When I was trying to describe the record to myself before our chat, I kept coming back to these certain lounge and jazz elements.
BEAM: Yeah, definitely.
HILLEARY: Where did that come from?
BEAM: Well I’ve always liked that music. I can’t really play it myself, so when you surround yourself with other musicians who are helping you bring this thing to fruition, it’s a matter of trying to infuse some variety and push yourself into areas where you’re not very comfortable and see what happens. I thought it’d be fun given the material to mix jazz and country and R&B. Way back in their seedling days they came from very similar places. They have very similar roots, so it’s fun to play with that. In the early stages we talked about New Orleans music, we talked about Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney’s more experimental stage, where there’s a complexity but at the same time you can feel the human hand making it. You can see the rough edges. We talked about [Burt] Bacharach a lot, ’cause he’s a genius. All these elements going on at the same time.
HILLEARY: What’s your writing process like? For some reason I’ve always pictured you as being one of those artists that have some nondescript journal full of notes and lyrics. Do you have one of those?
BEAM: Yeah, actually. I drop the kids off at school and then go to work for a few hours. I treat it like a job. I don’t get to rigorous about it. I have a certain amount of discipline, but I’m an artist at the same time, [laughs] so about as much discipline as you can apply. I do think it’s important to put the time in. I remember writing in the middle of the night and coming up with stuff but that just does not happen anymore. [laughs] I seem to be a little more clearheaded in the morning. And then by noon or so the brain starts to shift into what errands you have to do. So again I try to treat it like a job and sit for few hours every day.
GHOST ON GHOST IS OUT TOMORROW, APRIL 16. FOR MORE ON IRON & WINE, PLEASE VISIT THE ARTIST’S WEBSITE.