Apparently words are being formed, points and jokes trying to be made — was that a laugh or cough? — on the other side of the phone, but my ear bones and those little sensory hairs that “hear” aren’t doing their job. My brain is struggling to decipher large chunks of this guy’s murmurs. I fear I’m blowing this interview each time I fail to ask “huh?” and I silently curse the telephone as well as the distance between us (Austin, TX and Bethlehem, PA). But shouldn’t I have expected this?
Sam Beam, aka Iron and Wine, has been making quiet sound glorious since his 2002 Sub Pop debut The Creek Drank the Cradle. No synonym for “hushed” or “serene” has failed to be employed when describing Beam and his music.
His signature indie-folk, lo-fi home recordings beg volume knobs to turn clockwise and even make cynics sigh; the resonance of his melodic exhalations can charm any cochleae close enough to perceive them. Any time spent straining to hear what Sam Beam has to say or sing is worth the effort.
On the phone, his pauses and vowels give away his birth region (the South), and his voice gets even softer when we talk about fame — warmer when talk turns to family. As someone who spent adolescence resenting the labels “quiet” and “shy,” I’m hesitant to carry on pigeonholing Beam as such.
Lest you misunderstand: his volume is no measure of his nerve or his might. As fans of his can attest, Beam can three-Kleenex stagger a listener with a mere “oh oh” and a banjo pluck; his quietness is that strong. Shoddy speaker-phone acoustics aside, what relays clearly is Beam’s eagerness to communicate — to (however gently) convey what he’s about.
“Well, yeah… this one’s a louder, faster record.”
Transmission received; point taken. Sam Beam has some forthcoming surprises for his listeners, although he’s not about to shout about them.
Beam’s story begins the same as many optimistic youngsters’: with a guitar at the age of 14. When asked if his family was especially musical (Beam is often joined on stage and record by his sister Sarah), he just replies, “Well, we liked to listen to the radio.” So how did a scrappy teen Beam become the full-fledged, fully bearded Iron and Wine we know today?
“I started [playing] just kind of as a hobby,” he says. “I had never really studied music, I just played by ear… just started writing songs in my spare time, recording stuff I played so I wouldn’t forget the words, the chord progressions. Then Sub Pop got a hold of them and gave me a call. That’s basically the long and short of it” It’s an understated account, but understatements seem his way.
Beam has made four recordings with Sub Pop thus far, and each has served as a stylistic evolutionary link to the next. The aforementioned The Creek Drank the Cradle and 2003’s ﬁve-song EP The Sea and the Rhythm were noted for their aching simplicity, poeticism, and lo-ﬁ hiss.
Our Endless Numbered Days (2004) featured the addition of more slide guitar, harmonies, occasional piano, and less hiss. Its lyrics were preoccupied with babies and death, what comes and goes, and at the forefront of the still largely slow-tempo tunes were Beam’s ear-tickling vocals.
In 2005, Iron and Wine gave us the six-song EP Woman King, which introduced hand percussion and electricity into the mix. The songs were still mostly tied up in strings, but there were more of them — plucking, strumming, rubbing, bowing, and sliding. Density was realized with the addition of tin cans, piano, and cowbells alongside the EP’s lyrical focus: women.
About here it may be necessary for me to remind us why Sam Beam might know a thing about the fairer sex: “[My wife and I] have four daughters, so that keeps us very busy.” The youngest Beam is only two months old. Before images of fabric softener rock-a-byes and father-daughter sing-alongs are fully formed, Beam says, “They don’t like my music too much, though.”
Are they his biggest little critics? “No, but my wife’s a big enough critic as it is. I’m sure they’ll come around to it.” They don’t quite spend time with dad on tour, but when he plays in town they’ll occasionally take in a show. But he adds, “They all seem to fall asleep before I go on. They usually seem to sleep through it.” He doesn’t ﬁnd their sleepy indifference offensive, he assures me.
Although his kin remain unimpressed (for now), the mainstream public has embraced Sam Beam’s intimate music. About two years ago, Beam was able to quit his day job (as a ﬁlm lecturer at a Florida university) and rely solely on his music. Was that a triumphant moment?
“Well, it felt like a big step off a diving board. I don’t know if it was triumphant, really, but it was worth it.” His music has since led him on several cross-country and international tours, including one this past January with Calexico to Japan, which Beam describes as “surreal” and just a bit “heavy;” he says he still has plenty of moments when he can’t quite believe so many people know and like his songs.
Then Beam should prepare himself. Because when the third Iron and Wine full-length, The Shepherd’s Dog, was released this September, that number was projected (at least by me after three listens) to grow massively.
This album mixes African rhythms, Blues, hand percussion, Southern psych-rock, paradisiacal jams, Waitsian electronic scrapple, touches of dub, a waltz, and enough acoustic guitar and Beam’s voice — still staid and magnetic in the midst of the reined musical bedlam — to maintain a level of familiarity.
Beam claims this one is less like the other records on which, with the lyrics, he “was trying to ﬁnd peace in certain situations.” Is this absence of peace and presence of musical disorder somehow a response to the current political climate? “Yeah, I guess there’s always some fucked-up kind of things going on, but [recent] stuff’s been churning around in my head.”
Not overtly political but notably gutsier, The Shepherd’s Dog demonstrates how effective and cathartic noise made by, and raised voices of, the formerly “quiet” and “serene” can be.
Will this album surprise fans? “Some of them, probably,” he says with a snicker, followed by something I can’t quite will my eardrums enough to hear. There’s the word “optimism,” though, which is not entirely unexpected or unwelcome.