On a foliage-covered terrace of Austin’s Hotel San José, frontman Sam Beam of indie-folk outfit Iron & Wine muses (appropriately enough, over a glass of chardonnay) on the art of songwriting, his new album and how life is currently moving in circles.
“Beast Epic” is Beam’s first solo release in four years. There’s a kinship between this collection and his early material: “The Creek Drank the Cradle” (2002) and “Our Endless Numbered Days” (2004). “Often I return to old themes like love, death, the rite of passage. Throughout life we’re in transition and ‘Beast Epic’ explores those themes through a new lens of experience,” says Beam.
The album epitomises reflective, confessional songwriting while exploring Beam’s fascination with how time exerts itself. “It’s so interesting the way time is spinning, how we’re constantly approaching or leaving, returning to the unexpected or strangely familiar,” he says. “The journey of life ends up being a circle.”
Monocle: With “Beast Epic”, what did you set out to do?
Sam Beam: I never go into creating with a motive because the songs are made up of what I’m experiencing. I write all the time so I have a tonne of songs around. When the time comes you have to decide what this new body of work will be about.
M: Did you make a conscious choice to simplify the sound?
SB: The scale got big for a while and I wanted something different. The best songs are the ones where I’m able to pour more into the lyrics so I wanted to return to that. The albums before weren’t as personal. Most stories on “Beast Epic” are from direct experience, which makes them feel more authentic, exposed and loose.
M: You often revisit themes but with a different lens.
SB: I’ve always been fascinated by how time lays itself out, how it affects us. Where does the story go? Often in a completely different way than we expected. Throughout life you can always look back and see things with new eyes and it’s the same with songs.
M: What do you think of Austin’s supposed hipness?
SB: Honestly, I don’t think about it because I lived there for so long with my family – it was simply home at the time. Initially I moved to Austin to be centrally located for touring and it was already a progressive city. I definitely saw it change and grow to become what it is right now. In many ways it’s great for the city but it’s alienating too many long-time residents as well. That’s just how these things work. I still love Austin and it will still be great long after its hipness wears off.
M: You lived in Austin but relocated to North Carolina. Is the writing process different in each city?
SB: My writing process has been changing over the past few years but not so much in regards to place. It’s more about me wanting to stretch out. It’s lost some of its discipline, for better or worse. I used to be focused all day, every day. My passion hasn’t changed but I’m no longer regulating it. If it’s not happening I’ll do something else. I’ve been painting a lot.
M: Do you get to see much of the places you visit on tour?
SB: Last year I did a show in Istanbul and the city was amazing. We had an afternoon off to explore and it was a place I had only dreamed of visiting. It was incredible to see how the East and West meld. I was also fortunate to play in Mexico and South America a few years ago and had amazing promoters: Folk Yeah! in Argentina, Fauna in Chile and Lunario in Mexico City. They ended up acting as tour guides: they made sure we saw places such as La Casa Azul in Mexico City. The promoter drove us there in her car.
M: So, what’s the new album’s story?
SB: I saw the term “beast epic” in a poet’s glossary, which describes narratives where animals take on characteristics of humans. I liked the sound of it. It doesn’t really mean anything but it seems to describe that record perfectly.
M: What are your writing obsessions right now?
SB: I haven’t been writing much lately, after finishing this album. I used to get worried when I didn’t write for a while and feel like maybe it had gone! That’s a naive perspective, to think I don’t have anything else to say. You have to learn to be kind to yourself and recognise seasons and cycles of your life. Learn how the output of your spirit works and be aware that sometimes you’re really productive and sometimes you’re observing things to be produced later. Think of yourself like the seasons of the Earth. You can’t bloom always.
M: What do you think makes a good song?
SB: It has to make me dance or move my heart. It also depends on what point in your life you hear it. Remember in high school, when you hear a song and think, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever heard!” When you hear it years later you wonder what on earth you were thinking. We’re fickle. It’s best to just embrace the moment. Take in whatever that song has to say – the moment is passing but it doesn’t mean it’s less important.
M: Are you introspective?
SB: When I write songs I’m escaping to do it. The idea of collaborating is so attractive to me. In Nashville, music is part of the city’s fabric and the songwriting culture blows my mind. They get together, play guitars and write. I love the communal aspect. I’ve never taken part but it’s amazing. I love making musical conversations with other people but I’m still learning how to collaborate in terms of words. The first time I ever wrote lyrics with someone else was with Jesca Hoop. I found it so rewarding. It takes kindred spirits.
M: What is ‘Americana’?
SB: I’ve seen the term being applied to clothing, art and design, as well as music. For me that’s really all it is: a way to categorise something in order to sell it. The concept is not unlike grunge or shoegaze. If it helps people to understand my music and leads them to it, I think that’s OK. One can only hope it won’t act as a stop sign.
M: You’re heading out on a long tour in support of “Beast Epic”. Is that the part you still live for?
SB: Being on the road takes a lot of preparation mentally and physically. I love it, though, especially when you have a new batch of songs. I love sharing them and I hope they bring other people joy. I have the opportunity to stand on stage, sing to a crowd and say, “Here we are, doing this thing together.”
The CV: Sam Beam, as Iron & Wine, has made music for more than a decade. He captures listeners’ imaginations with masterful songwriting in six albums and numerous EPs.
“The Creek Drank the Cradle” (2002)
“Our Endless Numbered Days” (2004)
“The Shepherd’s Dog” (2007)
“Kiss Each Other Clean” (2011)
“Ghost on Ghost” (2013)
“Sing into my Mouth” with Ben Bridwell (2015)
“Love Letter for Fire” with Jesca Hoop (2016)
“Beast Epic” (2017)