Sam Beam: Love, God, death and a tree of bees

The famously uncommunicative singer-songwriter Sam Beam - also known as Iron & Wine - discusses his hauntingly poetic musical world with Andy Gill

Sam Beam, the singer-songwriter who records under the nom-de-disque of Iron & Wine, is as far removed from your average rock star as it's possible to be and still sell records. Like Will (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) Oldham, he sports a beard big enough to nest a family of puffins, behind which he lurks quietly, evading the less welcome attentions resulting from his recent celebrity. Where some in his profession jump eagerly into the party circuit, desperate to curry favour and coverage in the showbiz gossip columns, Beam lives quietly at home with his wife and children, away from the bright lights.

He's recently moved further away from the showbiz scene, having abandoned his life in Miami for Austin, Texas. It's almost as if he's shrinking further from the limelight, like a disturbed hermit crab scuttling his shell to another cranny of the rock pool.

You could surmise all the above from the most cursory exposure to Iron & Wine's output, in which his low-key murmur, accompanied by his acoustic guitar (or occasionally by band arrangements), sketches, narratives and tableaux in which intertwine those perennial interests of country music, love and God and death. You'll most likely have heard Iron & Wine without intending to, as his cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights", recently released as a single, has been in heavy rotation on an advert, forming with José Gonzalez's "Heartbeats" a sort of one-two punch combination of quiet nu-folk persuasion.

The problem with being a reserved rising star, however, is that people want to ask you questions, for which you don't really have that many interesting answers. Beam may be the least forthcoming interviewee I've ever encountered, and not through any attempt to appear aloof. He gives the impression of simply not understanding the mechanics of the interview, responding to questions not as opportunities to expound at length on varied matters, but as queries requiring the most abbreviated answers he can offer.

If he could get away with simple "yes" and "no" responses, he probably would, but he'd do it with such pleasant, helpful humour that you couldn't take offence.

Beam took his first steps into the music biz back in 2000, when Seattle's Sub Pop label offered to release some songs he'd sent them. From there, his profile has expanded with each subsequent release, up to last year's collaborative EP with Calexico, In the Reins.

Until his recording career took off, Beam spent his days lecturing college students about cinematography in Miami, and making his own forays into film-making. Presumably, I suggest, the study of cinematography must have been helpful in songwriting, in terms of things like setting a scene and illuminating the narrative?

"Yeah, I guess so," offers Beam, "although I didn't really think about it until people started asking me about it! But I'm sure it does. The good thing about songs is you can leave them open-ended, whereas in film you have to communicate something pretty quickly. With a song, you can make it a bit more obtuse and interesting."

And with lines such as "woke like a treeful of bees", "there will be teeth in the grass", "God, there are guns growing out of our bones" and my favourite, "slept like a bucket of snow", Beam's songs don't lack their more interesting aspects. At times, it's like he's tapping into the same dark, mythopoeic imagery that informed the great country bluesmen, refracting love, death, faith and bleak destiny through a fevered dreamscape haunted by angels and demons; but confronting them not with the wracked, careworn voice of a Robert Johnson or Charley Patton, but rather the soft, emollient tone of a Nick Drake, someone, along with Elliott Smith, with whom Beam is often compared. Doesn't he find that a little worrying?

"Oh, I don't know," he muses, not catching my drift. "Part of you hopes they can hear the other parts of it that are, you hope, unique, but at the same time it's pretty flattering too, 'cos I have the utmost respect for those two artists. It's a two-way street." But, I remind him, they both committed suicide. "Yeah, well, we'll see what happens. Hope I can hold on!" he laughs, quickly glossing over the point. "But really, there's so much music around these days, I'm just happy if people are talking about it, period."

For the moment, people are talking about Iron & Wine primarily as a result of the expanded profile afforded by TV and movies, which seem to have latched on to his music. His version of "Such Great Heights" has found peculiar favour in the advertising industry: as well as its use in UK campaigns, the song featured in American TV ads, and in the film The Garden State. Beam admits it's strange to hear his voice in these contexts.

"It's a little weird, for sure," he says. "They used that same song over here in a commercial for M&Ms, the candy, and I did see that one on the TV, and it was a bit bizarre. They played it in a movie theatre one time when my wife had taken the kids to see a film, and they flipped out, they thought it was hilarious!"

Ironically for someone who spent years behind the scenes on the visual side of TV and film productions Beam now finds himself in greater demand for his music, with increasing requests to work on film soundtracks.

While such commissions help pay the rent, Beam's energies remain focused primarily on his records. Each project's individual songs seem tethered to a theme: his last full-length album release, 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days was filled with images of fire, ashes, dust, birth and death, while last year's Woman King EP featured half a dozen songs concerned with the biblical attitude to female archetypes. Unlike most songwriters, however, Beam doesn't write to fit a thematic brief, but stockpiles material, only discovering the theme later, while assembling the songs for an album.

His next album, Beam promises, will unveil a hitherto dormant political dimension to Iron & Wine. "I don't know how to describe it - it's born out of confusion," he admits. "It's not a political propaganda record, but it's definitely inspired by political confusion, because I was really taken aback when Bush got reelected." Here's hoping the decline in the president's fortunes doesn't draw Iron & Wine's sting.

'Woman King' and 'In the Reins' and the single 'Such Great Heights' are out on Sub Pop Records

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border