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

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?