An interview with Iron and Wine’s
Sam Beam, the man behind Iron and Wine, went
to film school with my husband. Sam’s student films were
haunting — part Tarkovsky, part simple, visual music. One
short opened with the sound of an explosion over a black screen.
A man in a flight suit or space suit lay on the beach, dying. Some
children ran up to him, peering at him and laughing. At the end,
the man was still.
Even then, five years ago, Sam was working
on his music. When he played some of it for me in those days, it
came as no surprise that the songs were steeped in strong visual
images. The Creek Drank the Cradle, the Iron and Wine album
released by SubPop last year, is contemplative and melodic, but still
acutely visual. In “Upward Over the Mountain,” the speaker
tries to reassure his mother that he’s going to be okay. He’s “got
a coat and some friends on the corner,” he tells her. He and
his girlfriend “are planting together.”
||I’d wondered how he would
translate his gentle style and complex harmonies to the packed
house. It turns out there was no need to worry; the crowd fell
silent every time Sam strummed his guitar.
“So may the sunrise bring hope where
it once was forgotten,” he sings. “Sons are like
birds flying always over the mountain.”
I met up with Sam in February for his performance
at the Knitting Factory in New York City. I’d wondered how
he would translate his gentle style and complex harmonies to the
packed house. It turns out there was no need to worry; the crowd
fell silent every time Sam strummed his guitar. His sister, Sarah,
was there to help breathe life into the harmonies, and on “Upward
over the Mountain” they were joined by James Mercer of The
Sam names Nick Drake and J.J. Cale as his primary
influences, saying he admires their restraint. While I’ve
never seen Cale live I can imagine that when he toured for, say, Naturally,
he might have had the same low-key but commanding presence that
Sam has onstage.
Later in the show, during James Mercer’s
set, Sam added harmonies on a bang-up version of The Shins’ “King
of the Eyesores.” The crowd went crazy. A guy next to me
yelled into his cell phone — “Listen to this. No, just
fucking listen” — and held it up to the speaker.
You put together all the songs for The
Creek Drank the Cradle by yourself and then you landed
a deal with Sub Pop. Tell me a little bit about how that happened.
I’ve been playing music for about 15 years and recording
for about five. My friend Mike McGonigal published a zine called
Yeti and included my song “Dead Man’s Will” on
a compilation CD that he released with it.
I’ve read that The Creek Drank the
Cradle was culled from two full CDs of material that you
sent to Sub Pop. Did you have two albums’ worth of material
ready to go?
I had much more than that, even. I just threw a bunch of songs
together and we whittled them down to the ones we eventually released.
how’d you end up with the name “Iron and Wine”?
I was working on a movie at FSU [Florida State University] at this
country store and ran across a protein supplement called “Beef,
Iron, and Wine.” Seemed like an interesting grouping of words
without the “Beef” part.
You have a film degree and teach cinematography
in South Florida. Do you think your film background has influenced
Yeah, I think my experience with screenwriting has made me a much
more visual writer than I used to be.
Do you ever build a song around an image?
The melody generally comes first, but there are definitely exceptions.
I’ve been working on one recently called “Lake of
Fire” that started with an image and branched out from
There’s an intimate, almost whispery
quality to your music, but it’s chock full of harmony.
How are you able to preserve your harmonies and stripped-down
sound when you’re performing?
It’s pretty easy to strip the music down. In fact, we sometimes
strip them down more than what’s on the record. But the vocals
have definitely presented a challenge. My sister Sarah usually
travels with me, and also Jonathan Bradley, a friend of mine from
South Carolina. We basically just use the recording as a starting
point and do what sounds best using the three different voices.
You’ve named Nick Drake as an influence.
Drake was known for playing his songs the same way in every performance
once he felt he’d gotten them right. What’s your feeling
about this approach?
||I believe it’s safe to
say that Nick Drake didn’t like to perform for people.
His approach may have grown from that.
I can definitely see how that would be very comfortable, but I like
to change things up occasionally. I believe it’s safe to say
that Nick Drake didn’t like to perform for people. His approach
may have grown from that.
You’ve said in prior interviews that
living in South Florida has allowed you to focus on your music
without worrying about the intense scene you encountered back
home in the Carolinas. Is there any kind of music community in
I guess there is, but honestly I don’t go out enough to speak
with much authority about it. I’m quite a homebody. I like
being at home with my wife and kids.
Some reviewers have presented you as a Miami
native rather than a South Carolina boy. Do the people who make
this assumption ever question the authenticity of your work?
I have run into that a little bit but it doesn’t really bother
me. I’d like to believe that if people like the music, they
will support it.
What’s your feeling about the importance
of a musician’s background when he or she is taking up
a regional tradition? Gillian Welch puts out quality bluegrass,
for instance, but she hails from California. Does it make sense
for critics to challenge her work because she sings about the
Appalachians when she didn’t grow up there?
I think it’s a convenient stance to take in that it’s
an easy hook to hang a story on. Someone’s background is
definitely important when writing something similar, but not so
much that they should never try writing about something else. I
doubt Dante experienced the Inferno before he wrote about it.
Speaking of the Inferno, lots of your songs have references to
Christianity. In “Southern Anthem” you’ve got
Bibles burning; in “Upward Over the Mountain” you’ve
got a son admitting he’s lost “the fear of the Lord
[he] was given.” Is it too personal to ask about your own
relationship to Christianity?
I was raised in a Christian home, but now I’m Agnostic.
Do you miss South Carolina?
I have some really good friends there, and my family that I miss
desperately. Also, the seasons.
Think you’ll ever go back?
My wife and I talk about moving back sometimes, but it’s
hard to say if it’ll ever happen or not.
I love the etching on the inside cover of
your liner notes, that fragile naked woman with the bird on her
shoulder. How did you choose that image?
My wife drew it while she was in college. She’s really modest
about it, but I think she’s an amazing artist.
I know that you and your wife recently had
a baby, a daughter. Do you think fatherhood has influenced your
Arden has taught me a lot about myself, human nature and just how
fragile we are, among other things. That may sound really silly
but it’s very true. It’s hard to say how it has affected
the songs but it’s definitely a new perspective for me.
So what’s it like to be away from her
and your wife when Arden’s so young?
Tragic. Touring is, at the same time, the best and worst thing
that could ever happen to us.
Are you working on new material now?
When can we expect your next album?
An EP in the late summer, and I’m recording the next record
this summer, too.
Iron and Wine’s new EP, The Sea
and the Rhythm was released on Sept. 9, 2003 by SubPop.