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Interview Tue Sep 24 2013

Singers and the Endless Song: Interview with Sam Beam

If you have been listening to Iron & Wine's earliest discography produced more than a decade ago, you've likely followed their sound as it has grown over the years. From lo-fi Southern folk music that was both haunting and introspective on The Creek Drank The Cradle, to the sweet ballads on Our Endless Numbered Days, to adding backing vocals and layered effects on The Shepherd's Dog, to pop flavors reminiscent of the 60s on Kiss Each Other Clean, and finally, to playing with and juxtaposing many different styles on Iron and Wine's most recent release, Ghost on Ghost. Iron & Wine's sound has never once remained stagnant or grown stale; it has constantly grown and matured, becoming more innovative as the days have passed, but never losing the signature sound that allowed listeners to fall in love with the music back in 2002.

Singer Sam Beam is the man behind the group's name, which was originally derived from a supplement called Beef, Iron and Wine that he saw in a gas station while shooting a film project in Georgia. The mercurial aspect of the name seeps into his sound; the heavy material illuminating iron, balanced and contrasted by the sweetness of the wine. Beam has had an extremely full life - one that almost rivals the fullness of his classic beard that he dons. Raised in the country, Beam has lived all over the South, currently residing in Texas after living in South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. Enthralled by the cinema, before his musical career began, Beam taught cinematography prior to releasing The Creek Drank The Cradle, produced solely in a home studio. Writing lyrics that can enrapture and enchant us while transporting us to a memory instantly is an effortless quality that Beam has perfected in his songs. From haunting ballads that can literally chill you to the bone, to sweet songs that make you instantly crack a smile, Beam is wise beyond his years, and easily imparts this wisdom to his plethora of loyal followers.

I got the chance to chat with Beam over the phone, whose soothing voice and gentle demeanor immediately put me at ease, just as is standard with his music, before Iron & Wine makes a tour stop at The Chicago Theatre this Friday evening. He discussed his new album, the growth of his sound, and where he sees Iron & Wine moving to in the future.

Gapers Block: To me and other listeners, your sound is effortless and natural. How did Iron & Wine get its start, and what drew you to the initial sound you created on The Creek Drank The Cradle?

Sam Beam: I've always liked music. I've always been one of those people that feeds off music. I think a lot of creative people feed off music, and art as well. My grandma used to sing, always singing in church, and my dad used to book bands in college, so it sort of started in my heritage, from my genes. As far as the early records, I was doing what I enjoy doing, the kind of music I enjoy listening to, and also making do with what I had. I had a guitar, I had a banjo, I was making records, and so yeah, that's kind of how it began.

GB: Iron & Wine is constantly trying to redefine its image and sound. Where would you say you were looking to go after releasing Ghost on Ghost? How would you describe the sound's transformation?

SB: I don't really have a plan going into these things, just trying to say open to what comes about and the people that you meet. Honestly, when I started making this record I was really into using the string sections. I wanted it to be a bit more fragile. But at the end of the day with the players I've put together, it was sort of an R&B thing that really felt the best, and it went to being an R&B record at the end of the day. I would have never thought that I would make an R&B record. As far as the sound changing we don't really have a lot of form going into it.

GB: Many of your listeners connect with your effortless ability to create these emotional, soul-searching ballads. Where do you draw your main inspiration from, in creating these songs that can literally mirror our emotions?

SB: It comes from all over the place. You write about your life, you write about other people's lives, you write about things that you're interested in. I seem to be in touch but as far as where it comes from, it comes from your own experience, something you read or heard from somebody else, and a lot of it's built up. Sometimes I start with a melody and mumble some words, and sometimes the mumbles stick, and I make a whole song out of it. You follow your music and write something that you find interesting and hope for the best.

GB: I feel like every Iron and Wine fan has a favorite lyric from your discography, mine being from "Passing Afternoon": "There are things that drift away like our endless numbered days." If you had to choose, which lyrics have you written that ring out as extremely personal and have resonated with you over the years?

SB: Thank you, I haven't played that in a long time. I don't have any particular song, usually I'm more wrapped up with things I'm working on in the moment, as I've been doing it for a while now. I just try my best to remember the lyrics. It's fun to return to old songs and work them up for old shows because like you said, you come to different points in your life and they do resonate with you in a surprising way sometimes because you could have been writing something totally different. It's interesting and kind of a fun little experience.

GB: What inspired the melancholy aspects of Around The Well as compared to other discography? It's much different.

SB: That one is a collection of unused material basically. Every time you do a record, you'll do more songs in the studio. And so all of those songs are stuff that was laying around the well. You know, B-sides from 7-inches and things that had been put out but we didn't really give everyone access too. This is all extra stuff that was laying around, sort of like odds and ends. And so it feels strange and disjointed, but it's over 6 or 8 years. Collected from the first record all the way through after future records, so that took a while. Stuff from a long period of time, not really looking to be a piece. It's funny how people think that's a whole new record.

GB: You have been noted as cinematic, I know you used to teach it as well, so I must ask, what is your inspiration for "Joy"? It's a beautiful video.

SB: Well, I found her [Hayley Morris] animations online - actually my wife found them, and she had some great animations. She had this really fun concept and I thought she did a great job. It's funny how the animation makes the song's pacing feel different. The tempo is exactly the same speed, but the layer of the animation makes the tempo feel different.

GB: Just for fun; if you had to listen to three albums for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?

SB: Today - it always depends on what day and hour you ask me - John Martyn's Bless The Weather, Jesca Hoop, Hunting My Dress record, and Bob Dylan, New Morning.

GB: Thank you so much for your time, Sam, anything you would like to add?

SB: Been working on a record, but in reality it's hard to talk about in the moment. We're excited to go to Chicago and play at the Chicago Theatre.

Iron and Wine plays the Chicago Theatre on Friday, September 27. Tickets can be purchased here for a likely packed house. The show is all ages and begins at 7:30pm, with Widowspeak as the opening act. The Chicago Theatre is located at 175 South State Street, (312) 462-6300.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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