Exclusive: Iron & Wine Finds His Voice on Beast Epic
After seven LPs, Sam Beam is finally comfortable with his voice and in his skinPhoto: Getty Images Music Features Iron & Wine
Beast Epic sounds like Iron & Wine. It’s breezy and wistful, forward-looking and nostalgic. As singer/songwriter Sam Beam has pushed the boundaries of this project—from its humble lo-fi acoustic beginnings to its electric, brass and string-fueled jams of The Shepherd’s Dog and Ghost on Ghost—and explored collaborations with artists like Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and Jesca Hoop, Iron & Wine has circled back around to a happy resting place.
Beam has never seemed like one for resting, though. In fact, he feels like his sixth Iron & Wine release represents his strongest vocal effort, and refuses to let themes of growth and aging become stagnant. He chatted with Paste about the symbolism, honesty and existentialism found on Beast Epic.
Paste: To start with, I’m curious about the album artwork for Beast Epic, which is a kind of needlepoint depiction of you, blindfolded and strumming your guitar. Who stitched it? What’s the symbolism there?
Sam Beam: I wanted to do an embroidered album cover for a long time because I think they’re beautiful…[Originally] I had a couple of concepts. I wanted the duality between two figures. One of them is me with a guitar, blindfold, and bloody fingers like I’ve been working so hard. Beside me would be another me with a bunch of fish thrown over my shoulder, like Call of Duty, but I have a shotgun instead of a fishing pole. For some reason, those two together made me happy. Over the course of doing the thing, it was a question of making the message more approachable and more appropriate. Sara Barnes from Baltimore…has a blog called Brown Paper Bag. It’s an embroidery art blog…A lot of her work, she does it really small so when you photograph it, and it’s big, you can feel the texture. I like that stuff.
It’s been said that Beast Epic is your most honest album in a way, but it’s also been said that your earliest albums were really based around such confessional songwriting. Which kind of just makes me think that it’s all confessional, and it’s all honest, and it’s all personal. Why in particular are you calling this record your most revealing?
You never know if I’m 100% being confessional or not.
Way to be cagey.
I feel like, over the years with the songwriting, I’ve just followed whatever I was obsessed with at the moment. As you live a life, there are different things you’ll be going through in your life. I’ve been going through a more reflective time. You know, my kids are getting older. It sounds reductive to call it a midlife crisis record. As we get older, you enter different, reflective times. That’s what informed a lot of these songs. Sometimes the group of songs feels like it describes the world around you and how you feel about the world around you, reacting to the things and your obligations. Sometimes you’re looking inward and discovering yourself. That’s what this one was more about.
It seems like some of the characters in older songs, whether older versions of yourself or fictionalized, seem to look at the world from that mindset of growing up. With your daughters between 7 and 19 years old, do you see some of those themes that you wrote about reflecting in them, as if they’re almost living out some of your old songs?
Yeah, of course. Having kids, to me, is like looking in the mirror. You’re always constantly reminded of your own growing up and you can apply it to your art—whether you’re writing songs or painting or whatever you’re doing. You’re reminded of your own growing up, [including] some things that you had forgotten when you were a kid going through [them]. Hopefully, that’s how you experience it. At least, that’s how I experience it. I see everything in my life over and over again—not that watching them makes me think of myself—when you’re working on songs and you’re working on what you want to say in your life—not just your life, but life continuing.
Conversely though, we’ve reached the point where we’re not really growing up anymore. On that spectrum, we’re closer to growing old rather than growing up.
That’s what I felt, I keep being reminded. I still feel like a child inside. The only thing that lets me know that I’m not is when I talk to young people. When I’m walking down the street by myself, I still feel like a 17-year-old. I don’t feel like you ever stop growing up. I just put that idea out of my mind.
That’s probably healthier.
Maybe, yeah. It’s a drag when you feel like you want to live forever, but then you think about how much those experiences that you go through—even the pain—enriches your life in a way that you don’t really want to live without those experiences. They’re who you are, but they’re not so much fun to go through.
What was it like returning to writing solo Iron & Wine music again after a string of collaboration records with Jesca Hoop and Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell?
The collaboration stuff was super helpful. Super fun. The one I made with Ben was very nostalgic. It was borne out of our friendship. It was fun. The one with Jesca specifically allowed me to let go a lot of things for the joy of collaborating with someone so powerful and talented. Both of them made me fall in love with my voice again. There are times when I feel like I only hear its weaknesses and its limitations. This one, it just felt like I let go of the characteristic that holds me down. There are definitely types of songs that I’m not really perfect for. I also just really enjoyed the familiarity of my voice alongside other voices for a change. You know what I mean? Part of the ensemble opposed to the only person to perform all of these songs. It wasn’t so much falling in love with my voice, but familiarizing myself with what you hear and deciding I like it, being okay with it.
Did you ever take any vocal lessons? Because you didn’t start your career in music. You’re other life was in film.
That was another life, a lifetime ago. I wish I had [taken vocal lessons]. That would’ve been fun and easily applied, but no. I didn’t. I’ve just been learning as I go. For better or for worse, I’ve never been afraid to try something, whether it works or doesn’t. I keep pushing and poking around at the edge and seeing what sticks together and what falls apart. But I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea.
How did this newfound comfort and appreciation inform the songs you wrote for Beast Epic?
It didn’t really inform the writing, but it definitely informed the performing. It added an element. Overall, there was a relaxed approach. Not so much non-committal or uninterested, just that I wasn’t actively pushing forward to an uncomfortable place, like I usually do, or an unfamiliar place. In a sense, it felt like I’d been working on these clothes for a while and I just put them on and enjoyed the feel of it. My voice was more of the same old thing. I’d been pushing the edge boundary to what my voice could be for the last couple of records. I feel like it’s a little different. All around— whether it’s the singing, the writing, or the performing— it was all kind of a bit more relaxed. Not anything too complex or adventurous. Not overwrought. Just to get more comfortable to do your thing.