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
Friday 17 November 2006
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.
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