Sam Bean, aka Iron and Wine, reckons he does terrible interviews. He’s wrong, Sinéad Gleeson is happy to relate, as the songwriter tells her about going a bit r’n’b on the new album, juggling songwriting with rearing five girls in remote Texas and being o
ALL MUSICIANS say things that keep returning, like a warped echo. In Sam Beam’s case, it’s immortalised in the press release accompanying his new album, Kiss Each Other Clean. Before I even finish my question, he’s already chuckling – something he does a lot. He declared that his last record, The Shepherd’s Dog, was an attempt to “replicate something in the vein of Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones”.
Okay. So was he trying to replicate anything here? “It’s a really inspirational record for me, and not just the sonics. Waits was doing this one thing before, but then followed his muse and did something completely different. Oddly enough, I felt that the last record I made was unwieldy . . . ” he trails off. Why unwieldy? “There’s a lot of stuff going on at one time. I feel this record is much more streamlined. It has much more r’n’b elements, and r’n’b arrangements have a certain amount of economy. That’s what I wanted this time.”
Tom Waits references notwithstanding, one review compared Kiss Each Other Clean to “Fleetwood Mac in their pomp”, and a friend who’s a fan mentioned that it reminded him of Astral Weeks. “I love all those records. There’s lots of stuff on this album, it’s hard to pick one band, there’s so much thrown into this soup and stirred up. You could probably compare it to anything [and] I’d say yes. Artists like to think that they’re individual . . . you want to be appreciated for what you do, but you are the sum of your influences. We all like the idea of being original, but that’s difficult, and if that’s your only MO, you’re in for trouble.”
Again he punctuates his soft-spoken drawl with a laugh. He gamely talks about influences and that Waits line, and is interested in how songwriters’ subject matter is often used to represent them. The Shepherd’s Dog was mentioned in political terms. “That was because I said that, looking back, I remembered feeling really confused when George Bush was re-elected. It was one of those violent shifts in perspective and people started to read some of the images on my last record as political. There were political elements, but the songs could be read in many ways – but it was in no way a protest record. I have a way of saying things and committing to nothing, and then people make me commit to things . . . I do terrible interviews, don’t I?”
We both laugh, even though he has been nothing but interesting so far. Has he been misrepresented in interviews? He thinks about his answers and delivers them in slightly campfire hush.“There’s no list of what songwriters should and shouldn’t do. There’s not much you can’t express in a song, as long as you have an emotional connection to it.”
The songs on the new album are imbued with that kind of connection. Beam lives in a small town outside Austin, Texas, with his wife Kim and their five daughters. As in his previous work, landscape and the domestic feature, but like many singers, Beam is wary of that blurred line between autobiography and narrative.
“Most songwriters, me included, put bits and pieces of their own lives into songs. That honesty and engagement is important but, to be honest, my life is just not that interesting to write songs directly about. I start with something I know or may have read, and develop it from there. It’s like any other form of writing – it’s more about rewriting, editing and shaping your base inspiration. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, and I don’t do it as therapy. I’m not trying to exorcise some emotion – I just like to make things, so I make these little poetic vignettes.”
One of the most noticeable things about this record is that the vocals seem more central, pushed to the precipice of all the other instrumentation. “It really is. Over the last decade I’ve slowly learnt to use my voice as an instrument. It’s important to do something different on each record, so singing was the variable we pushed on this record. On the previous records lots of the songs were love songs, so I felt it was appropriate to deliver them in the way I did. With these songs the subject matter is a bit more broad, so I felt I could try something else.”
Beam averages three to four years between studio albums, but has released either a single or an EP in the intervening years. His productivity is impressive, especially as he’s father to five girls (the eldest is 12, the youngest just 10 months). He does school runs and dad stuff, and works for two to three hours “on a good day”.
“I have a very supportive wife, and we only have one little one who is at home all day. You have to carve out your own time and reserve it as an artist. Being kind to yourself is important. Some days are better than others, and you have to apply some discipline to get anything done. A word or a phrase a week is a lot at the end of a year. I went to art school, and you get used to the creative process and the commitment required. Inspiration can come in the middle of the night or once in a blue moon. You learn how to incorporate it in to your life, how to be patient and never to take it for granted.”
Working alone has many advantages, especially for someone with a hectic domestic schedule, and Beam has never been tempted to embrace a full band line-up. It suits him to work alone and then hook up with musicians further into the creative lifespan of a song. Initially he begins with a basic melody and lyrics, written on guitar and piano, recording lots of possible versions to bring to the studio.
That Iron and Wine is a solo project has brought a measure of control to other aspects of the music, namely distribution. Beam, once signed to Sub Pop and now on 4AD, was quick to embrace the internet, and he released an iTunes-only EP in 2004 and two live releases the same way in 2006.
“The avenues for putting out music have changed, but the craft hasn’t. It would be foolish to not embrace that landscape, but I still love the idea of sitting down with a record and digesting it. So I make my records that way, but also acknowledge that people will want singles and downloads too. No matter what happens to music’s delivery system, artists will always have shows to rely on. With that in mind I try to make the shows as unique as possible – no one wants to just hear the CD they have at home.”
For next week’s Dublin gig, Beam has an eight-piece band that’s a bit of an indie who’s who. He’ll be backed by Nick Luca, who has played with Calexico, Stuart Bogie ( on horns), most of Califone, with additional vocals from Rosie Thomas.
“We had 11 people on stage at a recent gig – the week before it was just me – so each time you play you react to what you’re listening to differently. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again.”