Somehow, at SXSW, I managed to get into the Central Presbyterian Church of Austin, Texas, to see Iron & Wine. We found a seat on a red-cushioned pew, and the lights went down. Sam Beam walked onstage all by himself and gave us an hour of incredible music.
And then he didn’t breathe.
Four or five songs in, Beam sang “Lion’s Mane.” In the fourth verse, there are these lines: The water’s there to warm you/and the earth is warmer/when you laugh
See that little slash between “warmer” and “when”? That’s where Beam breathes on the original recording (Creek Drank the Cradle – 2002). “Earth is warmer [breath] when you laugh.” Nothing wrong with that, it’s just how he did it back then.
During the performance in Austin, however, he didn’t breathe there, and that had the effect of making “the earth is warmer when you laugh” one complete thought. Not only that, he held out “when” a lot longer than he did on Creek. So now it was “the earth is warmer whennnnnnnnn you laugh.” He rolled the thought around in the air of that church, and that made us wait for the answer: The earth is warmer? When? When is it warmer? Why, when you laugh, of course.
It sounds like a small thing, but details like these are the little building blocks of great music. And it made me remember Frank Sinatra.
Though the popular conception of Sinatra is the swinging, devil-may-care hep cat of the Las Vegas strip, that’s only part of the picture. Frank was a musician, and took his music very seriously. During his early years as the singer in Tommy Dorsey’s big band around 1941, Sinatra picked up on Dorsey’s trick of exceedingly long musical ideas. Musicians call these “phrases.” Dorsey was a trombonist, and he was famous for not breathing where others might. This gave his trombone lines a long, graceful, seamless quality. Where other players would play shorter phrases, take a breath, then play another, Dorsey would connect phrases, giving the effect of a more complete musical thought. The young Sinatra noticed this and asked Dorsey about it.
Well, it turned out it takes a lot of air in your lungs to power a trombone in the first place, let alone those long musical ideas. So when Dorsey took Sinatra under his wing, history says he told Frank to hit the gym. So here’s Frankie “The Voice” Sinatra, famous the world over, swimming laps every day, holding his breath underwater so that he could hold his notes behind the mic. His lung capacity grew, and with it, his audience.
There are many examples of Sinatra’s impressive breath control—that’s the musician’s term for it—such as Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s old chestnut, “The Days of Wine and Roses” recorded in 1964. Late in the second verse (0:56), there are these lines:
The lonely night discloses/Just a passing breeze/Filled with memories/Of the golden smile that introduced me to/The days of wine and roses and you
There are those little slashes again. At 0:56 he breathes between “to” and “the days”—right where the slash is.
But listen to when those lines appear again at 2:01. Now he doesn’t breathe there, he breathes after “smile”: “the golden smile [breath] that introduced me toooooooooooooooooo the days of wine and roses [breath] and you”. Quite a different effect, isn’t it? The idea changes, and the big “toooo” is made more dramatic. Neat trick.
And that’s what Beam did that night. He didn’t breathe. He used those simple notes to communicate a longer, more dramatic idea. What makes the earth warmer? Why, when you laugh, of course.
Maybe Beam listens to Sinatra constantly. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he’s heard “Days of Wine and Roses”, maybe he hasn’t. But what I do know is that great singers—and Beam is most definitely that—know exactly how and when to transform the breath in their lungs into music.
So: Want to be the next Sam Beam?
Hold your breath.
Andy Freeman produces and mixes records in San Francisco.