Nick Biggs talks with Iron & Wine about religious influence, film professorship and the joys of collaboration.
Over the last decade Sam Beam (or Iron & Wine, as he is better known) has become well known for writing songs about love, recording on a shoe-string, and his distinctive, melodic guitar picking. His new release, entitled Kiss Each Other Clean, reflects an unmistakable change in direction. On a cold winter evening I was lucky enough to question him on this, his ever-growing family, and plenty more besides.
I’m a little disappointed that you won’t be stopping by Glasgow on your forthcoming tour.
I know me too. I wish we were going to Glasgow, I love Glasgow, but you know, we’ll be back, we always come back.
It’s been almost four years since your last album. Have you been enjoying spending some time away from the studio?
Yeah, a couple of people have said that. Has it been that long? It seems like yesterday we put the last one out. But yeah, we’ve just been busy touring and we put out that compilation record called Round The Well, a collection of B-sides and rarities, then working on the new record, and we had another child. You know how it is, life goes on and you stay busy.
You have five children now, all girls. Has being a dad affected how you work?
That’s right, yeah. It’s definitely been harder carving out time for music, but I treat music like a job. I have a lot of fun at my job but at the same time you have to apply a certain amount of discipline to it. For instance, I take the kids to school, then come home, go the studio and work some, and keep going ‘till it’s time to pick up the kids from school. You treat it like punching a card. I always liked the idea of the old Brill Building where people went to write songs for other people to sing.
Uncut magazine describes your new album as capturing your ‘evolution from alt’ country dependable to sonic pioneer.’ Is that a fair description?
Well, [laughing] I guess. I don’t like the idea of putting out the same record twice. Because, that’s no fun, right? No fun for me, or for the listeners I don’t think. Because to be entertained means you need something to come along to make it interesting. So with each record I’ve tried to push things along into a new area that I haven’t explored yet. Luckily that early stuff was so minimalist and raw that I have a lot of places to go.
You have a lot more money for the recording process now than in those early days. Has that been a help to the recording process, or has it sometimes felt like a hindrance?
Well, the songwriting is really kinda the same. I’m a slightly different person after ten years, a lot of the early songs were love songs, but they’re still as heavy and light. I’m still doing portraits and poems on life. You embrace the happy and the sad, the beautiful and the terrible. As far as money goes, I was able to buy a studio, where I can make more and different kinds of sounds that I used to be able to, but you know, sometimes it’s good to work with a handicap, with an obstacle. The Creek Drank the Cradle sounds the way it does because I had to borrow a four track, guitar and banjo. You make the best of what you have. Money doesn’t necessarily make anything easier or harder, you just have different tools. I use it on different tools.
Over the years you’ve worked with various musicians, probably Calixico most notably. Have you enjoyed collaborating?
Calixico in particular was a big learning experience for me, I was really learning how to work with other people. I wasn’t shying away from it before that, but I didn’t have a lot of experience with it. Then when that record came along I was thrust into a room with other people, but luckily they were really talented, generous people, they’re still like family to me. I learned a lot about collaborating and I’ve been doing it with different people ever since then. It moves making music into an exploratory thing, instead of just a translation of your ideas, of what’s going on inside your head. Instead of that you start trying to explore different options and the fun is being surprised with what you end up with. Music is fun to play by your self, but it’s a lot more fun to play with other people.
Exploration of community has always been a binding aspect in the folk tradition. Is that a tradition you feel you have ever been a part of?
I don’t really think about it one way or another: I just right songs. I can definitely see why people would listen to the old records and think so, the acoustic guitar and banjo signifiers are certainly there, but hopefully these songs can exist in other contexts too. I try to write songs that can just exist, that have an intrinsically valuable quality.
How did you decide on the title of your new album, Kiss Each Other Clean?
Well, it’s a lyric from the last song on the record – “The happy kids who kiss each other clean” – the record in general embraces the good and the bad, the sour and sweet, the hard and soft, pretty and ugly, so they’re fairly heavy tunes at times. But this record’s a little more upbeat, major key, almost danceable at times, so yeah, it’s almost like bad news with a wink, or with a spoonful of sugar. I wanted a title which showed both of those sides. Kiss Each Other Clean is a phrase that doesn’t mean anything. It feels positive, but with an undertone of something darker – that you’re dirty, that something’s fucked up.
Religious imagery crops up throughout the album. Is your music in anyway an expression of faith?
I’m not a religious person, but I grew up in a religious place, and religious characters were the characters we learned. They were taught to us to teach us our moral lessons, our equipment for life, so I learned to use them. Religion is a big part of the world, it’s part of human everyday life, but I’m not religious myself.
So would it be it fair to say your songs are reflective of your childhood?
Yeah, there’s bits and bobs from stuff that was classic pop radio when I was a kid, like Fleetwood Mac and Elton John, much more on the surface of this collection of songs than it ever has been before. But at the same time there’s an equal measure of synthetic music, African music, jazz – there’s a bit of everything thrown into the pot.
You were a film professor in earlier life. Do you think about visual elements at all when you’re writing songs?
There are definitely some connections. In screenwriting you’re limited to a description of action and dialogue, which makes for a real visual writing style. I don’t necessarily write songs to be like screenplays, but I feel like I was drawn to writing screenplays and drawn to writing songs because that’s a communication form that I like. It’s a more suggestive form of writing than to simply argue or explain a point. The audience can cooperate with you, be a bit more engaged because they can make their own assumptions about what things mean rather than if I’m explaining emotion or argue people should be one way or another. It’s much more fun to describe a place, a story, or something that happened. Explaining it isn’t so much fun.
Are you pleased with how the new album turned out?
To be honest I haven’t searched out a lot of reaction from the fans. My mum said she likes it though. That’s good enough for me.