Iron & Wine
“ You can’t predict public taste and you can’t keep everybody happy. They’re the two things I’ve learned, and you just can’t fuck with ‘em,” laughs Sam Beam.
The man otherwise known as Iron & Wine has just released his fourth full-length record, the somewhat difficult Kiss Each Other Clean. An album of clean, clear melodies, soft rock guitars and seventies harmonies, it is a far cry from the delicate folk that made Sam an indie star of wide international acclaim, though it does follow smoothly from his 2007 album The Shepard’s Dog. What was true of that record is true of this one – it grows on you, revealing itself slowly to the dedicated listener and subtly imprinting itself of your subconscious. It does take a bit of persistence, however, to hear past the adult contemporary twang and the occasional flush of funkified world music.
“I can’t help it,” Sam laughs, “I love that stuff. I like folk music and Jamaican music and African music, and just throwing it altogether. One thing we hadn’t really run with before was that sort of AM radio gold sound, but I love that stuff too. I love those mid-seventies Joni Mitchell records, Cat Stevens and Elton John, you know, when the Rhodes piano was used so prominently. We were fooling around with that stuff in the studio, and there comes a point when you start to recognise it. At that point you have a choice: you can either run with it and embrace it or try and move away from it. We decided to embrace it.”
The resulting album is very clever and incredibly diverse, from the minimalist beauty of lead single Walking Far From Home, to the Toto-style Africana of Rabbit Will Run, to the bizarre saxophone funk of Big Burned Hand. It’s ambitious music that is not designed to coddle fans.
“I don’t like to piss people off, and obviously I hope people enjoy the music, but I’ve learned not to try and make art based on what you think people will think,” Sam says evenly. “I went to art school, and learned very quickly what criticism is worth, doing creative work and putting myself up there to be critiqued, week in, week out. You learn that it’s not about what you end up making, it’s about the process of making it and staying invested in your own personal trajectory. So on the one hand, I hope people like it, but in the end… I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do, regardless.”
Sam doesn’t tend to read his own reviews, which is not to say he never hears them.
“My wife loves to read my reviews to me, which is always funny. But it doesn’t really help you one way or another. Sometimes it’s informative and you think, ‘yeah, that’s interesting,’ but most of the time, even if it’s a glowing review, it doesn’t help you put pen to paper. A really harsh review is obviously an ego blow, which can be very damaging, but a glowing review can make you too cocky, and then maybe you don’t try as hard as you should.”
Sam Beam’s voice is warm and gentle, and almost everything he says is punctuated with a chuckle, but there’s no missing the fact that he takes his art seriously. It’s his job, he says. Every day, after he’s taken his five daughters to school, he sits down in front of the piano with a cup of coffee, ready to write.
“If you do that fairly regularly, you end up with a lot of stuff,” he smiles, claiming that art happens by accident while you’re busy doing the work. “David Byrne said, ‘you’re not going to catch the bus if you’re not at the bus stop’ and I agree with him. Inspiration is a weird bird and it’s really great when it comes around, but it’s not very often. Songwriting is like any writing; it’s about re-writing and editing and shaping and shifting, and you can do that all day.”
Sam’s dedicated, workman-like process has left him with piles of songs, some of which have been lying around for years. The oldest song on the new album, Tree Of Life, has been kicking around for more than a decade, waiting for the weird bird of inspiration to sail overhead.
“I had the melody and the first line, ‘Maryanne do you remember the tree by the river when we were seventeen?’ But it had the tendency to get very saccharine and sappy, so it took me a long time to push through it. I always liked the melody though, so I stuck with it.”
When it came time to make Kiss Each Other Clean (a process that took nine months), Sam cherry-picked a handful of songs he had written over the years and let them take their final shape during the recording process.
“The idea of an album as this whole, complete project, it’s a trick, a ruse,” Sam argues. “I make an album when it’s time to make an album.”
This is not to say there is no theme.
“The last record, a lot of those songs were included because they had a dog image in them. With this one, a lot of the songs were included because they had a river in them somewhere… yes, it was that inspired,” he laughs. “Since I pull songs from so many different times in my life, I end up repeating images, just serendipitously or by chance. There was a river in so many different songs that I had written, and it was used in so many different ways; one time it was a force of destruction, and then next song it was a source of redemption or to illustrate the non-stop flow of life. It was fun to have the same image repeated so many times with so many different meanings.”
Sam isn’t sure why he chose water this time, but it’s not because a river rushes through his family’s Texan farm.
“Man, there’s no enough water here; it’s like a desert. I miss the water. It really makes me miss Florida. Maybe that’s why I’m writing so many songs about rivers – you always write about the thing you don’t have.”
IRON & WINE’s new album Kiss Each Other Clean is out now through Remote Control.