Pas­toral weeks

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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.”

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