Singer And The Endless Song: Iron & Wine

"I think that’s what people try to strive for..."

Sam Beam has a plan. Each day, he takes his kids to school, passing the early morning traffic before returning to his house. There – secluded, alone – he is able to relax, create; pouring himself into countless songs, writings and paintings as he does so.

It’s a effortlessly sweet, quaint picture. Yet this is seemingly Sam Beam’s working method – instead of focussing on reaching enough tracks to fill an album, he simply hones in on the craft of the song. “I do think it’s important to be there, put the time in and treat it like a job” he tells Clash on the phone from his home in Texas. “That doesn’t sound fun but I really enjoy it. Like I said – some days are better than others, for sure.”

New album ‘Ghost On Ghost’ definitely feels unforced, feels relaxed. In comparison to, say, the expansion of ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ this new effort appears to be the work of an artist who has reached a new plateau. “I mean, I could’ve gone in and done a quick record before but I felt that those records were more about developing as an arranger, and also learning to use the studio as an instrument. They were necessary adventures” he states. “Rarely are my first ideas my best ideas. It’s sort of like developing, making a painting. This one, I don’t know maybe it was just from the experience of working on those records. You get cocky and think you know what you’re doing!”

Gathering up a selection of demos, papers and chord changes, Sam Beam entered the studio last year. Making use of pre-production, his association with Brian Deck allowed this Iron & Wine project to flow effortlessly. A tightly run ship, album sessions were carefully planned to allow Beam to get the most out of an admittedly impressive list of musicians. “We had some pretty developed demos going in so I feel like people got the feel pretty quickly” the songwriter explains. “They are also some really talented musicians, these are some really experienced session musicians. You don’t have to explain a whole lot. You can get an idea across very quickly.”

Seemingly, once album sessions were kicked off the recordings which would become ‘Ghost On Ghost’ fell into place almost effortlessly. “It was recorded really quick. The last two records.. it was sort of the blessing the curse of the home studio, I had spent the better part of a year – over nine months – doing the last two. With this one we went in for a week and did the rhythm section and stuff, and then came back about a month later and spent another week doing another section – the strings, the horns, the back up singers – and then we were done. We did all those tracks in two weeks. Then we spent another two weeks mixing, but all in all it was completely the opposite to the last two records, which was really great” he sighs, before adding: “This one was almost like a victory lap. I’m kind of an impatient person. I like putting the time in, and doing it but also.. I’m kind of impatient. It was really nice to be done quickly – I like it.”

In a curious way, Sam Beam has almost pursued his career in reverse. Whereas most artist start off with a ‘live’ feeling album then become more baroque, Iron & Wine have breached a period of studio complexity in favour of something simple, natural. Clash puts it to Sam Beam that perhaps this is due to finding a sense of confidence within the studio walls. “I guess, maybe” he demurs. “It also has to do with prioritising. You get the best sounds that you can going in, try to bring up something fresh in the mix and after that you’re really just spinning your wheels. It’s a diminishing returns, kinda thing, where you keep putting in work but you’re really not changing that much. So just accept losing sleep and obsessing over little things that don’t really matter. And so, I’ve definitely become a lot more hands off!”

As beautifully recorded as ‘Ghost On Ghost’ undoubtedly, is the broad sonic sweep of Iron & Wine’s music can sometimes disguise Sam Beam’s wonderfully wrought lyrics. Even down to that title, which nods towards the theme binding together these disparate tracks: “There seemed to be this recurring couple – not necessarily the same couple – but I had a bunch of songs which had this sort of central couple” he explains. “It was usually this couple against the world, working together. This couple idea kept on coming up. They were the central characters in these little dramas. So I collected those and put them on the cover, and the title even has something to do with their relationship.”

Far from a concept album, ‘Ghost On Ghost’ resembles the paths of comets racing through the solar system – as far as they stray the sun is always there to anchor them, to allow them to return to within sight. “I mean, I like cohesiveness” Beam admits. “I like listening to songs as a piece. There’s a lot of that ‘Sergeant Pepper’s’ idea, where they don’t really have anything to do with another but you say they do and so people listen to ‘em like that. I liked that idea, to find little through-lines, serendipitous little repeat phrases to pull songs together. It’s fun. I mean, I try to make each song stand on its own because that’s how people listen to music these days. At the same time I like the idea that if someone wants to delve a little deeper and absorb it on the whole they’ll have something to hold their attention in that regard.”

Musing on the word play at work on the album, Clash points to one song in particular. ‘Singer And The Endless Song’ appears to represent an artist musing on his craft, with Sam Beam reflecting on the cyclical nature of songwriting – music is literally passed from one singer to the other. Yet there is another meaning; perhaps the Texan artist is driving towards something pure, something indefinable yet utterly recognisable. “I pursue them like poems, but it’s more about discovery than really jotting down ideas that I have. My philosophy on life?” he reflects. “It’s not that, by any means. I think you’re definitely trying to pursue something which is surprising or – like you said – has a ring of truth. You can hold it up in the mirror and recognise it even though you didn’t know it was actually there before you wrote it down. I think that’s a noble pursuit in the arts in general, not just in songwriting. I think that’s what people try to strive for.”

Photo Credit: Craig Kief

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'Ghost On Ghost' is out now – check out the Clash verdict HERE.

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28 London Barbican
29 Dublin Olympia Theatre
30 Manchester Opera House
31 London The Barbican (SOLD OUT)

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