Most Iron & Wine fans are at least somewhat familiar with the music’s origin story. Sam Beam began capturing his folk songs on an old four-track recorder after his wife and daughter had gone to bed, whisper-singing his songs so he wouldn’t wake them up. He now has five daughters and lives on a fairly secluded plot of land in Dripping Springs, Texas, but there are songs on his fourth proper studio album Kiss Each Other Clean that would still wake the whole house and all the neighbors.
With Brian Deck back in the producer chair for the third time, Kiss Each Other Clean is Beam’s most adventurous album yet. There’s some funk and blue-eyed soul to go with the occasional quiet guitar picking, but Beam just sees it as another small step in an ongoing musical journey. “Even Woman King is kind of funky in its own way, I guess. You keep introducing sonic textures, and—you just go in the studio and stay open. It’s not like the only criteria is that we haven’t tried something before. You try lots of different things. I don’t think I would’ve known how to incorporate a clavinet in the first record or two; you just learn as you go.
“I wanted to do a live-feeling record,” he continues, “so we went and tracked it live, at least the rhythm section stuff in Chicago. And we talked specifically about late-’60s, early-’70s or mid-’70s Los Angeles recordings where the reverb was taken away; everything was recorded very dry. So whenever you use an effect, it was a bit more jarring because a vocal with a lot of reverb was very strange in a mix of really dry-sounding acoustic guitars and drums and stuff. I like these super-contrasty sonic textures. I like dealing with sharp contrast. It’s the same with synths and acoustic instruments: they’re jarring when they’re put side-by-side, and I like that kind of stuff.”
In the end, though, it’s just about exploring ideas with musicians you trust. “Over the years, you learn it’s not so much about what you end up with,” he says. “Making records is about the creative process; you be open it, there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s not a math problem. So you just go in and have a good time, and whatever feels the best, that’s what you keep.”
Beam will spend most of next month in Europe before touring the U.S. this fall. With small kids at home, it’s difficult for him to stay on the road for too long of a stretch at a time, but he’s brought along a new “family,” of sorts, including most of the members of Califone as the band’s lead singer Tim Rutili has entered Beam’s old world of film, directing All My Friends are Funeral Singers. The band also includes Nick Luca (Calexico), Stuart Bogie (Antibalas, TV On the Radio) and Rosie Thomas. “I [said], ‘I’ll take care of your band for you while you’re taking care of those things,” recalls Beam. “These guys are a super-fun band, and I’ve played with most of these people before, but never in this configuration. It’s fun to have a big group because then you have more options; when you do the solo stuff, that’s all you can do.”
But Beam hasn’t totally abandoned his love of and involvement in film. Last year, he directed a video for The Swell Season’s “Low Rising,” in which a funnel of rain follows Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. He says he’ll be filming one of his own videos soon.
In the meantime, he’s content to channel his creativity into his songwriting, filling it with characters that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Flannery O’Connor short story. “Religion’s a big deal,” he says of his influences. “I grew in the Carolinas, going to church. Those are the characters that I know, but also I use them because they’re such a big part of the culture. I hope anybody in Europe can enjoy the song, but the context is specifically American. No matter how abstract your tune goes, you do yourself a favor if you give it a context, at least in your mind. Then when you write it, you know who those people are.”
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief.