Iron & Wine isn't so much an alter ego as a vessel, a container for songwriter Sam Beam to drop certain ideas into.
Perhaps the name most closely associated with his work, he can - and frequently does - step outside, recently partnering with Jesca Hoop on a curious set of collaborations.
Yet always Iron & Wine is softly calling. Heading into the studio last year with a set of close friends and collaborators, Sam Beam began sketching out material for something new.
Recorded at the Loft in Chicago - the Wilco-owned house of audio, no less - 'Beast Epic' is a wonderful return, boasting a warm atmosphere and gilded songwriting.
Easy on the ear yet striking a little deeper, 'Beast Epic' is led by an intriguing note from the American artist, in which he writes:
"I have been and always will be fascinated by the way time asserts itself on our bodies and our hearts. The ferris wheel keeps spinning and we’re constantly approaching, leaving or returning to something totally unexpected or startlingly familiar."
Thankfully, Sam Beam was able to give up a little of his time to Clash...
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The new record feels like a wonderful return to Iron & Wine terrain – does it feel that way for you?
I think so, yeah… I feel like I’m settling a bit. The dust is settling. I feel like it’s partly the age I’m at, where I’ve been experimenting a lot and kind of re-assessing, and relaxing the muscles I’ve been working for a long time. Letting them do what they do naturally. It still feels unique, but also familiar. I feel like I don’t really compromise on a lot – lyrics and things like that – so relaxing musically is just fine.
There’s a real warmth to this record.
Oh yeah. I played with a lot of friends that I’ve played with over the years – not altogether at one time, but in different configurations. So it was a lot of fun, a lot of laughing. It was pretty much an all-acoustic record, which I feel is quite important. I like a lot of electronic sounds, but this one… I was going for a certain kind of warmth, but also I feel like acoustic songs can feel a bit more human, and I felt like I wanted this one to wear its humanity on its sleeve a little bit more. It felt warm and nice.
Was it recorded live? Are these predominantly full takes?
Yeah, they’re all takes. There’s a smattering of overdubs here and there – mostly vocal overdubs, little harmonies. And just a few little things just because I still like headphone records! But for the most part they’re second or third takes. It always depends on the song – sometimes you hit on something quickly, and sometimes it takes a few minutes.
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I felt like I wanted this one to wear its humanity on its sleeve a little bit more.
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How did that relaxation method filter into the studio process? Was it a case of acknowledging and using mistakes, for example?
Sometimes! It’s funny… With that kind of thing there’s really no right or wrong answer. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of fickle. It’s like, you’ll get a meal and you’ll love it one day, but the next day it just won’t be what you’re looking for.
Takes are kind of the same way. What I did was – and what we all did, as a group – was say, this is what we’re looking for… a snapshot of what we’re interested in at the moment, and not worrying about whether it’s able to stand the test of time. Just finding a way to keep working and enjoy the moment. Be present in the moment, and not worry about what you worried about yesterday. Try to anticipate what you might want tomorrow.
And that is a matter of relaxing, I think, just releasing control. Not worrying about trying to cover every eventuality from what people would want from a take. It has a human quality to it, it moves me in a way, it has an emotional resonance, and it also has it’s human fallibility sometimes. I like mistakes in takes, so long as they don’t take you out of the field, I think. And so all that, you’re balancing all those desires into one take.
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How fresh was this material? Did you dip into those archives, or work with a blank slate?
I’m writing all the time. But most of these songs are newer. In fact, I tried to record some older songs, and we had takes of them but they didn’t really fit in the bunch. With these, some were older than others, but they’ve all been written since the last Iron & Wine record… which is usually not the case – usually there’s some old songs in the bunch. But these are all newer.
I had the songs, and I knew I wanted this open approach, but I didn’t have a terribly specific arrangement of things. So the improvisational aspect of the session was really fun. It keeps it fresh for me, hiring people who I know can bring something to the plate when asked. And that was a lot of fun. It removed it from this sense of accomplishing things correctly, or as you had in mind, it’s all surprise and fun… It was more about discovering a songs potential rather than performing it correctly or incorrectly.
Do you believe that songs simply have a time, where they just feel right?
I think so, yeah. I do think there’s a serendipity to it – you might have an older song that resonates with you. You never know what life is going to do to force things to have a different weight as it goes on.
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It feels like I’m considering my life at the moment...
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In the press note you mention discussing growing up from the perspective of having already grown up. Are we to take it that this material is reflective in that sense?
Well, it’s definitely a reflective record. An introspective record. It feels like I’m considering my life at the moment, the stories I’m interested in at the moment. But at the same time it feels like older records that I’ve made, it’s just the subject matter has been re-visited and presented in a different way. I guess it is reflective, yeah. I don’t really think about those things as you’re writing them – I just have to speak about it after!
I treat them like poems, in that you have to be in the middle of them, they’re central to your life as you’re writing them. And then you have to sort of explain where you were in your life!
The record was laid down between summer 2016 and January 2017 – was it constructed at a leisurely pace?
It was really just two sessions. We did a bunch last summer, and then went back and did a few more. We had a decent batch of songs. There’s a song on there called ‘Right For Sky’ which I wanted to try a different way, and so the second attempt was the one that ended up on the record. I recorded them with some other songs, just to see what another bunch of songs might add to the group. And so I think we did maybe four, five other songs. It was just really two sessions.
There’s a huge contrast between Chicago in summertime and Chicago in January…
Haha! That’s for sure. I mean, we did mostly mixing and stuff in the winter, which is a much more appropriate winter activity in Chicago, huddled up in the studio. But the Wilco loft is so cosy you wouldn’t know where you were – you feel like you’re in what the Beatles’ submarine was supposed to be like!
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How free were these takes? Did you have a defined direction in mind?
It would depend on the song. I mean, what I like to do is show them the form, the changes, and then see what happens, because that’s when you get some spontaneity. I’m interested in those kinds of things. But at the same time when you take time to develop something you can come up with something unique and interesting, so it would depend on the song. Sometimes it was only two or three takes, but others ended up at 12 or 13.
Can you think of one track that caused you such difficulty?
I think probably the most appropriate one would be ‘Right For Sky’. We did a version of it that had these bowed strings, and more of an R&B feel, but in kind of a dubbed out sorta way. It just didn’t feel like it fitted with the rest of the songs. The subject matter was almost central to this collection of songs, but sonically it felt like something that could have been on ‘Ghost On Ghost’. And it just didn’t feel right. So we went back a couple of months later, tried it a different way, and I think it was better for it.
That one… sometimes you go down a rabbithole and it feels good at the time, but sometimes it takes a few different attempts. You wonder, what are we actually trying to say? That is, until you get busy playing the songs and you all go down the rabbithole together. Sometimes it takes just stepping back, to say: what we’re actually trying to say is this.
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I feel like I stacked the deck...
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You act as producer on this album, too, which must add another layer of responsibility.
I’ve learned a lot over the years. I made a lot of records with Brian Deck and he taught me a lot over the years. I’ve produced here and there. I’ve worked with Tom (Schick) before, and he’s a really quick and really talented engineer. He’s a good producer in his own right.
I feel like I stacked the deck, in that all the players in the room are composers or producers in their own right, and we all get on the same page. We’re kindred spirits, as well, in what we tend to gravitate towards. So I felt like I kind of had six producers in the room, and we all just agreed on certain things.
Obviously, there’s lots of different types of producers, but I just didn’t feel like I needed that kind of help, that kind of sounding board to throw ideas across because the room was full of those kinds of people. And so it didn’t feel taxing, in a way, because everyone was listening and reacting and talking about what we were getting. It was kind of produced by the whole group.
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I’ve always been trying to push into some unfamiliar sonic territory...
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Do you think a record finds its own path, in a way?
Well, yeah – a record will be made, one way or another! At the end of the day you’ll have songs. Producer or no producer it can be serendipitous as to whether the session you’ve made connects with a listener, or many listeners. It depends on who’s receiving it, when the magic happens. There’s a lot of unseen forces involved, and you trust the good graces to give you something good.
What do you feel you learned from this record that you hadn’t learned before?
Oh, that’s a hard one! I still feel a little bit too close to this one. I definitely found it a really fun process. I’ve always been trying to push into some unfamiliar sonic territory to see where my voice could survive and thrive… to break it, before you put it back together. To see how it works. And I feel like this is one where that just wasn’t necessary. And I don’t feel like it was giving up, or being lazy.
I felt like I was simply enjoying what I’ve been doing along the way, and just learning to do what I do. I’ve been training the muscles to do this kind of record for a long time – so it was a fun experience.
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'Beast Epic' is out now.
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