Planting Together

An interview with Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam

Sam Beam, the man behind Iron and Wine, went to film school with my husband. Sam’s student films were haunting — part Tarkovsky, part simple, visual music. One short opened with the sound of an explosion over a black screen. A man in a flight suit or space suit lay on the beach, dying. Some children ran up to him, peering at him and laughing. At the end, the man was still.

I’d wondered how he would translate his gentle style and complex harmonies to the packed house. It turns out there was no need to worry; the crowd fell silent every time Sam strummed his guitar.
Even then, five years ago, Sam was working on his music. When he played some of it for me in those days, it came as no surprise that the songs were steeped in strong visual images. The Creek Drank the Cradle, the Iron and Wine album released by SubPop last year, is contemplative and melodic, but still acutely visual. In “Upward Over the Mountain,” the speaker tries to reassure his mother that he’s going to be okay. He’s “got a coat and some friends on the corner,” he tells her. He and his girlfriend “are planting together.”

“So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten,” he sings. “Sons are like birds flying always over the mountain.”

I met up with Sam in February for his performance at the Knitting Factory in New York City. I’d wondered how he would translate his gentle style and complex harmonies to the packed house. It turns out there was no need to worry; the crowd fell silent every time Sam strummed his guitar. His sister, Sarah, was there to help breathe life into the harmonies, and on “Upward over the Mountain” they were joined by James Mercer of The Shins.

Sam names Nick Drake and J.J. Cale as his primary influences, saying he admires their restraint. While I’ve never seen Cale live I can imagine that when he toured for, say, Naturally, he might have had the same low-key but commanding presence that Sam has onstage.

Later in the show, during James Mercer’s set, Sam added harmonies on a bang-up version of The Shins’ “King of the Eyesores.” The crowd went crazy. A guy next to me yelled into his cell phone — “Listen to this. No, just fucking listen” — and held it up to the speaker.

You put together all the songs for The Creek Drank the Cradle by yourself and then you landed a deal with Sub Pop. Tell me a little bit about how that happened.
I’ve been playing music for about 15 years and recording for about five. My friend Mike McGonigal published a zine called Yeti and included my song “Dead Man’s Will” on a compilation CD that he released with it.

I’ve read that The Creek Drank the Cradle was culled from two full CDs of material that you sent to Sub Pop. Did you have two albums’ worth of material ready to go?
I had much more than that, even. I just threw a bunch of songs together and we whittled them down to the ones we eventually released.

So how’d you end up with the name “Iron and Wine”?
I was working on a movie at FSU [Florida State University] at this country store and ran across a protein supplement called “Beef, Iron, and Wine.” Seemed like an interesting grouping of words without the “Beef” part.

You have a film degree and teach cinematography in South Florida. Do you think your film background has influenced your music?
Yeah, I think my experience with screenwriting has made me a much more visual writer than I used to be.

Do you ever build a song around an image?
The melody generally comes first, but there are definitely exceptions. I’ve been working on one recently called “Lake of Fire” that started with an image and branched out from there.

There’s an intimate, almost whispery quality to your music, but it’s chock full of harmony. How are you able to preserve your harmonies and stripped-down sound when you’re performing?
It’s pretty easy to strip the music down. In fact, we sometimes strip them down more than what’s on the record. But the vocals have definitely presented a challenge. My sister Sarah usually travels with me, and also Jonathan Bradley, a friend of mine from South Carolina. We basically just use the recording as a starting point and do what sounds best using the three different voices.

I believe it’s safe to say that Nick Drake didn’t like to perform for people. His approach may have grown from that.
You’ve named Nick Drake as an influence. Drake was known for playing his songs the same way in every performance once he felt he’d gotten them right. What’s your feeling about this approach?
I can definitely see how that would be very comfortable, but I like to change things up occasionally. I believe it’s safe to say that Nick Drake didn’t like to perform for people. His approach may have grown from that.

You’ve said in prior interviews that living in South Florida has allowed you to focus on your music without worrying about the intense scene you encountered back home in the Carolinas. Is there any kind of music community in Miami?
I guess there is, but honestly I don’t go out enough to speak with much authority about it. I’m quite a homebody. I like being at home with my wife and kids.

Some reviewers have presented you as a Miami native rather than a South Carolina boy. Do the people who make this assumption ever question the authenticity of your work?
I have run into that a little bit but it doesn’t really bother me. I’d like to believe that if people like the music, they will support it.

What’s your feeling about the importance of a musician’s background when he or she is taking up a regional tradition? Gillian Welch puts out quality bluegrass, for instance, but she hails from California. Does it make sense for critics to challenge her work because she sings about the Appalachians when she didn’t grow up there?
I think it’s a convenient stance to take in that it’s an easy hook to hang a story on. Someone’s background is definitely important when writing something similar, but not so much that they should never try writing about something else. I doubt Dante experienced the Inferno before he wrote about it.

Yeah. Speaking of the Inferno, lots of your songs have references to Christianity. In “Southern Anthem” you’ve got Bibles burning; in “Upward Over the Mountain” you’ve got a son admitting he’s lost “the fear of the Lord [he] was given.” Is it too personal to ask about your own relationship to Christianity?
I was raised in a Christian home, but now I’m Agnostic.

Do you miss South Carolina?
I have some really good friends there, and my family that I miss desperately. Also, the seasons.

Think you’ll ever go back?
My wife and I talk about moving back sometimes, but it’s hard to say if it’ll ever happen or not.

I love the etching on the inside cover of your liner notes, that fragile naked woman with the bird on her shoulder. How did you choose that image?
My wife drew it while she was in college. She’s really modest about it, but I think she’s an amazing artist.

I know that you and your wife recently had a baby, a daughter. Do you think fatherhood has influenced your songwriting?
Arden has taught me a lot about myself, human nature and just how fragile we are, among other things. That may sound really silly but it’s very true. It’s hard to say how it has affected the songs but it’s definitely a new perspective for me.

So what’s it like to be away from her and your wife when Arden’s so young?
Tragic. Touring is, at the same time, the best and worst thing that could ever happen to us.

Are you working on new material now?
Yes, always.

When can we expect your next album?
An EP in the late summer, and I’m recording the next record this summer, too.

Iron and Wine’s new EP, The Sea and the Rhythm was released on Sept. 9, 2003 by SubPop.

LINK: Iron and Wine