Unless you’ve been keeping up with Iron & Wine’s records, you’re most likely to have heard Sam Beam’s elegantly airy folk-rock as soundtrack accompaniment for movies and TV shows – everything from indie-rock mood pieces ( “Garden State”) to brooding after-life love stories (“Twilight”), with a little medical (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and football (“Friday Night Lights”) drama thrown in. That’s fitting, given the vividly cinematic short-film feel of many Iron & Wine songs. No surprise that Beam worked in filmmaking before starting Iron & Wine as a vehicle for his songwriting.
“I was drawn to painting and filmmaking because I was interested in communicating visually, which spills over into my tendencies as a writer,” Beam says. “I also like describing things a lot more than explaining them. As different as the processes are, they have some similarities. You can treat musicians like actors – you give them a roadmap but don’t tell them what to do, and let their personal style or interpretation speak in the piece. And in both film and music, you create a space where people feel safe to do their best. You treat songs like scripts that can be interpreted a lot of different ways.”
Iron & Wine plays Saturday at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh, which will be Beam’s first show as a local act. He moved his family, including five daughters ages 4 to 16, from Texas to Durham about a year ago.
“I grew up in Columbia, S.C., so this feels really similar,” Beam says. “My wife and I both have family on the East Coast, and grandparents are a great amenity. So we came here for the schools and to be close to the grandparents. It seems like we had spent most of the last decade in the car because Texas is so large and spread out with really bad traffic. We’ve found none of that here.”
But the upside to Beam having spent so much of the last 10 years in cars with his kids is the occasional moment of validation. Whenever an Iron & Wine song comes on the car radio, Dad becomes … well, not exactly cool – but less uncool, at least.
“Now Dad is never cool, no matter what,” Beam says. “I’m sure President Obama wrestles with the same thing, too. But hearing myself on the radio with the kids in the car, that’s always super-fun. It’s about the only chance I ever have to go, ‘Ha! See? Dad really is cool!’ Not that they believe me.”
Iron & Wine first emerged in the early 2000s with a series of home recordings showing a definite Nick Drake influence. But over the past decade, Beam has expanded the group’s sound significantly, embellishing his songs with lavish full-band arrangements.
Iron & Wine’s latest, last year’s “Ghost on Ghost” (Nonesuch Records), is writerly soul that lands a lot closer to Van Morrison than Nick Drake – although that came about by happenstance.
“Going into this record, what I had in mind was a cross between Harry Nilsson’s torch-song stuff and Paul McCartney’s home recordings,” Beam says. “Elegant melodies but with rough edges like background noises and tape splices, where you’d feel like you were hearing someone actually making this thing. So that’s how I planned to steer the ship, but that’s obviously not how it turned out. You try to stay open to what comes out during the process, and this R&B thing kind of popped up from the band we’d assembled. That felt good, so we ran with it.”
Despite the lush sound, “Ghost on Ghost” evokes a sense of isolation within a larger setting, whether watching a crowd from within one’s private bubble or feeling out of place in a hometown. It’s a feeling that’s perfectly enhanced by the cover, a lavishly framed photo from a series called “Private Views,” taken by Chicago photographer Barbara Crane in the early 1980s.
“She did this series where she went to a park in Chicago during some festivals and took close-up pictures of people with a Polaroid,” Beam says. “They were so up-close that they became kind of abstract. A lot of this album’s songs had couples as their main characters, so I kind of enshrined that with the couple on the cover.”