JOE meets Sam Beam, the man behind the incredible Iron & Wine
Sam Beam, better known by his stage name Iron & Wine, fits in very well in Ireland.
Originally from South Carolina and living in Texas, Beam has always produced the kind of music that is kindred to Ireland — heavy on story-telling, folk sensibility and acoustic guitars.
Lyrically, Beam draws on stories from the Bible and imagery from rural imagery. This week he's playing The Helix, so we sat down with the virtuoso singer-songwriter to explore his thoughts on Ireland, the south of America and his writing process.
JOE: Are you looking forward to playing in Ireland again?
Sam Beam: Oh always, I love playing Ireland. It's probably one of my favourite places to play. You guys know how to enjoy music, that's for sure.
Are there any Irish influences in your music?
Oh yeah. Dubliners. Planxty. All that sort of story-folk-song tradition. I love that stuff. That's a huge part of what I do.
Musically and lyrically, the south of America is always very present in your music. If you were to relocate to somewhere like Dublin, do you think that would change your approach to writing music? Do you need to be in the south to do what you do?
No, I don't. I mean, it has to do with the way it shaped me as a person, what I'm interested in as far as the types of stories. It's hard to say how that would affect me. It would affect a lot of things in my life, but it's hard to say how it would affect me musically. That would be fun.
You've recently collaborated with Jesca Hoop and Ben Bridwell. Have those experiences changed how you write songs?
You know, it's hard to say. Over the years playing with lots of different musicians, you pick up different things. Even your record collection can affect how you think about music. Those two... My experience with Ben was so fun. We grew up in the same town so that was a kind of a reunion in a way, and a real nostalgic, fun project. The one with Jess... I had never written songs with anybody else before, we wrote those songs together.
It was a real rewarding process, you know, learning to let go and trust someone else in that way was really rewarding to me. She's so talented, I got lucky. We've got similar... what we're looking for in a song.
Beast Epic is a little more stripped back compared to Kiss Each Other Clean and Ghost On Ghost. Was that intentional or instinctive?
A little bit of both. It was an instinctive thing, because I kind of just write all the time, not just writing a record per se. But the songs that I was working on were quieter. But it didn't feel like stepping back, it was about realising that the path you're on is a circle rather than a straight line. So yeah, it was an intentional thing, not so much that I wanted a specific sound as opposed to what I was doing before but it was like those songs I'd started to write felt like they needed that kind of a space. You know, they needed the words to be up higher in the mix and I needed that to be the focus.
I had enjoyed making these, sort of, larger production records, more like R&B records in a way. I mean, it's a fucked up R&B but at the same time it was more of a danceable, in your face kind of approach whereas the lyrics were pretty intense but they would kind of slip past you. Underneath the dancing. Like a line would go by and if you weren't listening for it you would miss it. It's kind of a subversive approach, trying to sneak words by you, like dark surreal portraits.
But... So this is the opposite basically. I felt like these songs are more introspective and contemplative and they were just suited for kind of a gentle, not particularly fussy, not pedestrian approach but also not fussy.
Your music is incredibly lyrical. Are you constantly writing, do you set time aside to write or does inspiration hit you subconsciously?
I definitely set aside time to do it but you never know what you can glean from a conversation. Sometimes phrases stick in your ear in a great way, that's what's fun about working with words and songs. You never know when the inspiration is gonna come so I try to be open all the time. You never know.
When you're searching for inspiration, what do you do?
I just try to be present. I haven't been listening to a whole bunch of music lately. I'm kind of in this space in my life where silence is kind of a commodity. But yeah, I like to read books. I read all the time. I read a bunch. You know it depends. It's always different. Sometimes I get more inspiration from poetry, sometimes I get more inspiration from a conversation. Memories. Each song is kind of different too. They all demand different resources, so I just try to be present.
When a song is giving you trouble you decide to either walk away or try to come around through the back door. I like the malleability of the creative process, it never gets old to me for some reason.
"Beast Epic" refers to a story where animals have the personalities of humans. I read online that you chose that title because it sounded cool, but it occurred to me that throughout your work there are so many references to animals. Do animals play an active role in your songwriting process?
Yeah. I live in a zoo. Elephants at 3 and then I go clean the fields at 4. No, I grew up in the country and I always liked the natural world. There's a lot of countryside out there. There's a lot of city but there's more open space and the natural world is a huge part of a human experience and has been forever. I like writing in physical ways. I like talking about things that we see and we touch and we smell more than things that we're feeling.
Even though songwriting is an emotional communication I like using the things around us to express those things. Animals are a huge part because they're like a connection we have. On the one hand we relate to them in this way, we ourselves and understand ourselves through them. You know, we say a bird is freedom and we want to be free like that. We want to be strong like a lion. We recognise these characteristics and qualities in animals. But then we also see them as totally foreign and connected to the earth in a way that we are not. So there's this rich connection, this rich material. I threw that comment off about it sounding cool because it is fun to say but it was for... When I saw that term I knew that I had to take it for myself.
The south, and America in general, is in a tumultuous place politically. Do you think that will influence your future songwriting or are you steering away from that?
I don't write propaganda songs but the culture is where most of the songs take place and I've been writing about those topics my whole career. I feel like... I hope all that shit is like a zit, and all that shit just comes to the top and we just wipe it off clean. It's just gross. I don't have to be measured in my speech about it, I just think it's stupid.
Does writing about the south become harder when things like this come to the fore?
No, I mean it's always been there. I've always been writing about it, you know, "Southern Anthem" and "Sodom, South Georgia." I don't make political statements in my songs but you know, if you want to parcel out the human experience as everything being politicised you could easily look at my songs and say they're like political statements because they're humanist statements.
I don't think it gets harder, I think it gets more boring to write about it when it's in the news. It's a part of the culture that you have to... It's this ever-present smell in the culture, whether it's in your face or not, just like the smell of the trees. I write about those things because they're always lying right behind your consciousness. You know, when it's like a hot-button topic I usually shy because it seems like you're picking a side and talking about something a bit more transient. At the same time, I like talking about t, you know? Yeah, shit's fucked up.
Do you have a favourite song to play live?
I don't really. I have this new band, we became a band back in the fall, and so we... Reimagining the catalogue with this new band has been really fun. Dusting off old songs I haven't played in a long time with new people, that's been exciting, but I don't really have a favourite.