Around the time Sam Beam recorded his first album on a friend’s four-track, he never anticipated his whispery, haunting style would reach the live stage let alone huge popular acclaim. Indeed, when his label insisted he – now using the dietary-supplement inspired moniker ‘Iron and Wine’ – set off on his first tour, Beam initially felt very much out of his depth. ‘I just liked to make things, when I got the four-track that’s all it was – I took my hobby and made a physical recording. Our first shows were very difficult and a huge learning curve – I’d never played a single gig before.’
Listening to Iron and Wine’s latest album, Kiss Each Other Clean, you would be forgiven for not recognising the artist that first emerged in those records. Beam is fast gaining a reputation as an artist that is relentlessly innovative with his sound, both in his records and in live performances. He describes his latest record as centring around: ‘more complex vocal arrangements, horn sections and more obvious melodies’ – a description which almost doesn’t do justice to the sharp tangent he has taken in his style. Indeed, his latest offering shuns his distinctive minor-key progressions and deeply personal vocal style in favour of songs that draw from soul and funk traditions.
‘I love soul music, don’t you? I never want to put the same record out twice… I see music like food – why would you want to eat the same thing all the time?’ To look for the influences behind his increasingly broad sound, many naturally look towards his upbringing in the heart of the ‘Bible belt’ – South Carolina.
Whilst Beam does admit that this ‘pastoral’ upbringing has been consistently prevalent in his songwriting, he seems more eager to isolate the sounds – rather than the places – that have inspired him. ‘It’s a cliché but I grew up with the radio and my parents record collection.
The most dominant influences are firmly within traditional folk, but to be honest my listening habits are all over the place. I just want to incorporate as much as possible, and I’m so pleased to have the opportunity to do that.’
Before the unexpected success of Iron and Wine, Beam made films and was a lecturer at universities in Florida. It becomes clear that he does not draw a great distinction between the creative processes behind music and film. Laughing, he says ‘the key difference is that it’s a lot cheaper to make songs! I got into film making because I loved art in general. I found it a great way to expend my creative energy, and it was refreshing to be able to communicate visually rather than have to explain things. So when I started making music I suppose that I had to re-appraise that – although it’s great reconciling the two. We’ve made a few music videos… maybe I’d like to make a feature film one day.’
As someone who spent his early working life as a Professor in film and cinematography, one may be inclined to think raising his close association – at least for a significant proportion of his most recent converts – with the Twilight saga might provoke some hostilities. In fact, his response comes across more indifferent than anything. ‘I haven’t actually seen the movie… I’ve given a lot of songs to films, some of which people have heard of, some of which people haven’t. It’s fun to be a collaborator!’
Beam is reluctant to make any assumptions about the future: ‘All I can think of now is touring. I can’t think beyond our next show. But even now I’m working on songs, I’m never not doing that.’
Whichever direction Iron and Wine takes next is anyone’s guess, but it is evident that he is stubborn in his refusal to rest on his successes. As both a recording artist and live act Beam continues to pursue new directions, something which will no doubt make for some memorable shows when he hits the UK this March.