Sam Beam: from lone folker to jazzy funker

by Lisa Johnson

Iron & Wine

Iron and Wine
University Of Regina Theatre
Monday 23

Music critics often marvel at Iron and Wine’s transformation from solo indie-folk hero to a jazz-pop artist with a big backing band, but it’s been a steady evolution for songwriter Sam Beam since 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle.

“I don’t think any Iron and Wine record will be one genre. It’s genre potpourri at this point,” says Beam.

When we speak over the phone he’s in the midst of relocating from Texas to North Carolina. “Movin’ sure is fun,” he jokes.

This spring saw the release of Ghost on Ghost, Iron and Wine’s fifth full-length album, and it’s a mostly cheerful romp through poppy jazz, funk and R&B songs. It’s not the same hypnotic, lo-fi guitar folk Iron and Wine became known for, but it doesn’t feel like an unnatural departure.

Actually, Ghost On Ghost’s rambling lyrics, female vocal harmonies and energetic horns help make it the happiest, most upbeat Iron and Wine LP yet.

“It was a real joy to make — probably one of the most fun records I’ve made,” says Beam. “I’ve always enjoyed different types of music, and it’s taken me a decade to incorporate different things I like into what I play. I’ve been playing with a lot of jazz players lately, and that’s really fun. You’re searching for what makes you happy, and I realized that Motown always made me happy.

“We play what feels right at the time, and that’s what you end up with,” he says.

That isn’t to say that songwriting has become effortless.

“Inspiration is a bitch. It’s a wily bird, and doesn’t co-operate very often,” says Beam. “Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I have to write this down. Usually it’s tinkering with the melody, and you stumble upon a combination of words — and then you’re taking on a role or character. Some of them come quickly and some take a while.”

How does he tame this bird?

“I kind of treat it like a job,” Beam says. “Usually I’ll sit down in the morning, try to write. You end up working them over and over. It should be light and fun, so if it’s not working I’ll walk away. Sometimes it takes years.”

The approach apparently works. Ghost On Ghost’s lead single, “Grace for Saints and Ramblers”, rambles speedily along, recalling the melodies of Belle and Sebastian. On “The Desert Rambler”, you’ll hear disco-style strings, and the effect is infectiously weightless and cheerful.

Some tracks hearken back to old-form Iron and Wine, such as “Winter Prayers”, with its sweet, slow-burning falsetto hooks, and “Baby Centre Stage”, with those inevitably sad steel guitars. But then songs like “Grass Widows” interrupt the nostalgia with free-flowing instrumental jazz interludes and skittish drum fills.

Despite the fact Beam has licensed his songs across the commercial board — including to such lamentable films as The Lone Ranger and Twilight — no one would argue he’s let popularity deter him from making the music he wants to make. He doesn’t look to others for artistic cues. “I’m not necessarily an artist who needs someone to give them a direction; I’ve never been looking for a producer for that role,” he says.

That might help to explain why he’s had such a long-term musical love affair with producer Brian Deck. It began, Beam says, because he was a huge fan of Deck’s band Red Red Meat.

“We met on tour, struck it up with that second record [The Creek Drank the Cradle], which was the first record we did in the studio,” says Beam. “I feel like I tend to change what I’m doing from record to record, so it’s nice to have someone familiar with the history of what I’ve been doing instead of having to explain it.

“We have a kind of shorthand. He’s a great idea board for stuff; and he has great ideas,” he says.

These days, Beam is listening to Jesca Hoop, with whom he will play some gigs in the fall, along with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the soft-singing John Martyn, and Joni Mitchell. A hint at what’s up for Beam’s next album?

“You can’t hold me to it, but right now it’s a countrypolitan record,” he says. “But who knows? We did so much string stuff [with Ghost] that I might shy away from it. It’s still in the embryonic stage, so it’s hard to talk about.”