Sam Beam is Iron And Wine, and Iron And Wine is Sam Beam. Under that elemental handle, the bushily-bearded singer-songwriter plays a kind of new-millennial Americana. Using his husky, whispery voice over mostly-acoustic tunes, Beam sings songs steeped in the imagery of the rural South.
BackgroundBeam (born July 26, 1974) grew up in Irmo, South Carolina, obsessed with two things: art and music. "In my room, the radio was really always forever on," Beam would recall. "I grew up drawing. I was always drawing, all the time, with the radio on."
When Beam went to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, studying fine arts, thinking he'd be a painter. But, he "ended up getting into photography," and that lead to the study of cinematography at Florida State University, where he'd meet his wife, Kim.
The couple moved to Miami so that Kim could pursue her studies in midwifery, and, coincidentally enough, started churning out kids (these days, Beam is the father of five daughters). Feeling the need to support his family, Beam shelved the small, self-made films that were consuming his time —his only foothold in Hollywood being a —non-union lighting engineer, not even important enough to make the final credits"— on the Mel Gibson/Heath Ledger revisionist civil-war picture The Patriot— and got a professorial gig teaching cinematography at Miami University.
With that one creative outlet cut off, Beam turned to another: recording. Rolling tape on an aging four-track recorder after wife and child had turned in, Beam started making whisper-quiet, pseudo-folkie songs inspired by JJ Cale, Nick Drake, and Simon & Garfunkel. "I couldn't really rock out, I had to be quiet," he'd recount.
Writing about "places that [he] grew up, people that [he] knew, [his] family,” Beam's storytelling songs were filled with images of creekbeds and meadows, cats and dogs and snakes and birds. "Going back home to visit my parents, the landscape —both the cultural landscape and the geography— is a big influence," said Beam.
At that time, Beam wasn't playing live, and wasn't thinking Iron And Wine —a name he'd cribbed from a Dietary Supplement called Beef, Iron & Wine— would amount to anything other than a scattered tape-collection. "I hadn’t been recording for anyone else, even really thinking anyone would hear them," Beam remembers. "I didn't want to be famous. I was just doing it late at night, a quiet little pastime."
Fate intervened when he sent a cassette to his pal Ben Bridwell, a fellow Irmo native who, at that time, was a member of pre-Band Of Horses Seattle combo Carissa's Wierd [sic]. From Bridwell, the tape eventually got dubbed on to Jonathan Poneman, the Sub Pop bossman still famous for "discovering" Nirvana.
Beam was signed to Sub Pop, and in 2002 the legendary label released a collection of Beam's home recordings under the title The Creek Drank The Cradle. With his hushed, of-the-land lullabies draped under a pall of tape hiss, the songs on the album sounded like lost Smithsonian Folkways recordings. Touring for the album was "rough," Beam says. "I could hear people down the front talking about the most mundane stuff, [like] their grocery lists."
That year, Beam recorded a version of The Postal Service's single "Such Great Heights," to be used as a remix-like b-side by that band. It soon grew to be Beam's best-known song, used in an advertisement for M&Ms and on the soundtrack to the dubious movie Garden State in 2004.
That was the year that Beam made his second Iron & Wine album, Our Endless Numbered Days. Produced by Brian Deck in Chicago, it marked Beam's first-ever studio recordings. "I knew I wanted to go into the studio, if just for the experience of that, as something I'd never done before," Beam offers. "I wanted to see how some of the 'clarity' of the recording influenced the songs."
With his third Iron & Wine album, 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, Beam became a studio rat. Working from a home studio at his new house in Austin, Texas, Beam labored over the longplayer. "I'd never spent more than two weeks on a studio record before," Beam sighs. "But it ended up taking six months."
More experimental and multi-layered in approach, The Shepherd's Dog finds Beam's sad songs turned into hyper-percussive workouts on 'ethnic' rhythms, aided by members of Califone and Calexico. The record became far-and-away the most successful Iron and Wine LP, peaking at #24 on the Billboard charts. The jam-band feel of the piece also lead Iron and Wine to become a festival staple, and their following grew accordingly.
In 2009, Beam released Around the Well, a 2CD compilation of all the Iron and Wine rarities to that point. The record also cracked the Billboard Top 25, and attracted attention for its covers of Stereolab, the Flaming Lips, and New Order.
2011's Kiss Each Other Clean delivered the first real curveball of Beam's career. Dabbling with blue-eyed soul, synthesizers, drum machines, and plentiful saxophones, the record was a stylistic departure from Beam's theretofore rustic Americana.
"It's no fun for me [to make the same record], and it's no fun for anybody else to listen to," Beam would explain. "I'd much rather hear someone try something new and f**k up, rather than just play it safe and make the same record I already have."
In 2013, Iron and Wine would return with Ghost on Ghost, and album that pushed further into the jazzy, improvised, extended-jam qualities of Kiss Each Other Clean.