Iron and Wine: Glad Man Singing

Making an ambitious return with his lush fourth album this month, <b>Iron & Wine</b>'s <b>Sam Beam</b> talks poetry, unicorns, and expanding his sound by going back in time

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 07 Jan 2011

Sam Beam is exceptionally, almost unsettlingly polite when we catch up with him. “I really appreciate the interest,” he offers warmly before adding a disarming caveat. “If I stop making sense, let me know. Actually, maybe if I start making sense, could you let me know about that too?”

The reason we're talking is Kiss Each Other Clean, Beam's fourth studio album released under his stage and recording name Iron and Wine. The record is another milestone in the distinct evolution of the singer from a spartan brand of introspective folk to a point where he is comfortable expanding his sonic palette to include a wider range of instrumentation and recording techniques, and even perhaps a specific theme or 'concept'. In the case of Kiss Each Other Clean it's the Super Sounds of the Seventies.

“There certainly is a nostalgic air about it,” Beam readily admits. “That's what was on the radio when I was growing up, my parents had some Motown collections, Fleetwood Mac. It was stuff I liked to listen to and it just ends up on the record somehow.”

He admits though, that the choosing of this theme, with, as he puts it “a refreshing modern twist,” was done for a reason. “I feel like we were just as adventurous on the last record but definitely not as focused whereas that record [2007's The Shepherd's Dog] revelled in its eclecticism. This one gathers all those bits and bobs off the table and gives it to the listener on a platter. If you're comparing it to the early records it might be a challenge but I don't think my music in general is too terribly challenging. For sure there's more of a classic 60s 70s pop thing going on but that's because I don't like to put the same record out each time. So you try to push yourself a little further in one direction or another. This one definitely has a more up-tempo, major-scale danceable kind of thing, a bit more than the other records for sure. It's got some sass to it.”

One thing that distinguishes the album from accessible 70s pop is its lyrical content. Beam admits that while he does have a lot of time for contemporary performers and lyricists (he name checks Joanna Newsom, Stephen Malkmus and Dave Berman), he draws his inspiration for his work from poets such as Yusuf Komunyakaa, John Berryman, Norman Dubie and Lucille Clifton.

American poets whose work, whilst drawn from the personal, is often characterised as being suggestive, insinuative, rather than being particularly direct. What this boils down to in his work, he feels, is a scenario whereby lyrics “are not written as argument of a point or opinion. I'm not worried about people 'getting' what I was talking about. As long as there's an emotional effect I'm happy.”

This approach also allows him to achieve a stated aim of having his work become accessible on multiple levels. “I try to make them so there are a couple of different layers going on. You could put it on just for the beat, the arrangement and try to find something interesting or if you have the time or patience to sit and listen to the lyrics, you could get something else out of it. The lyrics aren't the only thing going on that draws somebody in, hopefully.”

Beam is quite open behind the rationale to this approach. It's a logic that has seen him sign for the major label Warner Brothers/4AD in order to “hopefully reach a bigger audience because everyone likes to make a living.” Prior to his career as a musician, Beam had been a professor in Film and Cinematography at the University of Miami. With a wife and five daughters to support, being profitable is certainly a valid concern. So why take the gamble? “I certainly didn't take the decision lightly because I had children and had to ask myself, 'Really? You're going to try to make a living doing music?' It does seem crazy but it got to a point where I couldn't do both successfully. The music and touring were getting in the way of me fulfilling my commitments to the school. The school was keeping me off the road and taking me away from time on the road, so in the end I just picked music because it's more fun.

"That said, I enjoyed teaching. You always learn a lot about yourself and what you know when you have to get specific with it, because you have to get specific with it in order to explain it to somebody else. For example, I learn a lot by giving interviews about my music because you actually sit and think about how it all works for you. There are a lot of things as part of the process, in film and music and probably anything, that people just 'do' without thinking about.”

Calling the ability to turn a hobby into a career “a blessing whereby I've challenged myself and the audience and been rewarded,” Beam remains fascinated by the nature of creativity. “It's more about the process of making something than it is about the final product.”

He likens this process to existence itself, suggesting that if there is an overarching theme in the album it's not a clearly defined one. “It has pretty things and scary things, kind of like life in general which is both surreal and poignant. You try to describe the beautiful and the strange, the scary and the comforting; try to wink and say 'It's all for fun'. We can acknowledge that life is heavy, and also have a good time.”

And if, as some of Iron & Wine's output has, the album ends up as the soundtrack to a Hollywood take on such existential ponderings – what might that film be about? “I'm not sure what kind of movie that would be,” shrugs Beam. “But I think there'd have to be a unicorn in there, somewhere.”

Kiss Each Other Clean is released via 4AD on 24 Jan

Iron & Wine play HMV Picture House on 11 Mar