Aspen Times Weekly Q&A: Iron & Wine
If You Go …
Who: Iron & Wine
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Tuesday, Aug. 11, 8:30 p.m.
How much: $40 GA; $80 reserved
It’s been a busy year for Sam Beam, the singer-songwriter who performs as Iron & Wine.
In February he released his “Archive Series Volume No. 1,” the first in what appears to be an ongoing set of recordings pulled off tapes that have been sitting in the proverbial drawer since before he broke out as the Iron & Wine, he of the hushed lullaby voice and the ubiquitous cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” The 16 songs on the album date from the solo 4-track recording sessions that created his 2002 debut album, “The Creek Drank the Cradle.”
Last month saw the release of “Sing Into My Mouth,” a freewheeling album of folky covers performed by Beam and Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses, including the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place,” Bonnie Raitt’s “Any Day Woman” and songs from artists as diverse as Sade, Unicorn and Pete Seeger.
After touring with Bridwell through July, Beam breaks off for a solo run that includes shows at Red Rocks Ampitheatre (Monday, Aug. 10) and Belly Up Aspen (Tuesday, Aug. 11). With just his guitar and his voice to use, Beam told me from a tour stop in Buffalo, he doesn’t change his approach much between a massive venue like Red Rocks and a more intimate one like Belly Up.
“With a crowd that big I try to play stuff they might recognize more so than when it’s a small crowd and you can really have a conversation with almost everyone in the room and twist the set list around to accommodate them and yourself,” he says.
Below is an edited transcript of the rest of our conversation.
Andrew Travers: Are you going to leave the ‘Sing Into My Mouth” material behind for the solo gigs?
Sam Beam: I’ll play some of it. That’s the fun thing about playing those solos shows. It can be spontaneous. Obviously Ben won’t be there with me, but the fun thing about it is that I can pull form the whole catalog. I can do a lot of requests. And I do a lot of those songs. I might even just make up some songs.
AT: That album’s a lot of fun. How did you hook up with Ben Bridwell and how did you pick the songs?
SB: We grew up in the same town [in South Carolina] and I was really good friends with his older brother. So I knew Ben but we didn’t really become friends until the mid-90s. We shared a lot of the same tastes and would share music with one another. So we’ve ben in each other’s musical lives for a long time. And he was the one to move to Seattle. He’s the one that got [the label Sup Pop] my music. So we had a lot to do with the beginnings of each other’s careers. This project was a lot of fun because we got to carry on that sharing of music.
As far as the songs, once we decided that’s what we wanted to do, we just started sending each other songs and saying ‘What about this one or this one?’ A lot of them have nostalgic value, or they’re things that we discovered at the same time. But there wasn’t any rhyme or reason to it. It was an intuitive process. They’re all just songs that we liked for one reason or another – songs that had stuck with us over the years or that we had heard recently. But there was a big stack of songs and we just got to a handful of them
AT: Which songs are connecting best live?
SB: On the album, they’re all songs that we have a heavier hand in transforming, because there was a discovery element involved. And that’s always exciting. That Bonnie Raitt song always slayed me. But it’s been interesting, this tour, when it started it was right when the record came out so people weren’t terribly familiar with it. They knew some of the stuff we’d put out on the information super highway. But the Talking Heads song is one that people are more familiar with in general, so they all knew that one.
AT: What made the collaboration with Ben work musically?
SB: I feel like I got lucky. Ben has this wildness to him and the music he makes, whether it’s the quality of his voice or the songs themselves. So it was fun to pair up with my – I don’t know how you describe it, but some people describe my voice as a warm blanket. [laughs] Like, you can put it on the craziest freak-out free jazz solo and it’ll tame it. So that was a fun pairing. We met each other in the middle.
AT: The “Archives Series” is a strong record. So many of those songs would have held their own on your albums. Why did you wait so long to release them?
SB: The first record [“The Creek Drank the Cradle”] wasn’t realty written as a record. I had been recording and writing music as a hobby for years. So those were just picked out of a bunch of song and made a record, but there was so much other material, and people have always been asking me about it. I really liked these songs, but by the time the first record came out I was already working on new songs. You know how artists are – we’re just into whatever we’re into at the time. So I released a few of them on the [2003 EP] ‘The Sea & The Rhythm” and then Calexico and I recorded some of them [on the 2005 EP “In the Reins”]. But it wasn’t like I was shying away from them, I was just always on to something else.
Just in the last year or so, I was looking at the calendar and I had a bunch of projects going on that were going to take some time to develop. It seemed like a nice window of time to put it out. It seemed like a time capsule rather than some kind of alternative to what I was doing. And I was in between labels, so it was a perfect little crossroads time to do it.
There was so much material, and i cant just put it all out at the same time. That’s just being a bad host. So it’s nice to have stuff to parcel out, and a vehicle to release live recordings – we have a lot of those from over the years with different bands, and a lot of cover songs from over the years.
AT: So we can assume there will be a volume 2, 3, maybe more in the “Archives Series?”
SB: Yeah, as long as people are interested.
AT: You’ve experimented with louder, more complex arrangements with full bands over the years since the early bare-bones aesthetic we hear on the “Archives Series” songs. Were you hesitant to look backward?
SB: Not really. I just saw it like your high school photo. If you try to hide your high school photo you’re in for a lot of frustration. They exist. And you have to embrace all the stages of your life. I like those songs. I don’t have to hear them, I never listen to them, but going back and listening to them was a real treat. Rarely do you have the opportunity to shake hands with yourself from 15, 20 years ago.
AT: Did any of the old songs surprise you?
SB: It was funny discovering my memory of some songs was different from the reality. There were songs that were successful in my mind and they turned out to not be so successful. And then other songs that I dismissed as an exercise were actually really touching and interesting. Your perspective changes so much over time.
AT: When you’re writing, does a song necessarily call for a full-band arrangement or a more stripped-down one? Or can you take it either way?
SB: They can go any way, it’s just up to you and what you’re into at the time. It’s not math. There’s no right or wrong answer. People can act like there is, but there’s not.
There are some sounds I’ve explored just because I wanted the challenge or because I was obsessed with that instrument or I had a lyric I thought could bring something new to the palate. I’ve been surrounded by talented musicians and sometimes I let what they do speak to me as far as what we want to achieve. Sometimes it’s just a new kind of music I’m into and want to incorporate into the Iron & Wine stuff. It’s always different.
AT: Before Iron & Wine, you studied and taught film. Have seen any good movies this summer?
SB: I haven’t had time to see movies lately, much to my displeasure. There’s a long list of things I want to see, but I guess I can’t do two things at once.
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