Iron & Wine's Sam Beam Takes Songs Seriously, Maybe Too Seriously

Judging from the trance-inducing, whispered meditations of Iron & Wine, the group's singer and songwriter, Sam Beam, should be far less affable and more nonchalant. But his music, starting with the homespun demos of The Creek Drank the Cradle and stretching to the rhythmic and melodic layers of last year's The Shepherd's Dog, is one thing—and his relationship to it is yet another.

Or maybe this student of film, son of the South and reluctant voice of a new folk sensibility, one that recognizes tradition in order to discard it for the surreal, playful pleasures of the imagination, would rather just keep his secrets.

Or, then again, maybe not: From his home outside of Austin, Texas, Beam indulged us in some pondering about his art.

Is there a constant when you think of an Iron & Wine sound?

Beam: Not that I can think of. It all comes from me, and I don't put out stuff I don't like. I don't think there's an overriding aesthetic. Given my limited creativity, there may be a set of guidelines somewhere that someone could point out to me. I try to approach things differently, to entertain myself and, hopefully, other people. If you have a strong song, hopefully it will stand up to different manifestations.

You seem like a meticulous songwriter.

I spend a lot of time at it. I spend more time with some songs than others. With some I've probably been too meticulous—I don't come to recording unprepared. I usually have a couple of different versions. I do a lot of demo work at home.

How do you know when to stop working?

You don't know; you just stop sometimes. Sometimes it feels finished. It's like anything else that's creative. You can work on it forever. At a certain point, you get bored, or you feel like you're done.

What was the most challenging song to record on Shepherd's Dog?

To get a version we liked, I'd say "Boy With a Coin." We had several drafts and mixes. We came to the handclaps and the Afro-Cuban bass line pretty late in the game. That was the most belabored one. I don't see that as hard, though. It was fun, making things like that.

Did it ever make sense that you'd gravitate away from film to music?

It was serendipity, to be honest. I studied film much more than music. Music was just a hobby, and I've been learning as I go. I had no idea that I'd end up doing music. But I could have done anything—I painted and worked on film, and did them all with the same amount of energy. I got lucky and got a break with music.

Have you always gravitated toward archetypal images, the animals, the mythic images?

I try to boil it down to something that people can understand, or images that have certain connotations. It's not like I make a list of mythical creatures and find ones to use. Those biblical archetypes are things people can understand, or at least things I can understand, that I can communicate with.

I was going to say—I do not understand "Lovesong of the Buzzard."

I don't either!

But you said you understand.

OK, maybe I misspoke. It causes a reaction. It makes sense at a poetic level. It's not an essay. You're not supposed to get a certain point across at the end of it, and the song supports your argument. I try to find communicative language. But you still might be communicating one thing to one person and something else to another.

Is there a risk of just being random?

That's a risk, but at the same time, it seems OK. Some songs will seem more specific, some will be more opaque or obscure. I don't try to confuse people. I don't want to write puzzles.

Do you have a sense of your audience?

To be honest, I think of me as my primary audience. But then you go back, and you're your own worst critic. Sometimes you go back and realize that just makes no sense. But generally, the audience is just me, and hopefully other people will like it too.

 
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