Interview with Iron & Wine

Sam Beam readily admits he’s an atypical rock star. The musician lives in a suburb of Miami, definitely not a hotbed for his brand of Southern-influenced indie-folk. He has a wife and two children, with a third due any day at the time we talked to him, and so he can’t spend much time away from his family to tour. He taught film school at a local college. And he sports a full beard, for goodness sake!

But with the amount of attention ladled on the artist since 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days and his success on one of the larger and more reputable indies, Sub Pop, Beam has been able to quit his day job and devote his time to making music as a career. With two full-length albums and two EPs – the second, Woman King, due at the end of this month – he’s proven not only to be prolific but accessible to a wide audience, as shown by gushing write-ups in mainstream publications and noteworthy pick of NPR as well as the indie media.

“It’s great,” he says humbly. “It’s been a real pleasant surprise, mostly in the sense that I don’t put a lot of effort into promoting myself. I mean, I do a lot relative to what my family can handle, but relative to other bands, it’s not a whole lot. I’ve come to discover how atypical that is.”

Beam never expected such fame when he picked up his acoustic guitar and began recording on a four-track in his bedroom. He acknowledges his music may have found a place for people looking for an alternative to the more aggressive-based songs that dominate radio and mainstream attention. But he says keeping things in perspective hasn’t been a problem.

“I don’t think about it much, because then I might write songs for the listeners. I just write for the same reason I always wrote.”

In fact, Beam didn’t even seem destined to make music. He attended film school and moved to Miami to begin doing production work. He spent time making props and filming videos, but when his children came along, he decided to teach so he’d have more time with the family. Now that he can make music full-time, he has even more time to spend with his children, although that family commitment makes touring difficult.

“I try to space it out, only go on tour for two weeks maximum at a time. My wife has been very supportive.”

The next two-week Iron & Wine tour will take place in April and cover the Midwest with Horses, a band that features ex-members of Carissa’s Wierd. It will follow release of Woman King, which shows Beam’s commitment to developing his sound. Once composed of almost entirely just Beam’s acoustic guitar and voice, his music now features much more percussion and even some well-placed electric guitar.

“A love of stuff I’ve been writing lately is more percussive,” he says. “The more I play with the band, I’m realizing the opportunities I have.”

“I try to make some kind of resolution with each record, and this seems like sort of a natural place to go. I’ve been really into the recording more, playing with different textures and things at your disposal. After all, I don’t want to make the same record over and over.”

Having a bigger budget has allowed Beam to move out of the bedroom and into the studio. He’s also gathered a backing band, including his sister Sarah, many of whom accompany him on tour. (He notes the next tour will be as a five- or six-piece band.)

“I still write the same way I always have,” he says, noting the basis for his songs still are formed in his bedroom with the acoustic guitar. “But when it comes down to recording, I like to try some different things. In the future, it will be a mix of both, really. I enjoy the studio a lot.”

Beam is a prolific songwriter beyond his multiple releases. He writes songs constantly, which allows him to pick and choose from the output when putting together an album. This results in releases that follow a kind of loose theme that tie the songs together while not, Beam points out, straying into concept-album territory.

“I usually record a bunch of songs, about three albums’ worth, and then I get to choose one album’s worth with a thematic thread. I purposefully go back and pick which songs I want to do in the studio.”

A common feature of Beam’s work, and one that endears itself to most listeners, is the engaging quality of the first-person songwriting. It’s led many to see the artist as a world-weary writer who lived the diverse experiences of his songwriting, and Beam is used to fielding questions about the personal nature of his albums.

“It’s a common misconception; a lot of people think I’m writing about myself,” he says, pointing out that most are works of fiction. “Usually they’re sort of in first person, from the point of view of a narrator. I think it draws people into the song if you personalize it.”

Taking that creative approach lends Iron & Wine’s songs an almost literary feel, with themes much more varied than typical Midwestern folk songs might cover. “The songs kinda come from all sorts of places, from stuff I read to stuff I experienced. A lot of them are made up.”

The creative songwriting and the thematic approach make his albums more consistent. Woman King, for example, includes six songs that focus on women as protagonists or strong central figures, and it features some of Beam’s latest songwriting.

“I just happened to have all these songs about women characters. And since ‘Woman King’ was one of the later songs I wrote at the time, it just seemed to make sense.” He added, “There wasn’t really a theme; it’s not a concept record. I guess it’s more of a concept in hindsight.”

“But I definitely think there are great women characters, and they deserve a strong place. Women are stronger than men in a lot of ways. That’s what ‘Woman King’ was about. At the time there was a whole lot of male posturing in the news, and this grew out of that.”

Reluctantly, Beam admits that “My Lady’s House” on the new EP likely spawns from his relationship with his wife. “That one is a more personal kind of song. The rest are about characters from a different point of view.”

He hasn’t yet written songs for his children, however, noting that he hasn’t thought about writing lullabies and that they’re still too young to appreciate it. “They see me pick up my guitar, and that means I’m not going to play with them, so I guess they don’t like it much.”

Even with the time playing music full-time has allotted him, Beam says wearily that he hasn’t listened to much music lately himself. His tastes, vary from African music to old blues, but he cites the latest Joanna Newsome as one of his recent favorites. “I guess listening to music has more to do with my schedule, with my kids and such.”

Quiet and contemplative folk songs may seem odd coming from a strong family man in the Miami area, but the result of Beam’s talent and songwriting skills have already come a long way in making him almost a household name. With his latest EP on the way and tours – albeit short ones – being planned, it may not be long before Iron & Wine takes its place among the best of the genre, if it hasn’t already.