SMART CARS, COSMIC FOLK AND BIRDS
Iron & Wine are returning to Australia where they’ll play the Opera House for the second time. The band’s sole proprietor, Sam Beam, talks with Chris Familton about writing and performing his new album Beast Epic.
“I’m still in the past,” says Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, down the phone line from North Carolina. He’s joking about the time difference with Australia but it also serves as an accurate description of his sound – that timeless, organic blend of folk music that draws country, soul, post-rock and jazz into its cosmic mix.
Over six Iron & Wine albums, Beam has built up an impressive catalogue of music that swims in it’s own stream, seemingly impervious to the swings and roundabouts of trends and scenes. That timeless quality and the propensity for placing his songs in universal settings is a hallmark of his songwriting, yet Beam isn’t afraid to throw an occasional and intentional spanner in the works.
“I feel like I try more consciously to do the opposite like adding a place name and letting that do the work for me. Once I mentioned a smart car, but I’m not trying to be contemporary and talking about my fucking iPhone or something,” laughs Beam. “At the same time I feel like I do work with more base emotions and desires, which are timeless things. Music loves ‘love’,” he says emphatically. “There’s a reason why there are so many songs about desire and loss, that’s what we’ve been obsessed with forever. As long as you stir around in that water you can mix some pretty timeless things. It’s an intuitive thing, I don’t steer clear of it on purpose but I’m not really trying too hard to create that feeling either.”
Beast Epic, released last year, was a pared back affair with none of the textural layers and intricate detailing of some of Beam’s previous albums. As a result he found a new sense of freedom when he took the new songs out on the road.
“This band and these new songs are much more satisfying for me at the moment because that space is there for me to discover things every night. Not that we’re jazzing them out but there’s a space in these songs for them to change. They’re a bit more relaxed and we can approach them in an improvisational and intuitive kind of way. People react in different way to a record like Ghost On Ghost with its intense and developed arrangements with horns, strings and vocalists,” explains Beam. “All those things were really fun to perform but not in a way where you could just improvise on the fly. You end up performing the same thing every night. That’s satisfying and fun up to a point but I like discovering things and so that situation isn’t the most fun because I like seeing what’s around the corner and trying new things.”
Beam’s decision to simplify the sound on Beast Epic came about because “I was writing these songs and they had a more introspective and reflective feel”, indicating that Beam is a devoted follower of his muse. “It seemed appropriate to pull the reins back a bit and give them the space, approach it more quietly and more acoustically so that the words could come forward,” before adding, “It kind of just happened.”
A recurring theme in Beam’s songwriting is his prolific use of birds, both literally and metaphorically. “I get teased a lot for all the birds in my songs,” laughs Beam. “People who know me say “where’s the fucking bird in this one?” I like to think of it in the context that Cézanne painted a lot of oranges and Monet painted a lot of ponds. There are certain images that we return to because we find them inspiring and that’s OK. It has a lot to do with how I see the world, where I grew up and where I live now. It also has to do with how I like to live my life. I guess it’s possible to use one too many birds but as long as you use it in a way that feels new then I’m fine with it.”
Sam Beam may have one foot in the past but his eyes remain fixed on the horizon. Touring Beast Epic will take up the rest of 2018 but he’s also excited about two upcoming releases, including a return collaboration with a pair of friends. “We’re going to be putting out an EP of stuff from the album session that didn’t get released. That’ll be out in your spring. I’ve also been talking with Joey and John from Calexico about putting out another record again pretty soon,” he says excitedly.