Iron & Wine and Calexico: Naked As They Came

“It’s kind of hard to put into words how having children changes the way you think,” Beam said. “It teaches you a lot about yourself. They kind of paint my perspective. I don’t write songs to them, just like I don’t write letters to people, but they do change your whole perspective. You start living your life for other people instead of yourself. It teaches you a greater connection between people. You walk around on the sidewalks and see that everyone’s in the cycle.”

 

Naked As They Came: Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam

By Sean Moeller

 

Think back to the last great hug you received. Spark the memory that leads you to the reason for needing the comfort. It must have been something bad, something serious—because that’s when a hug becomes more than a chest-to-chest squeeze, vacuous and drafty, all arms and no heart. What was it that you needed warmth from? Was it an unexpected phone call that meant a sudden illness or accident befalling a loved one? Was it the cooling of another’s feelings for you being unexpectedly grasped?

Now picture if you will the face of the person who gave you that embrace. If they didn’t bear a slight resemblance to a brainy lumberjack, with a bushy, brawny beard that offers a standing invitation to crumbs and sparrows for shelter, that hug could have been better. Maybe you were in a hurry, but your impatience took you to the wrong person. And who am I to really be sure? It could just be that Sam Beam sounds better equipped to deliver solace than anyone you could possibly have in your life. His records—though full of cripplingly sweet somberness and dark happiness—make the Floridian sound like the world’s greatest hugger, though there’s an outside chance that he doesn’t hold you long enough, or half means it, or can’t wait for the awkwardness to be over; hell, he might even have a weak handshake. However, I personally think it’s speculative and unhealthy to even think that way. Beam’s got it.

Beam is from Miami, the one that Will Smith doesn’t talk about at parties. Actually, it’s not the place that’s shaped the music that Beam writes and records under the name Iron & Wine, but Beam himself. He seems to come from a place that is all serenity. He seems the type to envy cats for getting to seek out the sunny patches of heat that poke through curtains and windows onto carpet, lying in them for hours and hours every day. He speaks like he’s always in a library and sings like he’s in an even stricter, quieter one.

“I guess I’m kind of laid back, but my wife might tell you a different thing,” Beam said by telephone from his home.

He gets up early in the mornings when he’s between tours, having to get his two school-aged daughters ready and off to school. He and his wife, Kim, just had their third daughter last year and fatherhood has given Beam even more of an understanding of the human connection that he’s found himself writing about continually since he released his debut record, The Creek Drank the Cradle, on Sub Pop Records in 2002, the indirect result of a Seattle friend passing a tape of songs on to another friend who was the editor of Yeti magazine. The song “Dead Man’s Will” was featured on a magazine CD compilation and Beam soon after got a phone call from the label (you know, the one that made Nirvana the band that Courtney Love sues on behalf of) with the desire to put his stuff out. Our Endless Numbered Days received wildly enthusiastic acclaim from journalists and music lovers alike in 2004, and this year’s Woman King EP was minialbum of similarly sparse tales of loves gone awry and charmingly chivalrous odes to women that have been left behind or dealt a raw deal.

“It’s kind of hard to put into words how having children changes the way you think,” Beam said. “It teaches you a lot about yourself. They kind of paint my perspective. I don’t write songs to them, just like I don’t write letters to people, but they do change your whole perspective. You start living your life for other people instead of yourself. It teaches you a greater connection between people. You walk around on the sidewalks and see that everyone’s in the cycle.”

Beam’s been writing songs for close to two decades now but has only been recording for a third of that time. Earlier in his career, after arriving in Florida from the Virginia Commonwealth Art School by way of his birthplace in Columbia, S.C., Beam focused more of his energy on film and cinematography. Up until two years ago, he was a professor of cinematography at the International Fine Arts College in Miami. He’s a man of few words, speaking in short and confident sentences lined with, amazingly enough, some form of naivety to what he does so beautifully for a living. It comes across that his gentle and precious poetry finds him as if by chance, in the way of an idiot savant. (Beam admits to reading a lot of Charles Simic; take from that what you will.) Novelist and former New York Press music critic J.T. Leroy says of Beam’s output, “Gorgeous music, but the brilliant lyrics seemed to be an accident or broadcast in from some frequency only musicians can hear. Like Bob Dylan says in the L.A. Times interview with Robert Hilburn, ‘It’s like a ghost writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away… You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.’”

“Inspiration is a weird bird, you know?” Beam said. “It kind of comes from all over the place. Sometimes songs come from stories I’ve heard and sometimes it’s just pure imagination. I don’t mean to be difficult, but it’s just hard to say. The recent stuff I’ve been writing, I guess is more politically inspired, but I don’t write political songs. It’s a lot easier, in hindsight, to say that a song was about such and such; I just don’t think about it that much. You kind of do it and move on. It’s easier to see inside a song after some time away from it.”

Playing the songs live, he said, rarely gives him any new insight or a peek at an alternate or hidden meaning. “Honestly, I’m trying to remember the words,” he admitted.

Out again for the second tour—in support of a collaborative effort called In the Reins made with Arizona friends Calexico as his backing band—Beam was able to take some of his older, unused songs and throw them into a blender, giving his accomplices the freedom to make them what he never thought they’d be.

“They were all older songs that I had lying around. They were quite older, actually, from around the time I wrote the first record. There were some I thought would be fun to have interpreted by their musical insights. That was kind of the spirit of the project,” he said. “We’d always kind of toyed with the idea of doing this. Playing with them [on the first tour] was, particularly, a lot of fun.”

For a long while, Beam made it a point in interviews to mention that songwriting was just a hobby to him. He was serious about it, but it wasn’t a job for him. He tries to forget that things have changed.

“I try to still approach it with the attitude that it is a hobby,” he said. “I just have an excuse when my wife wants me to wash the dishes. I like to use it.”

Who are we kidding? Sam Beam knows exactly what he’s doing.

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