Such is the charm of an artist like Sam Beam, AKA Iron & Wine: Even when you’re speaking to him from the other side of the world, you’re drawn in with a real sense of classic southern hospitality. “I’m callin’ from my home, just outside of Chapel Hill in North Carolina,” Beam drawls as he sets the scene for some pre-interview small talk. “There’s this stretch between Durham and Chapel Hill, and that’s where you’ll find me.”
Sounds beautiful. “You know the place? Y’ever been to North Carolina?” No, never. Only really know names of the cities because it’s where wrestlers like Ric Flair and the Hardy Boyz are from. Beam laughs. “Yeah, we breed ’em good ’round here.”
It’s a rare moment at home for Beam, who’s spent the last year or so on the road in support of Iron & Wine’s sixth LP, last August’s Beast Epic. Considered a back-to-basics record in contrast with its more experimental predecessors, 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean and 2013’s Ghost on Ghost, Beam feels that his relationship with the record has only blossomed further as he and the band have taken it on the road together. “It gets easier as you go to not criticise yourself so much,” says Beam.
“With records, it’s like a big family. The parents are always harder and stricter on the eldest ones when they’re growing up, and by the time the youngest ones come ’round the parents know it’s best to just let them go off and do their own thing. I can definitely remember hemming and hawing about some small things that I wish I’d changed on the first couple of records, but I’ve changed my attitude a lot. You have to realise that you’re gonna make more records. Any record you’ve made is just what you were doing on that day in time and space. Once you realise that, your records are so much easier to enjoy. You don’t waste time overthinking it.”
Beast Epic, so named after a type of fable storytelling, was recorded by Beam and his backing band at The Loft, a studio in Chicago owned by fellow folk-rockers Wilco. Rather than take in a structured, gridlocked approach to making the record, Beam notes that the album came together organically – and was better off for having done so. “I’ve been learning to make records that are a little more improvised by nature,” he says. “I think the record that we made was kind of a surprise, rather than specifically setting out to accomplish something. I just wanted to make – not make by design. In that sense, this record is a lot more fun to engage with. I keep hearing little surprises in it that I had honestly forgotten about.”
Although four years separated the releases of Ghost on Ghost and Beast Epic, Beam did not let that time slip idly by. When he wasn’t touring, he was working on two collaborative albums: Sing Into My Mouth, a covers album with Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell; and Love Letter for Fire, a duets album co-written and performed with singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop. “Both those projects did a lot to inform what Beast Epic turned into,” Beam says.
“Ghost on Ghost had a pretty heavy R&B influence – I wanted to have a loud band, but also have it go up against dark, subversive lyrics that came at you so fast that you couldn’t engage with them on first listen. I don’t know why I wrote like that – I figured that people would have to listen a few times to really get it, I suppose. When I met up with Ben, it was so nostalgic and fun. We grew up in the same town together – we’d sit around, listen to music and we’d play our favourite songs. Our record wasn’t about re-imagining things, it was just about playing music that we loved. It wasn’t cerebral at all – it was just fun.”
Beam also goes on to explain how making these albums allowed him to take more of a contributing role in music-making, rather than being the director of every last layer as was often the case with Iron & Wine. The way he sees it, there’s a lot to be learned from appreciating your creative limits and embracing your sweet spots. “I’m the first to admit my voice doesn’t screen very well,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “It says certain things very properly, but other things it can’t say very well. I’ve learned to zero in on the things my voice says best. As a songwriter, you learn to enjoy what your voice has to say. When you’re starting out as a solo artist, you’re trying to play every role in the play and wear all these different hats. With Beast Epic, I’ve learned more about finding my voice and letting it do what it does.”
Beam and co. are currently in Australia, undertaking their first Iron & Wine tour since they appeared at Bluesfest back in 2014 on the back of Ghost on Ghost. Also appearing as a part of Vivid Live in Sydney, Beam invites fans old and new to come and see what the band has to offer. “We got all the new stuff, all the old stuff… we tend to go in whatever direction the crowd is feeling,” he says. “If they’re ready to party, so are we. If they don’t wanna move, we’ll stop movin’. We’re kinda lucky where there’s a lot of material to draw from – and this band can play anything. I can throw any song at ’em and we can go right into it. Our shows are more of a conversation – that’s what we come to town for.”
It’s far from Beam’s first rodeo as far as Australia is concerned: “I been comin’ out here since Our Endless Numbered Days, man,” he say. “I remember the first time I came out, it was with James [Mercer] from The Shins. Everywhere we went just blew my mind.” Beam doesn’t hesitate when asked specifically what draws him to a place such as Australia. “Sydney’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. “There’s so much great art in Melbourne. It’s so inspiring – I always end up writing a song when I’m there. Last time we were there, we were out in the Gold Coast when we were playing Bluesfest. This time, I finally get to go to Perth for the first time. I get something new out of visiting every time I get the chance to.”
Catch his remaining Aussie tour dates below.
Iron & Wine 2018 Aussie Tour Dates
Friday, 1st June 2018
Canberra Theatre, Canberra
Tickets: Handsome Tours
Saturday, 2nd June 2018
Astor Theatre, Perth
Tickets: Handsome Tours