INTERVIEW: Iron & Wine Artist Sam Beam On His Latest Collaboration

After first gaining the attention of music lovers around the globe with his gentle, acoustic bedroom recordings in 2002, Samuel Beam, better known as Iron and Wine, has taken his listeners on a musical journey spanning 15 years. As well as five diverse solo studio albums, Beam has also collaborated with Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses and most recently with fellow folk songstress Jesca Hoop of Shearwater. Beam and Hoop released their collaborative debut album Love Letter For Fire two weeks ago, showcasing a collection of beautiful love ballads, shrouded in wistful harmonies and sounds. We caught up with Beam to discuss his latest collaboration, as well as what makes him tick as a songwriter.

Where am I catching you today?

I’m at home in North Carolina at the moment. I’ve been prepping for me and Jesca’s upcoming tour, and moving house. We are in the middle of doing that unfortunately, but me and Jes had two shows last weekend which was really fun. So we are sort of in between heaven and hell at the moment.

How has the live dynamic been with Jes?

It’s been great. We’ve played several shows over the years so we kind of know how it’s going to go between the two of us, but it’s fun to be able to play these songs that we wrote together. Over the years we’ve done several of her songs, or several of my songs together, and we’ve both done maybe one or two of the songs that we wrote together. But now we get to play them all, which is really fun.

When you were working on your own music, how did you decide that you wanted to work with Jes?

It’s an intuitive thing. There wasn’t a checklist that I went to or anything. I’ve spoken to lots of people over the years, because I’ve been thinking about doing this project for quite some time. I spoke to several people, and then I found Jes’s music when I was in the middle of the Ghost on Ghost tour. I kind of missed the boat on her records. I try to keep up, but there is so much music out there. I was just so captivated with the music that it seemed perfect. The way she wrote songs and her voice…it seemed like potentially it could be a nice match. So I invited her out to do a tour with me so we could get to know each other, and then we just jumped in after that.

When you were collaborating together, how did you build a sense of musical trust?

I don’t know to be honest, it either works or it doesn’t. It’s always fun trying out different things, and I never feel bad when it doesn’t pan out, but you know when you’ve found a good dance partner. It happens every now and then along the way. It’s art, not a maths problem. If it was a maths problem then we would all get it right, but sometimes you just have to try different things and see what happens. I felt like I got lucky this time around.

Has it ever gone wrong for you?

Yeah of course. It’s music, so again, it’s art. It’s never awful, you can just tell when some things are more successful than others. Art is subjective to, so maybe I might think “well that’s the worst thing I’ve ever done,” but someone else could say “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done Sam!” It’s never quite so black and white.

Do you find it hard not to draw comparisons between what you do with Jes and what you do with your own solo work with Iron and Wine?

I never really thought of it as that much different to be honest. I don’t approach Iron and Wine songs any differently to the way I approached the songs for this project. Iron and Wine is me, like a band with one permanent member. But I definitely felt that, since it was the two of us writing songs, it just seemed to make sense to put Iron and Wine to rest for a second. Also, since we were sharing songwriting, I just wanted to see what happened. I wasn’t like “Okay this has to be exclusively separate material.”

You said in a separate interview about this new album with Jes that you learnt a lot from sharing the songwriting reins. What kind of things did you learn from this collaboration?

You have to let go of all control. You don’t realise how heavy-handed you are until you start doing your thing with someone else. It’s like riding the same fucking bike: what I learnt was that if you let go and let the end result be surprise then it always will be. The whole point of the project was to produce something that you could never create on your own. You have to release that end result. It’s hard to let go, because you want to shape your piece and produce what you want, and then someone takes a hold of it and starts twisting it around, and it’s like “wait a minute, that’s not what I wrote!” If you are able to know that the two of you together can make something surprising and fun that you couldn’t do on your own, that’s really the joy of the project and it’s the joy of collaborating. That’s what ensembles are about. It was a real treat.

Did Jes teach you anything about songwriting that you hadn’t really thought about?

I’m sure she did. I haven’t been able to fully process what things they might have been, but she is very unique in what she does. It’s hard for me to separate her technique from who she is. There are certain people who write songs certain ways, and she is one of those people. I don’t know anyone who writes songs like her. It’s hard for me to look at a song and go “This was my contribution and this was hers.” I’m a bit more analytical, and will take a phrase and start ripping it apart. Jes is very quick with how she works. She is very instinctive. I work quickly and then I start doodling and trying different sounds until I have nothing left. Neither of them are better than the other, they are just different.

You also said that duo work is more of a conversation than a monologue. Are you a musically social person?

I can be! Talking to myself is not as fun as talking to other people. It’s fun as a writer to have someone different to play with. It’s a different kind of vibe. We have lots of songs that are very conversational, but as a writer, it’s far more fun to be able to do that with other songwriters as oppose to just writing your own tunes all the time.

What kind of stuff are you talking about in these conversations?

They are all specifically love songs. That was the criteria with which we went into this project with. It’s a duet record about love. We would get into it and try to poke around with all these different forms that love comes to, as well as different kinds of relationships and different phases of people’s lives. We would have conversations about young or old people…each one was slightly different. A lot of them start with gibberish. I don’t know if you write songs, but a lot of the time you start with a melody and gibberish, and then the words stick and you develop a phrase. Then all of a sudden you start developing a story. At some point you have to start shaping the thing, so we talked a lot about the way love manifests itself in your life with different people. But at the end of the day, they were all love songs, and I think that’s a fun way to do it for a duet. It’s not quite as fun to talk about politics with a duet.

Was it strange touching on such raw emotions with someone who you had only just started working with?

At the end of the day, what else do songwriters write about? At the end of the day you write about what you want. Usually it’s love, but sometimes it can be about money or attention. However mostly we write about love, because we all want love, and you write about what you don’t have. Everyone has that experience. It’s much easier to talk about than politics. We’ve all been there.

Finally, you guys are doing a huge tour around the States to promote this album. What are you realistically expecting from it?

I just wanna enjoy making the music. Hopefully Jes and I can just play these shows and people will like the record. Who knows where it will go from there. Jes already has another record coming out and I’m getting ready to go and record one as well, so we will just take it a day at a time and see what happens. I think it’d be great to do another record from this, but who knows!

Image: Pitchfork