Your father puts you through college. He chides you about getting your car inspected. He organizes his wrenches in the garage with Hall and Oats blasting out of his blown General Electric. He doesn’t write near-perfect folks songs for a highly regarded independent record label. And if he does, he certainly doesn’t also have a background in teaching film and studying screenwriting. Yet somehow Sam Beam — the man and beard behind Sub Pop’s darlings Iron and Wine — has managed to manage both these jewels while raising two daughters of his own (and two very lucky ones, I might add).
I mention fatherhood because his music speaks so wisely about the pitfalls and pleasures of that mythic vocation. Beam’s literate folk, from his 2002 debut to his latest EP, Woman King, has continued to trace his love’s whims — whether it be the Deep South, that ol’ time religion, his women kings, or his children — with a distinctly familial grace.
Musically, Beam has broadened his horizons since his debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. A far cry from those early four-track days, Beam’s latest recordings have employed a slew of additional musicians, and they guy’s getting set to release yet another disc later this year, a fascinating collaboration with Tucson’s Calexico. Before he and his band’s thrillingly inventive set at Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theatre on June 19, Prefix for a few moments with the world’s greatest dad.
Prefix Magazine: You’re working on a project called Lay in Reigns project with Calexico. How did that come about?
Iron and Wine: We’ve actually been trying to do that for quite a while. We have a mutual friend — a gentleman named Howard Grizzel — who owns a label called Overcoat Records. So we’ve been trying to do it for a while, and we finally managed to clear our schedule and make it happen.
PM: So it’s a mini-LP that’ll be coming out in the fall of 2006 or thereabouts?
Iron and Wine: Yeah, I think it’s going to be out in September or something.
PM: What I think it so interesting about that project is that both of you guys seem to represent mythical parts of different regions of the country. Calexico’s music seems to deeply involved in the American Southwest, and a lot of your music is so much about the Deep South. Did you see these characteristics interacting when you guys go together?
Iron and Wine: Yes and no. It was sort of thrown together. We just sorta hashed it out … ’cause we didn’t have a whole lot of time, and it is sort of a clash of styles, in a certain way. In another way, it seemed [like we were making] very similar kinds of music… . But that was part of the whole idea of the project: You throw these two elements together to see what would happen. They ended up all being my songs, and we just sort of together re-interpreted them, some of my oldest songs. I guess you could say I came up with the song structure definitely — there’s a bit more of my touch on a bit of ’em. But definitely there’s a lot of their signature sound as well.
PM: So you brought your songs to them and both of you worked on them together.
Iron and Wine: Basically, yeah. That’s how it ended up.
PM: You’ve got a background teaching cinematography, and so much of your lyrics are visually evocative. I’m thinking especially of “Passing Afternoon.” Do you see your background in visual art forms affecting how you write your music?
Iron and Wine: Well, yeah, for sure. It’s one of the reasons I got into art films in the first place. It’s just always been a subject of interest — visual communication and stuff. I went to art school and then started painting and starving, and then I got into film. It all makes sense. It just makes sense to me. When you’re studying screenwriting, it definitely doesn’t hurt as far as learning to communicate a vision.
PM: There’s also something about your music — not all of it, but a few particular songs — that makes fatherhood really appealing.
Iron and Wine: [Laughs.]
PM: For someone like myself who’s just out of college, there’s still a way in which you can make it all seem so mellow. Are there specific ways in which the birth of your children [two daughters] has affected the way that you write?
Iron and Wine: It sort of changes your whole perspective on everything, so inherently it changes your writing. But there’s really not that much that happens in your life that affects you more. [Laughs.]
PM: When you sit down to right a song, is there usually a melody that presents itself first, or a chord structure, or a lyrical image? I imagine it varies, but is there something that happens more often?
Iron and Wine: The lyrics are a bit more dangerous. I mean, as far as sitting down and coming up with a melody, it just takes a lot of tooling around with the guitar and sort of [letting] your mind wander a bit. I usually always start with a melody and then work the lyrics into that, so you’ve got the velvet tones and the emotional tones in the melody. … I mean, I’ve tried to fit words onto the melody where they’re already written down, and it doesn’t work for me.
PM: I’ve read how you’ll come up with way more verses than the song actually has room for.
Iron and Wine: That’s just part of the writing process, in general. Re-writing is just as important as your basic inspiration.
PM: How much of the analysis of your own music happens as you’re writing it? Or do you find that more of the meaning of your recording and writing takes place after the fact, like when you talk to people like me?
Iron and Wine: My analysis of it? There’s a certain level of analysis when you’re — you know, that’s when you’re an editor. You’re making decisions based on what you’re doing. But there are different levels that you come across much more easily in hindsight, for sure. I try to keep it very intuitive. You boil it over too much, it kind of loses something.
PM: How long have you guys been on this current leg of your tour? Are you reaching the middle, the end?
Iron and Wine: I think we turned a corner a couple days ago, so we’re working our way back home so it won’t be too much longer.
PM: Are there particular parts of the country that you really enjoy playing?
Iron and Wine: Everything place has its own charm. Some of the places are nice ’cause there are big, big crowds; some of the places are just pretty places to see. There’s lots of places to play.
PM: Are there any records that you have to take with you when you go on tour, or does it just depend on whatever’s with you at the time?
Iron and Wine: Honestly, I get kinda music’ed out. [Chuckles.]
Iron and Wine: I don’t know. … You know, I got an iPod. Pretty much everything I’ve got’s in there.
PM: When you’ve been playing these newer tunes with a greater variety of instrumentation — electric guitar, mandolin — have you encountered any difficulties live?
Iron and Wine: Ah, nah. I’ve enjoyed playing with the band for a while and bringing them along. We have the luxury of, if something’s not working with the whole band, we just strip it down and use one or two people. It’s kind of fun that way, to have that variety at your fingertips.