Iron & Wine: Soul of steel

Iron & Wine's brand of Americana defies categorisation. On the eve of a UK tour, Chris Mugan meets singer Sam Beam
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The Independent Culture

If Sam Beam feels like a fish out of water, he's not showing it. Maybe the artist known as Iron & Wine is too laid-back to care much about unfamiliar surroundings. The singer-songwriter, who lives "in the middle of nowhere" outside Austin, Texas, with a wife and four kids, is sitting in the lounge of a minimal, trendy hotel in Berlin. The European promo trail can be a somewhat surreal experience.

The tracks for Beam's 2003 debut album The Creek Drank the Cradle, although whispered in a spare room while his baby daughters slept, were engaging enough to secure a deal with Sub Pop records. Further quiet intensity followed on Our Endless Numbered Days – but his third album is set to attract much wider attention.

For The Shepherd's Dog, Beam has brought together a gang of like-minded musicians who grab his delicate melodies and take them to unexpected places – African polyrhythms, funk grooves, even reggae. Standard Americana this ain't.

After two albums that glow with love for his family, the artist has taken a darker turn here. His oblique writing style precludes him from taking on specific issues; instead, he taps into a rich seam of imagery. "I am not interested in political writing, because it's limited in its scope. I try to write general, human kinds of songs, which suggest more than they explain. You can take a lot of different meanings, but hopefully everyone feels some kind of recognition. Propaganda songs are more of an essay than a poem."

This soft-spoken performer is too modest to describe himself as a poet, although his lyrics work without music. "I try to use a poetic language more than talk about my feelings, but it is married to the music. You can't just say it out loud."

For The Shepherd's Dog, this means a suggestion of social breakdown: "If Christ came back, he'd find us at a poker game," Beam sings at one point. "In the past, I tried to find a certain amount of peace in situations, almost a Buddhist attitude– but in this group of songs, it felt OK to bring up unsettling things."

Song titles like "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" and "White Tooth Man" suggest lyrics that reward careful listening, especially with imagery of birds and bones. "Bodies are physical, our bones can mean whatever people want them to mean," Beam says. He's clearer about the buzzards: "They are foreboding, an image of death. They feed on the misfortune of others."

What with Christ, an angel and, later on the album, the Devil, Beam returns constantly to religious imagery. Not that he's much of a believer: "These songs are more about culture, and [Christianity] is the culture I know. Religion is a huge part of our consciousness. I grew up in the Bible Belt, so it's our mythology. Those are the stories we learn as little kids at Sunday school. I'm not afraid to use the metaphors, because I think the stories are beautiful."

Beam moved from Miami, where he taught film and cinematography at university, to his Texas home. Now, he is able to focus on his music. He's built a studio, in which he recorded the tracks before they were mastered in Chicago. "We recorded every track in this round room – the whole house is an octagon, which is fun," he says. "When we played the tracks back in Chicago, we felt like we were back in that room."

Once in Texas, he realised he wanted to give full rein to his wide-ranging cultural tastes. Beam is no hoary backwoodsman, neither is he an archaeologist rediscovering forgotten forms. "You just follow the muse and some songs seemed to lend themselves to more instrumentation," he says of the eclectic nature of The Shepherd's Dog. "In the past, songs always seemed complete in their skeletal nature. Now, it seemed fun to include more people."

His previous albums have been pretty much done in a fortnight, but this album took six months from first demos. "I budgeted three weeks, thinking that I was being real generous, but songs developed in the recording process into things that were bigger than we imagined."

Beam spent longer listening back to what he was doing, so he realised, for example, that on "House By the Sea" he was unconsciously playing an African chord progression, and he developed the song from there.

When he learnt to play guitar in his early teens, a friend gave him an album by the Malian artist Ali Farka Touré. That record continues to inspire him. "It's all so connected – African music, the blues, James Brown – that's some of the most African music you're ever going to hear. I just wish I'd been a drummer, because rhythms are so inherent in those guitar styles."

He agrees that "Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)" is reminiscent of a David Essex tune from the time that singer recorded with Jeff Wayne. "You have a beat, and suddenly we were like, it's 'Rock On', but at the same time it's a reggae song, so we dubbed it out. We left out the [mimes choppy guitar playing] because that would be ridiculous, but at least 75 per cent of the music I put on is reggae. The arrangements are so crystalline and beautiful that I have no problem making a reggae record."

Beam admits that The Shepherd's Dog would not be so stylistically freewheeling had not learnt to collaborate with Calexico, the band who worked on his 2005 EP In the Reins. "Those were more traditional arrangements, but it was a great experience. It's not that I didn't want to collaborate in the past, I just didn't know how. I don't read music, so felt I had to explain what we were doing in colours or something silly. The Calexico thing taught me a lot, so I could let people put their own stamp on things," he says.

At a solitary London date last month, Beam played these numbers solo, but he's due to return next month with an eight-piece outfit. That Iron & Wine can tour with such a large ensemble speaks volumes about Sub Pop's expectations for this record. We should, I think, share those hopes.

The single 'Boy With a Coin' is out now on Sub Pop; The Shepherd's Dog is out on 24 September. For tour dates, see