Sam Beam, AKA Iron & Wine, returns to his acoustic roots, tapping into his animal self in the process on his sixth record, Beast Epic.
Sam Beam, better known by his songwriting moniker Iron & Wine is contemplating the effects of working solo.
“When you make your own records for a while, you almost don’t hear yourself,” he says. “When you have something else to compare it to you’re like, ‘Oh, this is what my voice does’ - you’re almost re-introduced to yourself.”
The Durham, North Carolina-based indie-folk songwriter and his shape shifting line-up of backing musicians - often described by Beam as “a band with one permanent member” - are preparing for the release of his new full-length, Beast Epic.
It’s the sixth with “Iron & Wine on the spine”, the first since 2013’s Ghost On Ghost and the continuance of the poetic writer’s own narrative, following well-received collaborations with Ben Bridwell (Band Of Horses) and Jesca Hoop. It may be long-awaited, but the partnerships, particularly the latter on 2016’s Love Letter For Fire, reaped rewards for a songwriter used to flying solo.
“Jesca called it ‘smelling your own breath for too long’, which I thought was really funny,” says Sam, of his past perspective. “But it’s true. There’s a lot to be gained from trusting other people, because I think we can get very guarded with our own aesthetic and our own creative process, so I found the whole process really rewarding.”
The confident Beast Epic has been born from this freeing process and has, in Sam’s words, “a kinship”, with his much celebrated first album The Creek Drank The Cradle, stretching the acoustic songwriter formula into new forms and rhythms, while still embracing the whispered dynamics, artful observation and lush melodies of its forebears.
“I hadn’t realised that throughout my whole career I was trying to push myself to unfamiliar places, to discover what my voice could do or what kind of arrangements I could come up with,” says Sam.
“But those collaborations were the first time where I had to sit back and realise what I do, instead of what potential it has for something else. I just kind of relaxed and was myself for a change instead of being something that I didn’t recognise. That was valuable to me before, to discover something new, but on this one I did what I enjoy doing.”
It’s at this stage that alarm bells usually ring, but the same quietly idiosyncratic, southern-style mannerisms that imbibe Iron & Wine’s output prevent Beam from straying into smug territory. Chord progressions are assertive, but the arrangements are unforced, weaving lush, improvised tapestries of double-bass, percussion and beautifully-full and rich acoustic tones.
“I’ve finally figured out how to surround myself with really talented people and just throw ideas out,” laughs Sam. “I’m not writing avant-garde music; it’s folk music so the chords are set largely but within that framework there’s room for interpretation and that’s what we were chasing.”
While the album was recorded at The Loft in Chicago, back home the songwriter inhabits a basement space, having given up his previous fully-fledged studio in Dripping Springs, Texas in favour of something a little lower maintenance.
“I do less songwriting now than I used to,” he tells us. “I’ll sit down and pick at the guitar at least once a day, because I enjoy it. But when your raw material is life, you have to live life, you know? Otherwise you start writing songs about writing songs - and that’s no fun.”
As such, Beast Epic, is an album about life - and, appropriately, given its familiar-yet- different tone - about reflecting and taking stock.
“As a young person, you feel like you’ll grow up and then you’ll have it all figured out,” says Sam.
“But then you realise, ‘I still feel like a child, even though I have all of these new experiences.’ I feel heavier, because of the experiences I’ve had, so it reflects that journey… That wheel had spun around until it brought me back and I feel like when you recognise that happening in your life it’s something to celebrate.”
The title, discovered in a dictionary of literary terms, speaks to this realisation of moving from playing roles to accepting and even celebrating them.
“‘The term ‘beast epic’ is a way to describe a story like The Tortoise And The Hare - usually fables with moral lessons - where animals are acting like people,” explains Sam. “If you’re writing from your heart, that plays into any group of songs.”
Iron & Wine's sixth album Beast Epic is out now via Sub Pop.