Sam Beam’s world is words. Some are delivered, prolifically, by pen; others are measured by speech.
Lyrics for his band, Iron & Wine (a cross-pollination of classic indie minimalism and new weird folk), dash unfettered onto his paper. Faulkner laments and Garcia Marquez-like narratives give each song a 3-D form reminiscent of a scholarly pop-up book.
In interviews, though, the words are deliberate and efficient. To explain the intrusion of electric on his new Sub Pop EP, Woman King (a far cry from his first three all-acoustic albums), Beam simply states, “I bought an electric guitar.”
Inner satisfaction is key, yet the result hits the outer world with a soothingly gloved literary punch.
“I try to make my writing clear, and I always try to communicate succinctly,” continues Beam, speaking from his home in Miami. “But I don’t try to change the lyrics to dictate public taste.”
An opponent of the linear model, the songwriter doesn’t follow any rituals. Whenever inspiration beckons, he goes to work. Woman King strikes listeners as a theme piece, exploring the archetypes of womanhood. However, the fertile Beam culled from mounds of his existing writing to form his latest offering. While most bands hunker down and “do a concept album,” Beam’s approach is more serendipitous.
Each record release bears the Beam signature, while maintaining a distinct personality. His 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle (Sub Pop), is a lesson in sparse — all songs were recorded in Sam’s bedroom, and all but two are left exactly as originally recorded. Praise from such musically astute magazines as Mojo and Magnet gave Beam indie credibility. But for his second full-length, Sam left his beloved bedroom for Brian Deck’s studio in Chicago. Still acoustically warm, Our Endless Numbered Days boasts production polish without compromising its author’s Southern literary charm.
On Woman King (released in February), Beam gives a wink to the Newport-era Dylan with some electric shenanigans all his own (though the acoustic side still rules). The themes illuminate the feminine mystique, and Beam traverses through misunderstood Bible villainesses (Jezebel and Lilith), the enigma of true love (“My Lady’s House”) and patriarch-pleasing women (“Gray Stables”). Even Beam’s voice sounds more urgent and, at times, salty (“We were born to f••k each other one way or another”).
But it’s more of an evolution than an electric coup — maybe because Beam’s rise from bedroom to Bonnaroo headliner veers somewhat from the stereotypical route.
Wooing back his roots
He spent his boyhood years in South Carolina, buying a guitar at 15 as a passing hobby. He first studied art, then graphic design, and finally graduated with a Masters in film production from Florida State. Before his music took off, he taught cinematography at a small college in Miami to support his family. When he began experimenting with his four-track in the bedroom, his music gravitated back to the bluegrass and country leanings he’d rebuffed as a teen.
“It’s a part of growing up that you reject your roots. It’s been an epic journey,” he says now, laughing.
Beam’s visual background gives shape to his sparse instrumentation. His artistic sensibilities create vast backdrops that color his numerous tales.
You might expect, lurking behind the writing, a tortured artist who’d make even Flannery O’Connor look light. Not so: Sam is happily married, with three children (the third just born in February). And, too, Miami is a city that seems distinctly at odds with his musical style. Yet the surroundings suit Sam’s muse.
“Miami has so many different kinds of music,” he says. “It’s not like many places, where the scenes are mainly structured.”
Of course, the singer usually spends his dollars on diapers rather than open-mic epiphanies or record-store discoveries.
Enviably, he never worked that hard to get his music out there. One of Sam’s friends in Seattle owned a magazine called Yeti, which was giving away a music compilation with a Beam song on it. Then, a friend in the band Carisa’s Weird passed the song on to Sub Pop bigwig Jon Poneman.
“I was surprised [when they contacted me],” recalls Beam with pillowed enthusiasm. Even more surprisingly, Sub Pop allowed Sam to record and produce his debut album. “They left me alone to record in my bedroom. They realized it was a good idea, especially since they make a lot of their sales through their back catalogue.”
Sub Pop’s reward was The Creek Drank the Cradle, a lo-fi touch of Southern Goth. Before making his first album for Sub Pop, Sam already had a fan in Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, and he was asked to open for Brock’s side project, Ugly Casanova (also on Sub Pop). Quickly assembling a band — including his sister, Sarah, on back-up vocals; bassist EJ Holowicki (who also works for Pixar); slide guitarist/banjo player Patrick McKinney and drummer Jeff McGriff — the inaugural Iron & Wine hit the road.
Sam soon discovered that playing in front of real live people was a serious jaunt from performing in the bedroom. But, in just a few years, he’s learned the ropes. Live reviews border on ecstatic (Chris Connelly of Kynd Music practically beatified the singer when he said: “If every person could see Sam Beam and his musical talents in concert, we’d end up with world peace”). And Beam is infamous for turning his songs inside out. The rollicking “Teeth in the Grass,” for instance, might have its freight-train wheels ground down to a steady ballad.
“It was a learning process to take something you’re so familiar with and reproduce it in a live setting. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to make a live song sound like the record.”
Thanks to such progressions, Sam Beam is reaching the point where word-of-mouth does as much for his career as starry reviews. Like his writing, these fans speak volumes, too.
[Hunter Pope is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
Iron & Wine will play The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) at 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, with Horses. $15. 225-5851.