When Sam Beam released his debut album The Creek Drank The Cradle under the moniker Iron & Wine in 2002, a trove of other songs remained on the shelf from his years spent writing and recording. Now, over a decade later, Beam has revisited his early recordings, compiling 16 of them for an LP, Archive Series: Volume One. Paste talked to Beam about the album, out today via Black Cricket Recording Co., and the oddity of looking back at his own work after a such a long time. Check out the full interview below.
: So when you listen back to these older recordings, does anything in particular stand out to you about them?
Sam Beam: It’s overwhelming sometimes. It is a lot like looking at an old photograph of yourself. These songs in particular are at least 15 years old, so yeah, it’s a kick in the head. It’s like shaking hands with yourself from 15 years ago. As a songwriter, it’s interesting to see because you’re always kind of building off of the last songs that you wrote. You keep on going different directions or absorbing different influences. There are always stepping stones on the way of a certain kind; it’s interesting to go back and look at the earlier steps. You realize what has stayed similar and what’s changed drastically. It’s interesting. I’ve had to go back and re-learn some of these songs to play them for people. They’ve been sort of collected and sitting in the closet for some time. I knew about them, but I wasn’t listening to them. So my memory of them, some of them were much different than I imagined. Some of them, I had thought something wasn’t working in the song and had wanted to leave behind, and those turned out to be just fine. Then some of them that I thought were affective and strong characters or metaphors or strong melodies, they weren’t really that great after all. Memory plays tricks on you.
How long did you go without listening to the tapes, and what made you decide to go back and release them?
Beam: I didn’t listen to them for over a decade. That’s just not my thing, to just listen to my own music. [Laughs] People knew that they were out there from the very beginning. When the first record came out, it was explicitly stated that the record was songs pulled from a larger collection. Writing songs was my hobby, and I’d been doing it for a while. So people understood that there were these other songs, some of them had gotten out onto the Internet and people collected those. So all along, people have been asking me when I would put them out and for some reason I would shy away. Either, like you said, it was either too close or I didn’t feel they were good enough or whatever. Or, you know,I just moved on to the next thing and I wanted to show people the stuff I was working on presently. But it seemed like a good time now, it seemed like there had been enough distance that you could actually feel the difference, that it wasn’t too similar to what I was doing two or three years ago. It seemed significantly different, to a point where you could put it out now and it felt like an old photograph rather than your high school friend who’s taken a slight turn for the worst.
: What was going on in your life when you were writing these songs?
Beam: I was living in Miami. Before that, I had only really lived in the South—in the Carolinas and in Virginia and I lived in Northern Florida, which is basically like South Georgia. I moved to Miami for work and I was doing songs—writing songs, recording songs—in my spare time. I was single and obsessed with my romantic life. [Laughs] Also, [I was] removed from the culture of the Southeast that I had grown up in; removed in a significant way. So they all kind of came together where they were rite of passage songs, love songs, story songs. All these things kind of came together at once.
: Do these songs take on new meanings when you listen to them now, or do they take you back to the feelings you had then you were writing them?
Beam: Sometimes you have to be reminded where you were at the time, and songs are a good vehicle for that. It’s so funny how those things are connected with your memory. So, sometimes you relive those things. Often…yeah I think for me, more often than not, it’s the other way: where you come at an old emotion, an old train of thought with a new experience. Especially with these songs, since these songs are so old. I mean, you hear some thought lines or some narrative elements and you come at them with very different stuff in your bag, years later. It’s a bit of both: some of it’s reminding, and some of it is a very different experience. You live your life, and you experience what you do, and they all teach you different things. So when you revisit old ideas and old emotions, sometimes they come at you from a very different angle.
: When you were writing these songs you didn’t have an audience, you weren’t necessarily expecting people to listen to these recordings. Do you approach writing songs any differently now? Does it change for you?
Beam: A lot of people ask me that, and I’ve got to be honest: it doesn’t really. I’ve always been a really harsh critic of myself, but I also had a background in the arts and I went to an art school and I was used to critiques. That stuff didn’t really phase me. I’s ridiculous to say that it didn’t phase me at all. I mean, I want people to like it. I don’t really make particularly abrasive music, but at the same time I wouldn’t change something to make people like it. The things that have been most popular with people have always been a total surprise, and so I’ve never felt like I could really truthfully predict public taste, so why bother?