Sunday, July 4, 2004

Songwriter of the South

UR Chicago
June 2004
(no link)

Iron & Wine's whispery frontman, Sam Beam, raises his voice to discuss his latest collection of Faulknerian sound -- hold the fury.

Two years ago Sam Beam was a film teacher who fooled around with a four-track tape machine in his free time. Now the sepia-toned singer/songwriter with a beard straight from Civil War photographs is back for another national tour in support of his second album on the label that brought you Nirvana.

Under the moniker Iron & Wine, Beam records gentle, anachronistic folk songs fit for a Deep South Nick Drake. Sumptuous harmonies dress up highly descriptive lyrics worthy of a man who until this year still taught cinematography at Miami International University of Art & Design.

"Cinder and smoke, some whispers around the trees / The juniper bends, as if you were listening," he half-sings, half-whispers in a particularly vivid example from his latest SubPop release, Our Endless Numbered Days. (The song, "Cinder and Smoke," is an "Adam and Eve kind of thing," Beam explains.)

"It's pretty intuitive, honestly," the happily married father of two says of his songwriting style. "A lot of people are just describing their feelings -- how many adjectives can you put on the word love? I try to push it a little bit differently."

While SubPop assembled The Creek Drank the Cradle from the original four-track demos, Beam sat down in a studio for his latest outing. With its evocative storytelling and quiet power,  Beam has proven himself to be a rare breed -- the lo-fi singer/songwriter who improves still further once he gets out of the bedroom and into the studio. While indie icons such as Lou Barlow and Liz Phair left much of their best work on hiss-laden cassettes, Beam has broadened his palette as gracefully as another melancholy troubadour, the late Elliott Smith.

Though the banjos and hushed vocals of the debut remain, augmented by backing vocals by Beam's sister, Sara, his lyrics are more character-driven, less confessional than that disc's first-person emotion.

"Even the ones that sound autobiographical weren't really autobiographical," Beam protests. "They're just stories. There definitely are autobiographical parts, but I think the sense that they're these sort of bedroom recordings really lends itself to making people think that it's more confessional than it is."

Thematically, Our Endless Numbered Days is a more mature take on Beam's Faulkner-esque depictions of Southern living and old-time religion.

"The first one has more of a rite-of-passage feel to the record," he muses. "This one is just more of a recollection, a pondering kind of feel. A rumination on mortality, on family, on life."

Lyrically and musically, Beam's songs are soaked in Bible Belt mystique, from his debut's "Southern Anthem" to the new "Sodom, South Georgia." Though he lives in Miami, Beam grew up in Columbia, S.C., to which he attributes his visible roots.

"It's a lot easier to comment on now that I don't live there," he says, pointing out that much of the Southern atmosphere comes from the banjos and slide guitars that twang throughout his music. "But a lot of the themes I talk about are pretty common to the entire country."

Beam basically stumbled into the music industry. A friend promoting another band played some Iron & Wine for the folks at SubPop, and the rest is indie history. With such a serendipitous path to success, Beam makes a point of trying to think of his music career more as a "hobby."

"I try to keep a certain perspective in my head," he notes. "If you take it too seriously, you end up writing road songs."

It sounds like Iron & Wine won't be covering Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" anytime soon. But Our Endless Numbered Days itself was recorded far from home -- in Wicker Park, as a matter of fact. The idea of the muggy, distinctively Southern sounds of Beam's music emanating from a frigid Chicago winter is tantalizingly ironic, but Beam and producer Brian Deck actually set the songs to disc last July.

"We went to the art museum and went down to the lake," Beam recalls of his Chicago experience. "Honestly, we were pretty busy."

Growing up, Beam wasn't always about songs that could have been culled from old Time/Life field recordings.

"When I really started to identify with music it was more like skate-punk stuff," he says. "Then in high school, Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd..."

It's not too far-fetched to imagine Beam as a young man listening to rock 'n' roll on the radio, rather than the faded myths of his own music. But what about his most distinctive feature -- that Robert E. Lee beard?

Beam chuckles. "I've had it for quite a while," he says. "It's out of pure laziness. A lot of men who have beards just don't like to shave."

What of men who don't like to shave, but whose girlfriends won't let them grow such in such facial topiaries?

Beam doesn't miss a beat: "Maybe you should reassess who you're dating!"


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