Music  |  Features

Iron & Wine

Growing A Bard

September 25, 2007  |  12:07pm
Iron & Wine

Guero’s Taco Bar in Austin, Texas, sits near the top of South Congress Avenue—a steep, buzzing thoroughfare that slouches casually toward downtown over the South Congress Avenue bridge (with its famous bat population) and resolves on the steps of the State Capital. The popular taqueria is where I’m meeting Sam Beam, sole proprietor and architect of one of the most surprising and welcome musical success stories of the last five years, Iron and Wine. On the west side of the street, among the restaurants and vintage record stores, a circus poster hangs in the window of a shop that, apparently, deals exclusively in circus posters. “Burly Bill,” it says, “Strongest Beard in the World,” and indeed our Bill is depicted lifting a cast-iron cannon muzzle with his painfully taut whiskers. Burly Bill also happens to be a ringer for Beam, whose own soup-catcher may constitute the most impressive facial growth for a folksinger this side of Richie Havens. It seems like Austin would fit Sam Beam like the record sleeve on a vinyl 78. Iron and Wine makes literate, eclectic, deeply affecting folk and roots music that takes its place unselfconsciously beside that of such Austin luminaries as Townes Van Zandt (whom Beam cites as a major influence), Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Willis Alan Ramsey. Yes, there was something inevitable about Iron and Wine’s move from South Florida to the Live Music Capital of the World two years ago.

“Yeah I don’t really come to Austin a whole bunch,” he says nonchalantly over our first round of mojitos. Beam actually lives among the outliers of Austin, an hour away, in Dripping Springs. “My wife has family here so we thought we’d live in Austin, but it wasn’t like we came out here [for music]. My wife is a midwife, and there’s only so many states where you can do that. Texas is a place where she can work.” So much for musical and cultural serendipity. Yet this confession seems to fall in line with the rest of Beam’s improbable career, which took him from his birthplace in South Carolina to Virginia, then Florida before ending up in Austin, a residence he suggests at the beginning of our conversation may not be permanent.

With a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth and an MFA from Florida State’s prestigious film school under his belt, as well as a job teaching cinematography, Beam’s main concern with switching from film to music was not that it would represent a major shift in disciplines or a loss of vocational momentum. He was more worried about the demands a music career would entail. “I was just writing songs in my spare time, and recording because it’s fun to do, and Sub Pop called me and said they wanted to put some stuff out. I had to weigh whether I wanted to put the time into it because it’s a commitment. But, in the end, it seemed too good to pass up. We did it and they strongly suggested that we go on tour,” he laughs, “and I had to put a band together, because I didn’t have a band or anything.”

The choice of music over film was, for Beam, mainly one of convenience. “Music kind of picked up, so now I just do that. I never really separated them in my mind. Different creative outlets. If you have a certain amount of creative energy, you apply it to one medium then another. Music is definitely cheaper and more immediate. But part of the draw of film to me is the multidisciplinary aspect. I always enjoyed film writing. It’s got the visual aspect to it, and the music. It has so many things you can dabble with at one time. Music is fun, too. I find music writing a lot more free.”

Sam Beam is not exactly what you’d call calculating. He follows his own muse and sets his own priorities, which seem to boil down to two things: family and creative freedom. “I’ve had a family ever since I started doing this. I was just doing [music] for fun … and then it kind of turned into a career, but I already had kids by then. So it wasn’t like I had to sacrifice everything that I was used to doing. I tour infrequently but I kinda prefer it that way. … I never gigged [before the Sub Pop deal].”

The exigencies of parenthood come up often in conversation with Beam, a father of four girls, ages 4 months to 9 years. “I can always tell the interviewers who don’t have kids,” he muses. “They ask if having kids changes anything [loud laugh]. Of course! It changes everything.”

Beam is nothing if not circumspect. He takes the important things seriously; the rest he takes as it comes. This circumspection, about life in the music industry and life in general, marks his songwriting, as it does for most great songwriters. And yes, for the record, Sam Beam is a great songwriter. He is not, as the offhand nature of his account might suggest, some hobbyist who got lucky. It’s apparent from the opening track of Iron and Wine’s first record The Creek Drank the Cradle that Sam Beam is a craftsman with impressive talent. Set aside the melodicism and deft finger-style guitar work; let the compactness and evocative potency of a single phrase like, “we gladly run in circles / But the shape we meant to make is gone” sink in. There’s hardly a line in Beam’s entire oeuvre that isn’t as carefully considered and acute. Comparisons to Nick Drake came early and often, and with Beam’s breathy delivery and world-weary demeanor, it’s an obvious parallel to make. But Beam’s writing is somehow more sagacious, and it’s not too early to say it carries more heft and wisdom than the ethereal Drake. Where Drake can be timorous and fragile, Beam is steady and gentle, like a master woodsman handling the rarest of flowers. And while he sings with an intimacy that hints at confessionalism, Beam more often taps into the declarative side of Leonard Cohen, and the character-driven perspective of Tom Waits. If this sounds like heady company for such a young and recent talent, it is—and yet Beam continues to justify the comparisons with each record.

His first effort was little more than a set of home recordings culled from two CDs Beam sent in to Sub Pop. The grainy, monophonic Creek was decidedly lo-fi, but this was more from pragmatism than any kind of Sebadoh or Guided By Voices fixation. “People talk about an ‘Iron and Wine’ sound, and whether I’ve left that or not, but, really, the sound of that first record was just what I had to work with at the time. If there was hiss or something then I definitely tried to work with that and push it, so it didn’t sound like something trying to be something else. But otherwise it wasn’t like a deliberate aesthetic choice.”

Country-blues-flavored tracks like Creek’s “The Rooster Moans” belie a breadth of musical vocabulary that rivals Jack White’s. And Beam seems to be working his way back through a path carved by the great rock auteurs, to the pre-Smithsonian era when Son House sang with a gritty, sweat-soaked poetry. Beam’s writing never gives in to a jaded or purely ironic tone—and in 2007, that’s no small accomplishment. As with most roots-oriented music, the accusation that Beam’s writing gives in to a certain amount of nostalgia is not completely unmerited; but, if so, nostalgia rarely cut so deep or sounded so pertinent.

What Iron and Wine’s music seems to be urging toward more than anything is innocence, and the touchstones in this quest are frequently religious in nature. Beginning with his very first album, Beam’s writing has often used the specific language of Christianity, in lines like “Jesus, a friend of the weaker ones said, ‘I’m all they stole from you,’” (The Creek Drank the Cradle’s “Southern Anthem”) or the heartfelt prayer of Our Endless Numbered Days’ “On Your Wings”: “God give us love in the time that we have / God, there are guns growing out of our bones / God, every road takes us farther from home.” But while it may puzzle some that a self-confessed agnostic like Beam would find consistent inspiration in biblical images and characters that are as likely to converse with the Holy Spirit as they are to address a love interest, for Beam it’s a natural, essential part of his writing process. “I like to use [religious images] because it starts you off a little bit further along in the story. You know, you could say Bob and Jerry did this, but then you have to explain who they are. But if you say ‘Cain and Abel’ it carries a certain weight. They have a connotation everyone understands, they symbolize the duality in us all. ... I like using those, because it’s our mythology.”

Yet Beam has always insisted that the role of religion in his writing avoids propaganda of any kind. “I think there’s always been kind of a subversive quality to the way I use religion. I mean, I try to use it both ways, you know, because that’s the way life is. There are some great things about religion but there’s some really f—ed-up stuff about it too.” It seems that part of religion’s appeal for Beam is the down-and-out or desperate state of mind individuals are usually in when they find themselves asking religious questions. Such characters always make for a compelling narrative.

With a second round of mojitos on deck and a crackling, dry August heat making its presence felt on Guero’s outside porch, Beam pursues this line of thought further. It turns out that religion is not merely a cultural shorthand or creative prop for Beam but, like Johnny Cash before him, it constitutes one of the only three topics he’s genuinely interested in as a writer. “You have your three big things that you can talk about, basically, if you’re going to write something that actually means something to you as a human being, which is Love, God and Death. That’s basically the thing. Love, which occupies a lot of our time, because we don’t like being lonely. God, because everyone wants to know that there’s a reason behind what they’re doing and what the hell is going on. And death is just the reality of your finite time here.”

But Beam also realizes that writers can’t simply copy and paste spiritual gravity into their work by invoking weighty topics. It’s just that when he and his muses are cooperating, these are the themes that seem to provoke his best work. “Whatever gets your creative juice flowing. Some people write amazing protest songs because they want things to be right. That doesn’t float my boat but I say that there’s three things, there’s three guideposts, but it’s not like a math problem where you touch on one of them and it’s a decent song. I have lots of other interests, but there’s something about when you sit down to write something you want to sing over and over again, it usually comes down to one of those three things.”

Beam followed up Creek with 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, a studio-driven effort that ably avoided the dreaded sophomore slump as well as the loss of vitality that tends to plague more highly polished recordings. If anything, Endless improved and expanded on Creek’s sustained intimacy, and produced what is probably the definitive Iron and Wine track to date, “Naked As We Came.” Beam directed the video as one long tracking shot—beautiful and patient as the song itself. Opening at one end of a long table set in quasi still-life form, with food, books and other objects stacked at intervals, the camera moves slowly down the setting as “Naked” proceeds like a campfire hymn. As the camera reaches the end of table we see a boy and girl kiss and blush, and then run off as rain (or a sprinkler) begins to shower them. The camera retraces its path back up the table, as the drops soak into food and paper. “With a video you’re able to revisit a work, and touch on the same loose themes, but it’s tangential. For that song I wanted the feeling of time passing. I kind of ran with an image I had after watching this Peter Weir film called Picnic at Hanging Rock, where these girls get lost. There’s a moment where he showed the passing of time, with desserts and food, then he pans away and cuts back to show bugs and things.”

Beam’s restless, prolific creativity grows impatient with the slow pace of music-industry release calendars. This is part of the reason why his EPs The Sea and The Rhythm and Woman King are more than side-projects or repositories for lesser tracks. In fact, both are as complete and satisfying as his full-length releases. “I like short records in general that you can swallow in one sitting. So I like the format, but at the same time, the promotional engines that go into making records these days, it’s kind of stagnating. It’s almost frowned upon to put out anything more than every three years. This was a way to do it under the radar. I try to make it cohesive, not just throwaways. That’s why I do it, basically just to keep working.”

Woman King in particular was the most conceptually coherent and sonically ambitious record Beam had made up to that point. And while Woman King showed that Beam’s musical ambitions reached beyond the strictures of acoustic-driven folk music, his 2005 collaboration with Calexico, In the Reins, demonstrated a willingness to self-educate by way of putting himself under the tutelage of an accomplished rhythm section. “Those guys [in Calexico] are so talented, all you have to do—you can do anything. It gave me this fearless feeling that you can try anything. It taught me a lot about the spirit of collaboration. There’s something about letting loose of the reins [laughs], letting loose a bit, and let them do what they do. That was the whole reason I wanted to do it, to take a back seat for a while. For me it was a matter of learning how to leave space and arrangements for people to put their stamp on it. It was really freeing to me. It was fun.”

While his experience with Calexico was liberating in many respects, it also sparked more confidence and a desire to get back to the production helm. “Once it comes time to start recording, it’s limitless the directions you can take, as far as arrangement goes. Definitely, I left a lot of room for other people to come in and play, and then where I could react off of what they did. They like a lot of space in their arrangements. They were always arguing for less, and sometimes I agreed with it and sometimes I didn’t.” With his ambitions stoked by his experience with Calexico, Beam dove into his most recent release with more confidence than ever, and a desire to take his vision in directions his previous records had only hinted he was capable of going.

From a purely musical standpoint, Woman King and In the Reins now feel like a bit like reconnaissance missions or deep breaths before a plunge, like Dylan’s first forays into rock territory circa 1965. But if Woman King is Beam’s Bringing It All Back Home, and Calexico is his version of The Band, that would make his new release, Shepherd’s Dog, Iron and Wine’s Highway 61 Revisited, the sort of revelatory work that doesn’t just cash out the promise of previous experimentation but also redefines the artist. On the new record, Beam reveals not only a talent for arrangement and a gift for directing fruitful collaborations (in this case with longtime producer Brian Deck), he also shows facility with a wide range of styles, and an ability to pastiche, cut and paste, and perform general stylistic mash-up wizardry as well as any rock savant you can name, from Peter Gabriel to Beck.

Tracks like “Bird Stealing Bread” from Creek had already shown Beam’s innate rhythmic sense, and Woman King explored this further, but Shepherd’s Dog loses itself almost completely to the pleasures and intricacies of rhythm, balancing layers of evolving percussive figures (mostly courtesy of Deck, an accomplished percussionist) around Beam’s melodies. Beam’s tenure in Miami seems to have made an impression, as evidenced by the Cuban influence of “Lovesong of the Buzzard.” More world-music sympathies are on display, as in the West African Highlife of “House by the Sea.” But mostly Shepherd’s Dog proceeds according to a purely intuitive program, blurring boundaries and discarding categories in service of a higher calling. Beam’s vocals have become more aggressive and present in the mix, with denser, ear-tickling harmonies like that of “The Devil Never Sleeps.” That song in particular may cause some fans’ eyes to bulge, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s now possible to rock out to Iron and Wine. Shepherd’s Dog rambles, exults and careens like no Iron and Wine record ever has.

Shepherd’s Dog also sounds like Beam discovering abilities even he didn’t know he had. And as with Peter Parker’s first web-borne flights across the rooftops, he’s as thrilled with the display as we are. Some longtime fans may bemoan the loss of quietude and the haunted feel typical of his earlier efforts, but whatever Beam has left behind is more than made up for by the driving, hook-laden effervescence of tracks like opener “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car,” ambient beauty “Carousel” or the funky, reggae-ish “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog).” His lyrics have even developed an irreverent wit, as if to keep pace with the celebratory nature of the new music. The religious references are still present on Shepherd’s Dog, but the irreverence gives the album a playfulness in lines like, “God knows if Christ came back he would find us in a poker game,” from “Innocent Bones.” Yet Beam insists it’s important to keep even that line in context. “It’s not really about Jesus,” he says. “It’s about us.”

The contrast between his previous efforts and Shepherd’s Dog is striking, but Beam maintains that he’s tried to push himself artistically every time out. “Honestly I try to experiment with every record. This one I just got lucky. There was a group of songs that I was able to stretch out more. With the more chaotic kind of feel, they called for a bit more complex arrangements. Part of it was just what the songs were asking for, but definitely there was sense of discovery, for my own experience, something new for me, because that’s what it’s about really. I feel like there has also been a bigger jump than the other records because I don’t have a job now [laughs], so this is what I do. I have a lot more time to spend with them.”

A call from home—a request for tacos—pulls Beam out of our conversation and back into family life, and by this time it’s clear we’ve covered all the ground we need to for the day. The lunch crowd at Guero’s dissipates and the late-summer sun is building up to its afternoon blaze. I said earlier that Iron and Wine was a success story, but of course it’s a peculiar kind of success. Yes, Beam is in an enviable position for a folk-rock artist of his uncompromising style. He can tour Europe or headline in major U.S. cities to crowds in the thousands, and he’s had four songs on major movie soundtracks. He has yet to make an off record. He works mostly at home. But perhaps the achievement that impresses most is that he seems to have retained a near-complete detachment from industry trappings, image or scenes of any kind. Maybe the poetic gift that keeps his creative intuitions enthralled by Love, God and Death, also keeps his values equally impervious to lesser concerns, and whether Sam Beam ever learns to lift cannon muzzles with his beard, that is every bit as exotic and unexpected a feat.

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