I sat down with Sam Beam, better known as Iron & Wine, for the first time last month as he was about to make a long-awaited, spellbinding Bangkok debut at BAMM! festival.
The 43-year-old folk singer came right on time to meet us at the lobby of a central Bangkok hotel. If anyone seemed most at home within this modern gothic granite-and-grates foyer, it’s him. Garbed in a shabby chic tweed jacket, Beam held the elevator for everyone from outside, all smiles, despite having only few hours’ rest after his Singapore gig the night before.
“I got to go out for a bit but then it rained,” he said as we headed up to the sky bar. An unexpected local rep, I apologised for the weather as a knee-jerk reaction, musing Beam might be better off in Bangkok’s fleeting glumness than the looming sticky and scorch. But, again, he was more at home that you’d think – “I love it tropical,” he later told me. “I spent a lot of time in Florida and I got really accustomed to this sort of climate.”
Not unlike his onstage persona, Beam is brooding, soft-spoken and an unexpected wisecracker. He could make the luster lounge feel like a small town haunt where two friends catch up over a nightcap. At the same time, you look for a prophet in this friend, a Romantic poet whose eyes shape the world we would come to grasp. In this conversation, the bearded bard talks his Grammy-nominated album Beast Epic, serendipity, wisdom from his father and how Twilight was a blessing.
Back in the 2000’s, you were no stranger to having your work featured in films and TV in the US. In Thailand, many of your fans knew you through “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” featured in the Twilight soundtrack. Do you remember what it was like when you realised that your music had reached a new audience on such a scale?
It was great. There’s been a couple things like that along the way. There was a movie called Garden State that we had a song in (“Such Great Heights”) and suddenly there were more people at the shows. Then the Twilight thing, that movie was huge so we had a lot of people coming to see us and asking for that song (laughs).
It was a go-to wedding song for time.
Yes, which is so funny because it’s such a dark song. It’s about someone growing up and all of a sudden becoming awake to how fucked their life or their surroundings are, or just questioning where they’re from and everything. So it’s funny to be associated with this romantic story.
But all those things, they’ve been a blessing to me. There are certain things you do in a career where you’re sort of positioning and trying to do what you think is best to do, to reach more listeners and stuff; and there are things that pop along like that where you just have no idea. It’s just luck and it’s cool.
As a musician with a history of teaching film, do you want to write music for any director in particular?
Last year I did some score work for a documentary about a poet named Larry Levis by filmmaker Michele Poulos (A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet). That was a lot of fun. As far as writing songs… yes, it depends on who. There are definitely filmmakers that I like, but I’m kind of into whoever that comes along with the good, the good movie. I want to make movies too, maybe I’ll just save them for my own movies. Still, if Spielberg wants to call, tell him I’ll answer the phone.
Early in your career, you said you had a mistrust of the entertainment industry, in particular the music industry. Has that changed?
It’s gotten worse. No, I’m teasing. I mean here’s definitely some shady stuff, people cutting corners and taking advantage of other people. It exists everywhere. I was saying that I had a mistrust of the music industry because my dad used to book bands and he told me. But he loves music, and he’d see me playing as hard as I was and say, “Well, just don’t get into music. The whole history of the music industry is written by thieves.” And I’m like, okay I won’t, Dad (laughs). You know, you hear your parents and it sort of sticks with you. But at a certain point, you just do what you’re gonna do. It doesn’t matter what his wisdom to me was. I was gonna fall into whatever I fell into. The truth is, yes, it’s all written by thieves but it’s also written by a lot of really heartfelt love, by people doing what they do because have a passion for music.
How do you tackle with the “thieves” and the crazier aspects of the job?
I surround myself with a good team – my manager, my crew. Other than that you just hope for the best. I put all my work into the songs, work as hard as I can to make them the best that I can. Then be nice to people (laughs). That’s always the key in life, not just a music career. Just be nice to people, see what happens.
We can say that your records have a respective overarching idea, some more palpable than others, like the EP Woman King, where you play an ode to different Biblical female personas. How did the idea for the EP come about?
It wasn’t really like an organised thing. It just sort of popped up. A lot of the record, it isn’t like I sit down and start writing song one, two, three to a theme; I’m just writing and writing all the time, and when it comes about time to put a record out, you look at what you’ve got and try to find something, some way to group the things that would make sense. See what you have that would work together. For Woman King, I just happened to have these songs with these different characters – the Jezebel character (“Jezebel”), the Lilith character (“Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song)”) from the Biblical mythology – and the “Woman King” song at the same time. They just seem like this fun combination of songs. It wasn’t really created with anything in design in mind. I lean on serendipity a lot. Luck has been my friend most times.
Did the women in your life inspire those songs?
I have five daughters so, yes, a lot.
Before Beast Epic came out, you said the record “speaks to the beauty and pain of growing up after you’ve already grown up.” Why did the time you started making the album feel like the right time to explore this idea?
It felt like the right time. It’s something I was interested in, you know? You try a lot of things in your 30’s and some of them work out, some of them you learn hard lessons from. My kids are getting older. Hopefully it’s not a midlife crisis record (laughs). I’m in my 40’s and it’s this record I make instead of going by a sports car, I guess. It’s about getting to a point in your life where you realise that you have to learn the same lessons over and over again. As a younger person, I thought there would be some threshold I would walk through; that there would have learned all the lessons in life then you would just sort of scrape through with all this wisdom and other stuff, but you don’t. You’re changed, and the problems keep changing and you keep making the same mistakes. Life just keeps changing and you have to adapt. It’s part of life – the process of being alive and trying to do your best and be willing to get hurt. So, that’s hard to come to terms with as a young person. You want people to tell you, don’t worry, it gets easier. You don’t want them to say, you’re gonna have to work this hard for the rest of your life, it does not get easier.
What kind of non-sugarcoated message, then, can your young listeners take away?
Hold on, it’s coming (laughs). It’s hard, but it definitely doesn’t mean that it’s not good. I feel like that’s what the songs are trying to say too. Most of my work is about that duality of things being painful but also sacred and good, and that pain is part of what makes life good.
You worked on two collaborative albums with Ben Bridwell and Jessica Hoop between Iron & Wine’s Ghost on Ghost and this one. Did those two records change or influence how you approach the process for Beast Epic?
Yes, every one of those collaborative albums informed the next one. Every band I’ve ever worked with or every record I’ve ever tried to make inform the next thing. That’s how I like to approach it, just keep poking around and see what’s around the corner and is there something else to try. The first collaboration I did was with the band Calexico (2005’s In the Reins) and they taught me all kinds of things. I didn’t know anything.
Is the same goes for when you released the Archive Series collections between your records?
It was definitely fun to revisit those songs. It was like looking at your old school photographs where you recognise that person but you don’t remember sitting for photographs.
“Thomas County’s Law” has to be one of my favourite videos from you. It was released on your birthday last July but it seems like a rather morbid way to celebrate it?
(Laughs) I’m killing myself and giving a eulogy at my own funeral in the video. I just thought it was fun. The song is about embracing and rejecting your own origins, like your hometown, so I thought that was a fun sort of metaphor for that song. Accepting and rejecting yourself at the same time. As for the release, you’ve got to release it some time, right? I don’t remember why we did that. I might have just forgotten it was my birthday.
Can you share about the story behind your recent video for “Last Night”? It was filmed with stop motion whereas the previous videos for this album are very much scenic short films.
The video is directed by my friend Rachel Blumberg, a musician whom I played with a bunch of times over the year. She’s also an animator. I’ve been trying to get her to make me a video for me for a long time. And this was the one that she came up with. The song is about coming to terms with life changes and loss, how relationships don’t really stay the same – ever. It’s always changing and reshaping itself. So the idea was to do a stop motion which gives it this little surreal kind of layer to it. The characters are doing simple daily things but they’re not quite in tune anymore. You look at them making coffee and the coffee just moves away. It’s saying that after a time, as far as relationships go, old habits just aren’t working any more.
How do you decide what goes on a setlist each night? It’s rarely the same.
It just depends. Sometimes I ask what the band want to play, sometimes I have something that I want to play. There’s a couple every night that we have to play because, you know, it’s what people come to hear. I don’t really have rhyme or reason to it. It’s probably just intuitive.
Now that you’ve made your Southeast Asia debut, did you find it different from back in America where some of the audience may have seen you for several times, as far as prepping the show goes?
Actually it was really freeing. A lot of the times I’m like, oh, wait we did this kind of stuff last time. I have to figure some way to make it feel fresh and rejuvenate things whereas here I could play anything. I feel like I could play anything as long as I play “Flightless Bird”. So it was fun. I found myself not overthinking it in a way that I normally do. I felt that I could just play stuff effortlessly.
Do you take audience requests?
Sometimes, especially when I play by myself, I can do requests all night long. But with band, it’s not quite so easy though they know most of the material.
Because your lyrics are very cinematic and filled with imagery, what words would be in a song about Bangkok by Iron & Wine?
Oh man, come on, that’s not fair. I’d definitely say something about being warm and green. I love it tropical. I spent a lot of time in Florida and I got really accustomed to this sort of tropical climate. It’s fun to be here and the weather feels familiar but the surroundings feel totally unfamiliar. That’s all very interesting. Okay, so, busy, green, warm and exciting would be the words.
What do you normally look forward to the most when you’re in a new city for a show, beside the show.
I love to eat. Well, I like to cook more than I like to eat but I definitely to eat. Traveling is fun for that. Usually while we’re on tour, our day centers around the show, a meal and maybe a pool, if I can find time to swim.