Fiona Sturges meets Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, a folk artist on the archetypal US grunge label
Published : 25 February 2005
You can tell that the 30-year-old singer-songwriter Sam Beam - otherwise known as Iron & Wine - isn't used to being interviewed. When he comes to pick me up from my hotel, just a few miles away from his house in Miami's Coconut Grove neighbourhood, he brings the whole family with him. "They're not in my band but they're part of the package," he smiles, introducing me to his two daughters - Ruth, five, and Arden, two - and his heavily pregnant wife Kim. Since this is my first time in Miami, he says, the Beams are taking me to dinner.
They have chosen a restaurant on Ocean Drive, the palm-tree-lined coastal road that runs parallel to South Beach. After some close encounters with scantily-clad roller-skaters and a sinister man carrying a python, we finally sit down to eat. To Arden's delight, the woman on the next table has two chihuahuas tucked into her handbag. Another man is talking so loudly on his mobile phone that we can barely make ourselves heard. "This place is full of crazy people," says Beam, smiling. "We only come here when we've got guests. Living where we do, you kind of forget that all this is here."
It's true that America doesn't get much more one-dimensional than the Sunshine State though, as Beam points out: "What you might see on TV only represents a small portion of the place. The rest is all small neighbourhoods with an immigrant population and people with all different kinds of backgrounds. I like it here because it's so different from the rest of the country. Geographically it's very isolated. I find you can get a lot of work done when you're separate from what you're accustomed to."
Certainly, Beam's music seems a million miles from the bright lights and bustle of South Beach. A simple blend of bluegrass and alt.country, his compositions have a contemplative, pastoral feel, bringing with them echoes of Nick Drake, Elliot Smith and Sparklehorse. His new EP Woman King, replete with acoustic and slide guitar, banjo and violins, is an articulate paean to womankind. Along with the understated arrangements, the songs draw their power from Beam's vivid lyrical imagery, which treads a fine line between the gentle and the macabre. The title track is an ode to female empowerment ("Hundred years, hundred more/ Some day we may see a woman king/ Sword in hand, swing at some evil and bleed") while "My Lady's House" is a tender celebration of domestic life ("Thank God you see me the way you do/ Strange as you are to me").
Until two years ago, Beam's main source of income was his job lecturing on cinematography at Florida State University, and music was just a hobby. He had been writing songs for more than seven years but he never dreamed that anyone else might want to hear them. It wasn't until a friend lent him a 4-track recorder, allowing him to record and play back the songs he had written, that he began to wonder if he should turn his extra-curricular activities into a proper job.
"I always had a mistrust of the entertainment industry, and in particular the music industry, and I've never been particularly ambitious, " he reflects. "But as someone who has a guitar and likes to play music, you always think, 'Wouldn't it be fun to make a living out of this?' It's like the impossible dream."
Beam couldn't believe his luck when Sub Pop, the record label best known for signing Nirvana, called him up. A friend from the band Carissa's Weird passed on a tape of Beam's songs, prompting the label owner Jonathan Poneman to get on the phone and arrange a meeting. Within two months Beam found himself touring the country with the likes of Ugly Casanova, Broadcast and James Mercer of The Shins. "It was incredible," says Beam. "So many bands spend years knocking on record company doors and never get heard, and there I was with a contract that had landed in my lap. I always had this Protestant work ethic where you have to earn what you deserve. When my first record came out I had this feeling that I hadn't paid my dues. It took me a while to realise that I'd put my work in in other ways."
Beam still has to get to grips with the idea of a journalist flying four-and-a-half thousand miles to have a conversation with him. His wife Kim is equally nonplussed. "I can't imagine what you're going to write about," she says. "How much can you say about a few albums?" She was similarly astonished when she discovered her husband had sold 65,000 copies of his last album, Our Endless Numbered Days. "That means there's 65,000 people out there with his words and the sound of his voice in their homes. It's great but it's also pretty weird."
Beam was born and brought up on the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina. His father worked in land management while his mother was a schoolteacher. When he was a child the family would take regular trips to the country, where his grandfather ran a farm. His lyrics, he says, are derived partly from experience, but also from people he's known and books. "People assume my lyrics are like diary entries, but they're not. I grew up in the Carolinas, so the imagery is part of who I am, part of where I grew up, but I would still say it's 90 per cent fiction."
When he was 17, Beam went to art college in Richmond, Virginia, where he met Kim. As an undergraduate he took a degree in graphic design and photography, and later did a masters in cinema at Florida State. From there he got some production work on commercials and independent movies. Teaching was a means to an end. Kim had given birth and Beam. wanted a job with better hours.
Even with his film career behind him now, Beam notes that screenwriting still informs the way he composes songs. "I've definitely adopted a lot of the stuff I learned, but the songs are not scripts, so there's a lot of poetic licence. Screenwriting is a discipline where you learn to describe an action rather than explain it. Everything is on a visual basis. You have to see what characters are dealing with. I would say it brings about a very visual writing style." Fittingly, Beam's music is proving popular among film-makers - his songs feature on the soundtracks to Garden State and the forthcoming Scarlett Johanssen picture In Good Company.
Categorising his music isn't easy, says Beam. "I never really thought about it before I started doing interviews. I suppose I'm happy with the 'folk' tag. I've come to realise folk music is everything except classical music. I don't think about myself as the next Fairport Convention or anything. Folk is the people's music, whether its rap or rock'n'roll."
Still, it was more through necessity than design that Beam happened upon such a sparse musical style. For years he didn't have any instruments, let alone a band, and found himself creating sounds purely through his voice and guitar. "I guess I was just making the best of what I had. Plus, the subject matter I was interested in writing about doesn't lend itself to anything too radical and loud."
Now he has a full band that includes his friend Patrick McKinney on slide guitar and his sister Sarah on backing vocals. Iron & Wine may not have set the charts alight but they are carving quite a reputation for themselves on the live circuit.
You get the feeling, however, that Beam is at his happiest just picking away on his guitar at home. "Yeah, I guess that's true," he shrugs. "There's the reality of tours and all that, and at the end of the day I'm interested in the craft - I've come to enjoy being on stage more - but I'm not a performer. People get into movies either to be in front of the camera or behind the camera and I've always been a behind-the-camera sort of person. But you know, you can bitch about being on the road but it's great. I'm not doing it nine-to-five - it's a blessing to be able to do what you love. I don't take it lightly."
As if making up for lost time, Beam has been prolific since he signed his record deal. Since late 2002 he has released two albums and two EPs, and he assures me there's another album to come later this year. "I guess I'll keep churning them out as long as people want to listen to them," he says with a sigh. "It took me a long time to get started on this music thing so I reckon there's no point messing about now."
The 'Woman King' EP is out now on Sub Pop
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.