Back to playing all by his lonesome self for an in-studio concert at the Current (89.3 FM) in April, Sam Beam let the audience in on a little secret. Or at least it was a secret until recently.
"I like to make fun records," said the singer/songwriter with the adopted stage name Iron & Wine. "Contrary to popular belief."
Talking by phone a month later, Beam turned that funny aside into a serious discussion about the bold but entirely natural sonic evolution Iron & Wine has made over the course of four albums and as many EPs. What started as a stark, hushed solo/acoustic act has turned into a plush mini-orchestra on his latest CD, "Kiss Each Other Clean."
Among the many explanations for why his sound has expanded so drastically, the best is a simple one, Beam said: It's more fun making records like this.
"I don't necessarily enjoy playing concerts, although that has gotten more fun with a band," he said, with a soft, friendly drawl. "But the one thing I always have enjoyed is making records and being in that creative environment. And that has become a lot more enjoyable having other people involved.
"I certainly don't want to make the same record twice. That's no fun."
A turning point came when he teamed up in 2005 with Calexico, Arizona's great borderland rock band, for a lush five-song EP, "In the Reins," which many fans (this writer included) still consider Iron & Wine's most concisely brilliant effort to date. Since then, he has continued recording with Calexico's members along with his ever-expanding tour band and other guests such as neo-classical arranger Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett and former Wilco member Leroy Bach.
"I feel blessed and lucky because they were so open and up for doing anything," he said of Calexico. "Up to that point, it was always just me trying to interpret what was going on in my head. I realized other people can do that, too. It's a hard thing to do, rare that you come away satisfied. They really opened my eyes to how much fun" -- there's that word again -- "it can be to collaborate and make records with different people."
Beam, 36, grew up in a conservative South Carolina suburb replete with nondescript subdivisions and mega-churches (Christian imagery permeates his songs). Since then, he has bounced around geographically as much as musically. He went to school in Richmond, Va., and was living in Miami when he was signed to Sub Pop Records on the basis of some demo recordings that became his debut album, 2002's "The Creek Drank the Cradle."
When his second album cemented his indie-folk hero reputation, Beam and his wife relocated to Dripping Springs, Texas, a scenic ranch town outside Austin where Willie Nelson staged his first of many infamous Fourth of July Picnics. They wound up with about five acres -- and five daughters.
"Ask me what it's like in 10 years, after we've gone through the teenager stuff," Beam cracked when asked of his nest of chicks.
Beam has continued laying out extra acreage in his music, too. His previous album, "The Shepherd's Dog," seemed to be the ultimate transformation, but Beam has taken it even farther on "Kiss Each Other Clean." In previous interviews, Beam has said the new album's more poppy and polished sound was based on "the songs we heard in our parents' car growing up," meaning '70s hits by the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Paul Simon.
It's just a coincidence, however, that this record also marks Iron & Wine's deserved jump from indie haven Sub Pop to corporate label Warner Bros. (which is still living off Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours"). In fact, Beam said Warner Bros. did not enter the picture until after the record was finished.
"All of my records except the second one have been self-financed, and then when they're done I sit at the table and talk with whatever label is interested," he said. With a chuckle, he added, "I don't know what a label might tell me to do to change my music anyway."
Is it a band or man?
Iron & Wine has already enjoyed mainstream exposure thanks to a pair of big-selling movie soundtracks. His song "Such Great Heights" was featured in "Garden State," and Kristen Stewart herself recommended "Flightless Bird, American Moth" for the first "Twilight" movie. In both cases, Beam said, "We were just chugging along, and then this one thing comes along that gives us another boost and brings a bunch of young, new faces to our show. That's great. Obviously, any artist wants to replenish their audience, and keep 'em coming."
Throughout all the musical changeups and career bumps, one thing that has stayed relatively unchanged is Beam's evocative, intimate songwriting style. Underneath the organ and saxophones on "Kiss Each Other Clean," you can still hear the scenic, weather-soaked vignettes and innocence-lost, solace-found themes of his first album, especially in the sunrise-like opener "Walking Far From Home" and the elegant single "Tree by the River."
He started writing the latter song almost a decade ago -- a fact he laughed at when asked the origins of its youthful lyrics: "Mary Anne, do you remember the tree by the river when we were 17? / Dark canyon road, I was coy in the half-moon / Happy just to be with you, and you were happy for me."
"All my songs usually borrow from my own life but pull from fantasy or other people's stories that you hear, or something you read," he said. "It's fun as a writer to pull from all those different places, and to connect them. But also, I don't have an interesting enough life to strictly pull from that."
His apparent self-disinterest also explains how he wound up using Iron & Wine for a moniker ("a lot more interesting on a marquee than 'Sam Beam,'" he said). With the continued expansion of his music, though, it raises a question: Is Iron & Wine still one man's stage moniker, or is it a band name?
"Well, it's a band with one permanent member," he replied. "I mean, it's always been me. But more and more, the name has come to involve other people, and that's undeniably a big part of it now."
- Chris Riemenschneider
- Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib