Sam Beam, singer/songwriter, Iron & Wine
A really valuable lesson I learned early on was that critiques can be so vicious and harsh but it’s just people’s opinions about what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s not – whether it’s really critical or really supportive, it doesn’t really help you put the pen to paper ...
When it comes to longevity, Sam Beam knows a thing or two on the subject. The U.S. raconteur has spent more than 15 years writing and releasing music under the name Iron & Wine, creating a folk-infused legacy worthy of legendary status. A storytelling ability comparable to the greats (think Nick Drake, Elliott Smith and Neil Young) coupled with his haunting voice have seen his career weather the test of time. From defining moments in films to the soundtracks to your favourite TV shows, odds are you’ve come across Sam’s work before. For the first time ever, Sam is bringing his full band to Australia to explore the entire breadth of his extensive and varied catalogue live on stage. We chatted to Sam ahead of Iron & Wine’s one-off show at QPAC about new fans, musical McDonald’s and how to deal with criticism.
What sort of music did you listen to growing up?
I was kind of an omnivore – I listened to everything! We went to church a bunch so I didn’t realise at the time but hymns played a big part in my musical upbringing early on. My parents listened to a bunch of 60s RnB which was a big deal, and country music was always around. I grew up in the 80s and 90s and listened to a lot of punk rock and alternative rock’n’roll – jazz and classical were big holes for me that I had to fill in later but it was nice to have that big, broad, beautiful continent to explore.
Your style is rooted in the folk genre, which is of a deeply narrative nature. When did you figure out that you wanted to be a storyteller?
I’m not actually sure I’ve figured that out yet, I’m just kind of winging it! I always liked the wordy songwriter people and I like stories. My first creative passion was drawing and painting because I went to art school, but music was always around which is pretty common for creative types. Then I got into filmmaking because I liked writing and I liked taking pictures and I liked music, and they sort of fit. The music stuff kind of fell in my lap – I was doing it as a hobby and then it got some attention and it seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up so I jumped on it. I never really thought about what type of songs I should write – there are so many songwriters out there to draw inspiration from that it was more about finding my own voice, but I definitely like the wordy people. The Joni Mitchells and the Paul Simons of the world.
Your inclusion in the first Twilight movie was a huge exposure point – how did the sudden influx of new fans affect the way that you approach writing music?
It didn’t really put pressure on me to change what I was doing and it definitely didn’t hurt exposure-wise – all of a sudden there’s all these new people at your shows, and it was great! I feel like coming from an art school background kind of prepared me as much as it could have – because we’re still artists and we’re still sensitive to how people react to our stuff – but a really valuable lesson I learned early on was that critiques can be so vicious and harsh but it’s just people’s opinions about what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s not – whether it’s really critical or really supportive, it doesn’t really help you put the pen to paper. I learned that lesson early and you have to remind yourself over and over again but I did have some experience putting my work out for people to judge. I realised the value of those judgements and how unhelpful they can be.
In that vein, over the course of your career there have been switches in genres and directions – was it intimidating changing your style up knowing that fans were used to a certain sound?
It’s a lot to put on the line, but at the same time I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do. I don’t really know how to anticipate what people like – there are definitely things that I’ve put out that I thought people were going to love that were responded to with a collective shrug. On the other side, there were things that I was just doing because I needed to do something that ended up being absorbed in this really powerful way. I don’t know how to anticipate those things so I don’t really try to anymore. It’s a big gamble because you’re depending on people liking you for your livelihood but you can’t really predict how it’s going to be received – if you give them what you understand that they’ve liked before it’s not entertaining because it’s the same thing. Then they know exactly what they’re doing to get and that’s no fun for anybody – especially me. It’s like musical McDonald’s. Some people do look for that in their music but as someone making it I need to stay engaged, so I need to keep poking around the corner and trying new stuff.
You’ve collaborated with people like Ben Bridwell and Jesca Hoop to make albums together. How did these pairings come about?
Ben and I grew up in the same town so we’ve been friends since we were kids. We both helped each other out early on in our careers – I got a call from Sub Pop because Ben was working with a band in Seattle and put my stuff in their ear. Then when Band of Horses started out I took them on tour to do what I should as a friend (and because their music is great). We try to keep up with each other but this was an excuse to get together, make a record and have some fun like we used to.
With Jess, I’d been looking for a writing partner to make a duets record with because I love that format. Most songs are just a monologue with one person standing on the stage telling you a story. With a duet, all of a sudden it becomes a play – subtext is involved and it’s just a richer place to write from. It was really fun – I’d never really written with someone else and I’d always wanted to so it was really inspired.
Speaking of collaborations, who is at the top of your wishlist of people you would love to perform with?
It’s a long list! I did a record with a band called Calexico a few years ago and we’re talking about getting back in the studio again sometime soon so that should be fun.
In the 15-odd years that you’ve been releasing music, there have been some huge social and political shifts both in America and globally. On what level has this affected your music?
That’s hard to quantify – it definitely affects me as a person but I’ve also lived 15 years of my life in that time. I’ve had children and all these things outside of politics have happened. I made a comment about a record I did called The Shepherd’s Dog which was a reaction to Bush being re-elected at the time and everyone started calling it a political record when it wasn’t – it was a personal record and the events affected me on a personal level. I realised that I didn’t understand the culture or the people around me and so it played out in this record. It added a surreal, unsettled feeling to the songs. I think I’ve been doing that ever since. Some albums are sweeter than others but there are undercurrents of several things happening at the same time – if you have several balls in the air during one song you’re usually in a good place.
On a more personal note, what events within your own life have had the most significant impact on your work?
I started having kids right around the same time I started releasing music – kids teach you more about yourself than you’ll ever learn about them and it makes you face yourself which is always helpful when you’re writing personal work. It affects you so deeply as a person so hopefully it affects your writing!
You’re coming to QPAC in May, which is extra-exciting because this is the first time you’ve played with a full band here. How does having access to a band change the way you craft a setlist?
This band in particular, we approach it kind of orchestrally – we have a five-piece with a cello, bass, piano and drums so we can kind of play whatever. It’s hard to find a setlist where we get to play everything that we want to play because there’s so much fucking music at this point! We try to play songs from the whole catalogue but the nice thing about having a band is that it’s just so much fun being able to play with other people instead of just sitting up there by yourself. That’s fun too – it’s easier to connect with the audience when it’s just me, but at the same time it’s so nice to have that dynamic to play with and having other people to play off. We inspire each other. I do carve out a little time to do some solo stuff, but other than that we play the old stuff and new stuff – it changes from night to night.
Sam Beam is playing as Iron & Wine at QPAC for one night only on Wednesday May 30 – you can grab tickets here.