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iron and wine
article by georgiana cohen

For a man who has a new EP on deck, a spring tour in the works, and songs on the soundtracks of two major motion pictures, Sam Beam is as calm as a warm breeze. It could have something to do with his locale ­- contrary to the rustic images that his intimate, homespun compositions may evoke, Sam Beam makes his home in the metropolitan hotspot of Miami, Florida. As a reluctantly native Floridian, I can attest to South Florida's status as the anti-South. As an artist hailed for capturing the emotional nuances of rural America within the lo-fi confines of the four-track recorder, Beam's current geography may puzzle some listeners, but his humble and gracious attitude about his good fortune reveals all ­- that's the Carolinian in him.

So, yes, Woman King drops in February and Iron and Wine's next tour kicks off sometime in April. But in the meantime, all Beam cares about is spending as much time with his wife and young children as possible. While his foray into a full-time career as a musician was sort of accidental, and the person most surprised by his success so far is himself, Beam is definitely a guy who has his priorities in order. He was kind enough to set some time aside to chat with Splendid from his subtropical headquarters.

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Splendid: One thing I was really surprised to learn was that you live in Miami. I grew up in South Florida

Sam Beam: Oh really?

Splendid: Yeah, I grew up in Delray and Boca, Palm Beach County, that area.

Sam Beam: Not too far.

Splendid: Listening to your CDs and having that geographic placement -- that, oh, he lives in Miami, knowing what I know from growing up, it didn't really jibe with me at first. Do you like living there?

Sam Beam: There's parts of it I like, there's parts of it I don't like. I grew up in the Carolinas and we moved down here about five years ago for work and then my wife got into school here so we've been down here ever since.

Splendid: What do you like the most about Miami?

Sam Beam: I've gotten really accustomed to warm weather. The water and stuff, I like it. I also kind of like the international kind of feel, not a cookie-cutter, homogenized American kind of city, which is nice.

Splendid: You grew up in South Carolina, right?

Sam Beam: Yeah, Columbia.

Splendid: I've been to North Carolina, I have a friend who grew up in Raleigh. I love it there.

Sam Beam: Yeah, it's pretty.

AUDIO: Sodom, South Georgia

Splendid: A lot of your songs have a lot of these Southern, kind of pastoral influences. South Carolina is definitely part of the Bible Belt and a lot of that really comes through in your songs, they reflect that. How did growing up in those elements affect you and how does that reflect in your songwriting?

Sam Beam: Well, I grew up in the suburbs -- it wasn't like I was growing up in the woods or something. Socially, like you said, it is the Bible Belt, and it does leave its mark. I'm not a religious person, but I'm very interested in religion in general, how it affects people, mostly because of my upbringing -- as far as the geographic characteristics kind of stick with you, the way nature kind of affects people. There's so much open space out there that it's hard to ignore. It's hard for me to say how things affected me; it's probably easier for you guys to read it. A lot of the work that I do, it comes from my background and where I grew up, but at the same time it's a lot less autobiographical than you would imagine. It's a lot of fiction. My upbringing definitely played a part, as for any writer, any novelist or poet or whoever, or even journalists. It all affects how you write, but I don't really write postcards for the South.

Splendid: A lot of your songs -- like you said, not all of them are autobiographical but a lot of them come across as starkly personal.

Sam Beam: I tend to write in the first person. I'm not saying that none of them are autobiographical, ‘cause there's definitely bits and pieces, but I take a lot of liberties. Anything to make the song more interesting.

Splendid: Do you ever get self-conscious about some of the elements that really are you, putting them out there for everyone?

Sam Beam: No, not really, I mean. who would? You know what I mean?

Splendid: (laughs) That's true.

Sam Beam: If it's interesting, I'll use it. A lot of people have a tendency to think that I just sort of write what I remember, but it's not the case. It's part of the case, but it's not the whole truth.

Splendid: Your music draws a lot of comparison to classic, rootsy/folksy Americana-type stuff. How much inspiration did you actually draw from that, and if so, what artists from the past or present would you recommend to people?

Sam Beam: I kinda draw from all over the place. The records that I made, they sound quite a bit like, a lot of people name drop Nick Drake just because it's simple, stripped-down guitar kind of stuff. I think he's amazing, so that's very flattering. J.J. Cale was a big influence on me, and Paul Simon was a big influence, Townes Van Zandt, lots of folks.

Splendid: How did you begin songwriting? How did you fall into that? I know from stuff that I've read that it seems like you kind of ended up at Sub Pop accidentally, it seems like they almost had to chase after you to get you to come join up with them. So how did you first get into songwriting and how do you feel about the whole process of being on a label and whatnot?

Sam Beam: I was always into music. I grew up on the radio and a big mish mash of lots of different stuff. I grew up just really liking music. I had a guitar when I was in middle school. (laughs) This is getting really interesting now. But I just played as a hobby for about 15 years now.

Splendid: Do you remember the title of the first song you wrote?

Sam Beam: No, and I don't think I would tell you if I did. (laughs) I never took it very seriously until a friend let me borrow a four-track recorder and then when I started recording what I was doing and was able to actually listen to it and sort of make editorial decisions on what I was playing, then I got more serious -- it just became more fun. I was always into writing and I was doing this film work, and so it just seemed to make sense; it dovetailed with a lot of my interests. But it was really the four track that allowed me to concentrate on what I was doing, to actually listen to what I was doing and make changes based on what I was hearing. As far as the label goes, like I said, I was doing it as just a hobby. I had a friend in Seattle who had a band that Sub Pop was interested in and he put my stuff in their ear and they called me up, basically.

AUDIO: Each Coming Night

Splendid: Did it take you a while to come around when they were like, "Oh, we want to put out your record"? I seem to discern it took a little while for you to get on board with that.

Sam Beam: I knew their interest was genuine, but I always had a real skepticism and mistrust for the entertainment industry in general. (laughs) I had some other responsibilities with my family and children and stuff, so yeah, it took me a while. And I knew that taking that kind of a career on meant a lot of hard work for no money, which I wasn't really in a position to do. I just approached it with a lot of skepticism but eventually people seemed to like the record so it seemed to make sense.

Splendid: What's been your favorite thing about getting involved in the business, and your least favorite thing?

Sam Beam: There's really not that many things I don't like (laughs) It's kind of a dream come true to be able to play and take one of your hobbies and make a career out of it. I think a lot of people would be really jealous. As far as things that I really like, wow, there's a lot of things. (laughs) I've gotten to travel and meet a lot of interesting people.

Splendid: Who's been your favorite band or artist that you've toured with or shared a stage with?

Sam Beam: There's so many, I'd hate to slight anybody. We toured with Holopaw -- that's a band from Florida that's on the label with us, as well, that we have a lot of fun playing with. There's a band I'm getting ready to take out on the road in April called Horses, which I'm excited about, they're really good. Lots of folks. As far as things I don't really like, there's not too many, but actually having to play the songs over and over again. (laughs) That's a new thing I didn't really expect to have to deal with.

Splendid: Do they lose any significance for you after a while, like "Oh, I'm played ‘Naked As We Came' for the 50th straight day, this is awful!'"

Sam Beam: I mean, it's kind of inevitable that it would, but we're sort of learning how to play live and embrace the fact that you can switch things up in innumerable ways, and that's made playing the songs over and over again kind of fun, because you can switch them around a bit, keep it fresh for yourself and other people. But yeah, it's definitely a factor.

Splendid: Much was made of your first album being done on the four track, and Our Endless Numbered Days was the big move to the studio. How did you feel about doing that, and are you going to stick to that approach going forward?

Sam Beam: (laughs) It didn't seem like that big of a change, but I guess it was. I wanted to evolve in some way. I didn't want to put out the same record, so it was definitely a conscious choice. Who knows? I think in the future I'll definitely be doing some stuff in the studio, but it might be more of a combination of the two here and there. But yeah, I really enjoyed being in the studio. I just really enjoy the recording process in general, whether it's in the studio or in my house or wherever.

Splendid: You have a new EP coming out in February?

Sam Beam: Yeah.

Splendid: So what's that like?

Sam Beam: It's quite a bit more percussive. We did it again in the studio and it's just a bit more playful in terms of instrumentation and just the approach that we took in general. My touring band wasn't all there, so it was mostly me and Brian Deck, the producer. We did most of the work, then I had my sister come and sing some, and part of the band came.

Splendid: A lot of people are drawn to your music because of its intimate, hushed nature. Do you fear losing any of that by broadening your instrumentation and going into the studio?

Sam Beam: No, not really. I think that I put most of the work in the writing process and as long as the instrumentation fits the song, whether it sounds clean or whether it sounds like shit, I don't really think it makes a huge difference -- otherwise the live shows wouldn't work. Honestly, it's just a way to keep doing something new for myself. It's a way to move beyond putting the same record out over and over again, which I think would be really boring.

Splendid: So you think you're going to keep doing this for while? Keep up with the music career as long as you can?

Sam Beam: Well as long as people are interested, for sure, I'll do it as long as people want me to.

Splendid: There are a couple of trends I saw in your songs that I wanted to ask you about. On Our Endless Numbered Days, there's a lot of talk of mortality, on songs like "Naked As We Came" and "Sodom, South Georgia", and even in the album title, which is kind of a contradiction in terms. I was wondering what were you thinking when you were writing the album in terms of issues of mortality, life, death, the afterlife, anything like that. How did your views on those things pervade the album?

Sam Beam: The way the records have come about for the most part has been that I keep working and when it comes time to put a record out or choose which songs I'm going to record, I always sort of pick through the lot and find themes and something that makes sense as a cohesive record. That was one of the themes we picked up on in the songs that I had at the time. I think it had a lot to do with the birth of my daughter and things like that, that sort of paint your perceptions. It was just something I was really interested in at the time. I think there are parts of that in all the stuff that I do, the way that I approach writing. I do write that songs that are sort of like love songs, but I try to put more of a human experience into it, something beyond just "I really love you, I promise." Whether it's a love song or not, I try to make it something people can relate to, or that I can relate to as a writer. It's basically just a way to keep my interest.

AUDIO: Upward Over the Mountain

Splendid: There's a lot of animal symbolism in your lyrics, and the two animals I see coming up the most are birds and snakes. Is that a conscious thing or do they just appear?

Sam Beam: Well, they kind of appear, but I realized that, too. Dogs have been a big thing. They have a symbolism to me, I guess. Obviously, snakes have a religious connotation. Birds are a symbol of freedom, so they crop up in different places, juxtaposed with different scenarios. It's not like I go about trying to fit them in somewhere but they just kind of pop up. When it works, I don't really squelch it.

Splendid: You've got a tour coming up in April?

Sam Beam: Yeah, that's right. I think this one's mostly going to be a Midwest thing, but it's still sort of being put in the works.

Splendid: What's your favorite type of venue to play in?

Sam Beam: It doesn't really matter to me as long as they're interested and into it. I've found that in the venues where people are sitting down, it's much more difficult for me to read how the audience is perceiving what they're hearing, just because their body language is kind of stifled by the seats and I end up getting a lot of golf claps, which I find kind of confusing. But as long as they're into it, I don't really care. We've played lots of different places, from churches to dive bars, and they're all kind of fun.

Splendid: When you recorded The Creek Drank The Cradle, what was your first show in support of that album? What was that like, your first show on Sub Pop?

Sam Beam: The first tour that I did was for Isaac Brock's Ugly Casanova record. They toured and he asked me to go. I think the first show we ever played was in Minneapolis. And it was fun, because for anyone who makes music it's a dream to go be able to play for people. There's definitely been a learning curve attached to our touring experience. That was the first show I ever played -- I'd never really played for people. I didn't even have a band. I just sort of threw some friends together when Sub Pop suggested that we go on tour. And so it was definitely an interesting experience. It's been a learning experience as well.

Splendid: You have a young family, so how rough is it to be on the road?

Sam Beam: It's nice for about a day (laughs) and then you really miss them. That's my life. So it's difficult, but at the same time it's a worthwhile sacrifice. I end up being able to spend a lot more time with them now than I would if I had a 9-to-5 job. So you take the good with the bad.

Splendid: So do they go "Daddy's a rock star!" and do they know what you do? And how do they figure into your songwriting?

Sam Beam: Well, I haven't written any lullabies, if that's what you mean, but I don't really wave the flag. They know I play music, and when I go off to play shows they know where I'm going. I don't think they would be too receptive anyway -- they're really young (two and six). They're not really that interested in media.

Splendid: One thing I wanted to ask you about was your cover of "Such Great Heights" that ended up on the Garden State soundtrack. How did that come about and how did it end up on the soundtrack?

Sam Beam: That tour that I spoke about before was actually before the first record came out. So when the record came out, we did a CD release show in Seattle and Ben Gibbard came to the show. We had some mutual friends so he introduced himself and he had this Postal Service record that they were just getting ready to put out and he wanted to do a single. So he just asked me and it seemed like a good idea. It was out and about and based on the popularity of the Postal Service record it got airplay. And I guess the guy from Garden State heard it and asked us if he could use it. I guess it's like the way I got on the label in the first place, the serendipity kind of worked out.

Splendid: Who have you been listening to recently?

Sam Beam: My sister gave me that Joanna Newsom record, which I think is really good. I listen to a big swamp of things. I got a Suicide record, which is real good. My musical tastes are kind of all over the place. King Sunny Ade -- I like a lot of African stuff, a lot of blues stuff.

Splendid: What would be your dream tour to be a part of?

Sam Beam: Anything that's pretty short. (laughs) There's definitely places I would like to play that I haven't seen for. I'd like to go to Africa. I don't know how my stuff would go over there, but I'd like to go see it. As far as people to play with, my tastes are kind of mixed. We end up playing with a lot of folk bands, which I think it's kind of boring to put a lot of artists that sound similar on the same bill -- it gets kind of monotonous. I think I'd like to tour with TV On The Radio or someone who just mixes it up, an evening with different kinds of stuff. We've tried that. We toured with that band Broadcast at one point and I don't think the audience really liked it. I think people are really into their genres for some reason. They don't want to mix genres, apparently. I think my dream tour would be contrary to the public tastes.

AUDIO: Faded From the Winter

Splendid: What was the last concert you went to where you weren't on stage?

Sam Beam: Shit, I can't really remember. It's kind of like how I don't get to see movies anymore because I have kids, so I don't really get to see shows that much anymore either. You know, that's not totally true; I was in Tucson not too long ago and I was doing some recording with those guys in that band Calexico and there was a friend of theirs playing in the lobby of this hotel we were staying at and his name was -- oh man, I just totally forgot his name. Oh, Salvador. His name was Salvador (Duran), this Mexican fella who was playing this solo show in the lobby and he had this wooden box that he stood on. He had his boots and he would play these repetitive, simple chords and create a percussion section with his boots. He would make sounds with his mouth and he had his voice like he was a Mexican Pavarotti. That was a lot of fun. I don't know what his last name was but we had him come and record some with us. That's the last show that I've seen, really.

Splendid: So you teach film?

Sam Beam: I used to.

Splendid: Oh, you don't anymore?

Sam Beam: No, I've been able to just concentrate on the music lately.

Splendid: Have you directed any of your own music videos?

Sam Beam: I've done three of them. They're out and about on the Internet.

Splendid: How was that experience, melding your two artistic interests?

Sam Beam: It was a lot of fun. I've got a lot of friends in town who are in the industry, so it's a great time to keep my fingers wet in that area, but at the same time revisit the songs and interpret them in a different way.

Splendid: Did you see Garden State?

Sam Beam: I have to confess I haven't seen it yet. (laughs) But I hear it's really good.

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Read Splendid's reviews of The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days.


Sub Pop is Iron and Wine's label, in case you didn't know.

Buy Iron and Wine stuff at Insound.

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