Sam Beam has been making music as Iron & Wine for nearly a decade now. His earliest records, beginning with 2002′s The Creek Drank the Cradle, were quietly potent affairs, steeped in muggy summer air and swathed in kudzu like so much of his native South Carolina. Beam sang quietly on those self-recorded albums, delivering love letters and poetic anthems in a voice that wavered somewhere between a murmur and a falsetto. Over the years, though, he’s added bandmates, upped the volume and become ever more comfortable with piecing unlikely sonic textures around his increasingly surreal, fever-dream-riddled lyrics.
His latest album, Kiss Each Other Clean, was recorded both in Chicago as well as Beam’s adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, and it straddles that geographic divide in its sound: elemental, dust-caked worldliness butting up against the sparkling inorganic wonder of synthesizers, skronking jazz horns and electronic tweaks and bleeps. And in the middle of it all is still his voice, tinged with an edgy longing but deeply consoling despite itself.
Beam recently talked to eMusic’s Rachael Maddux about getting louder, the trouble with peacocks and the glory of free eggs.
What struck me about the new album was how far you’ve come from the early ones, where you got pegged as a really low-key, strummy guy.
[laughs] They were low-key, strummy records, weren’t they?
I was wondering how, in your mind, you got to this point of making this big album with, like, synthesizers.
There were a lot of things going on at the time. One, I was making the most of what I had, which wasn’t really that much, you know, a borrowed four-track in my spare time. I had a guitar and I had a banjo. So it wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine them being arranged this way, it was just that’s what I felt was appropriate at the time, especially because some are love songs and some grew around the idea of a Southern anthem and stuff like that. It seemed more appropriate for me to whisper and to do it quietly than it would for me to scream and shit. [laughs] So over the years, you don’t want to put out the same record twice, you keep trying to push yourself into new areas. I couldn’t get any quieter so we went louder. [laughs]
I was wondering, since this is your first record for Warner Bros., if being on a bigger label helped with the resources and the time needed to record.
No, actually. They came in later, after I was finished. The only record that was paid for in advance was the Our Endless Numbered Days record. The rest of ‘em I’d always just made and then brought it to the table to see who wants to put it out.
The lyrics for “Walking Far From Home” really struck me, because it’s basically a list of images. There’s not really a specific chorus. Just reading them all on the lyric sheet was kind of overwhelming. It sounds like some kind of bizarre dream that was just transcribed. I was wondering how you formed those images and what they meant to you.
I mean, anybody could do it if you sit long enough. You just start listing things. Like any writing, it’s a lot more about shaping and editing than anything else. Inspiration is tough. It’s great when it’s around, but it doesn’t come around all that much. There were hundreds of images you could come up with, picking up the ones that had the most emotional weight, the ones that had some kind of moral root, some emotional compass. The images that have both of those things are the best, because they’re complex. The easiest way is to start with what you know and then to start fantasizing and making up shit. Then you write some of it in contrast to other stuff you’ve written on the list. But yeah, I couldn’t figure out a chorus or a bridge. Sometimes you end up saying, “Is that working?” And you just run with it. So it turned into sort of an Eastern mantra, kind of a repeating thing. It works kind of like life: you end up observing all these things. Some of them are great, some of them are scary and some of them are neither. But you just keep collecting and collecting over time and they all kind of meld together and you lose track. Then, when you step back, they all seem like one big picture. It felt like life — like the life journey.
For this song and throughout the album, it feels kind of like an apocalyptic thing. It feels like something has shifted and things are not quite the way they were. I was struck by the lyric about the bird falling ‘like a hammer from the sky, ‘considering the birds that died in Arkansas recently, which made everyone think, “Oh, the world is definitely ending now.” [laughs] That lyric is probably two or three years old. But yeah, it just happened, and it’s weird that it would happen as we put the record out. Very strange. But it was unintentional. But you hear about birds a lot because they have just a primal connotation for freedom or fragility. It’s like a spirit, like a spiritual version of us that doesn’t have to walk on the ground. So it’s like a falling angel almost, when a bird falls like a hammer.
I was going to ask you about peacocks. Is the peacock in your press image your personal peacock?
No, my neighbors have some peacocks. We have some chickens and we looked into peacocks, but they’re expensive. And you also have to get them as babies. You have to get the eggs and hatch them, because if you just buy them as adults they’ll leave. They don’t stay. They’ll just take off to find some other peacocks, so you can’t keep them. But if you handle them as eggs, they’ll stick around forever. I just find them really beautiful and exotic. They’re so exotic and surreal to me, so I put them on the cover with all the other psychedelic stuff.
Do you have other farm animals?
Not at the moment. We have some cats. We used to have some little goats but the mountain lion got ‘em. It was scary. It’s not like a working farm, but fresh eggs are awesome. We just have chickens. Chickens aren’t that hard to raise, they don’t require a lot of maintenance.
I know some people in Atlanta that’ve started keeping them, even in the city, and it just sounds amazing that you’d have free eggs.
It’s great. The eggs are awesome, and you don’t feel bad ’cause you never have to throw away food ’cause they’ll eat anything.
Do they respond well to music?
Chickens? I dunno, I’ve never tried it.
I love the very last track, “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me,” how structurally it’s basically a song within a song.
It was two songs, originally, and the lyrics kind of let me to join the two. The dream of the kids kissing each other and climbing on cars and calling themselves together singing in the weeds feel like contrasting images, but they acknowledge that we’re both sides of the coin. No matter how good we try to be, we’ll always be doing something bad. No matter how bad we’re being, we’ll always be in someone’s favor. And it kind of becomes like the first [track], when you’re beaten over the head with so many images that you lose track. The sweet and the sour, we’re always the hard and the soft, we’re always the hammer and the nail. So we’re always both sides at the same time. We’ve always been like that, we are now, we’ll always be like that.
There’s a lot on this record — a lot of birds and a lot of singing and a lot of kissing.
I guess those are three pretty good things.