4:02pm

Mon April 29, 2013
Music Interviews

Iron And Wine: Words Like Seedlings

Originally published on Mon April 29, 2013 5:48 pm

It's kind of surprising that Iron and Wine's Sam Beam has ended up making his living in music. Early on, he received a cautionary lesson from his dad.

"My father used to book Motown bands in college," Beam says. "And he imparted some wisdom on me that it's an easy gig to lose your shirt in."

Beam grew up in South Carolina; he studied art in college, then got into making movies. Music was just something he did on the side, for fun.

In this interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block, Beam compares lyrical wordplay to coat hangers, describes the "exposed, vulnerable place" in "Caught in the Briars," and discusses the themes that run through Ghost on Ghost, Iron and Wine's fifth full-length studio album.


Interview Highlights

On the similarities between songwriting and making films

"There are definitely a lot of narrative elements, but I'm not worried about people understanding exactly what's happening. I treat it more like a poem, and if there's a certain feeling or a certain wordplay or some kind of cognitive tension, I'll go for that."

On the physicality of lyrical wordplay

"I think it's important — the way that [words fall] out of your mouth. I find that a lot of times I'll come up with the seedlings of a song just by fooling around with the guitar or the piano and muttering nonsense, you know, just syllables at random. Sometimes you stumble upon a word or a phrase, and it's like a coat hanger. All of a sudden, you have something to start hanging other phrases and stuff on. But they're all different. Sometimes you have a clear idea of what you're getting into when you start, and sometimes you're just fishing."

On the themes that tie Ghost on Ghost together

"It's always hard to decide what songs to include, because I don't sit down to write a record from start to finish. I just kind of always work. I would like to have a group of songs that have a cohesive feel for one reason or another. I mean, that's such a subjective thing. What I do is just go through the songs and see if I can pick out something that ties them together. And this one, I had a lot of songs that had this central character — this couple. They weren't necessarily the same couple. It was this couple against the world in a certain way or against one another. They were working something out. I felt, loosely, it was fun to make this imagined story where if you were interested in taking the time, you could almost imagine each song was like a new adventure for this couple."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. It's kind of surprising that Sam Beam has ended up making his life in music under the name Iron and Wine. Early on, he got a cautionary lesson from his dad.

SAM BEAM: My father used to book Motown bands in college and he imparted some wisdom on me that it's an easy gig to lose your shirt in.

BLOCK: He'd seen that close up.

BEAM: Yeah, so I took it to heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DESERT BABBLER")

BEAM: (Singing) And California's gonna kill you soon. The Barstow boys. Bug eyes in the shadow of the moon.

BLOCK: This song is from the new Iron and Wine album. It's his fifth, titled "Ghost On Ghost." Sam Beam grew up in South Carolina; he studied art in college, then got into filmmaking. Music was just something he did on the side, for fun, until a record deal landed in his lap. I asked him if he approaches writing a song in the same way he would make a film.

BEAM: There are definitely a lot of narrative elements, but I'm not worried about people understanding exactly what's happening. I treat it more like a poem, and if there's a certain feeling or a certain wordplay or some kind of cognitive tension, I'll go for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DESERT BABBLER")

BEAM: (Singing) I know you'll never leave me, but we're far from the hard light tonight.

BLOCK: It's interesting to me what you said about word play. I've been wondering when you're writing lyrics if it's really more about the way the words feel in your mouth, the physical sound of them, than what the words mean necessarily.

BEAM: Yeah, sometimes, for sure. I think it's important the way that they out of your mouth. I find that a lot of times I'll come up with the seedlings of a song just by fooling around with the guitar or the piano and muttering nonsense, you know, just syllables at random. And sometimes you stumble upon a word or a phrase, you know, it's like a coat hanger.

All of a sudden, you have something to start hanging other phrases and stuff on. But, you know, they're all different. Sometimes you have a clear idea of what you're getting into when you start, and sometimes you're just fishing.

BLOCK: Can you think of a song that worked that way, where it might have been some random patterns of sound that turned into a song in the end?

BEAM: Well, the first track, "Caught in the Briars" was kind of like that. I've been fooling with that melody forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAUGHT IN THE BRIARS")

BEAM: (Singing) Back alleys full of rain and everything shining as holy as she can be the trick's in the timing. Free as a morning bird, fragile as china, she's stuck in the weakest heart of South Carolina, where all of the naked boys lay down beside her, sing her the saddest song all caught in the briars.

You know, when you work this way, you have to be patient, too, because it don't always fall out. A lot of stuff falls out and not necessarily stuff that you want to put out. And so the "Caught in the Briars" tune I had just a naked boy is caught in briars and...

BLOCK: Where did they come from?

BEAM: There's something about nakedness, you know, that says, you know, you're not putting up a front. They have nothing to hide. It's an exposed vulnerable place. And then, also coupled with the idea of being exposed in the briars is not a fun idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAUGHT IN THE BRIARS")

BEAM: (Singing) That all of the naked boys that laid down beside her sing her the saddest song all caught in the briars.

BLOCK: It's interesting because there's another song on the album called "Sundown Back in the Briars" that has a lot of echoes of this first one. It's almost like it's the response to it.

BEAM: Well, it does. They were. They were the same song and I couldn't decide which direction to do it.

BLOCK: So you split it in two.

BEAM: Yeah, then I did both of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDOWN BACK IN THE BRIARS")

BEAM: (Singing) Nobody knows when the rain may come. Nobody wants wake up and be cruel. She locked the door and the sun went down in South Carolina with nothing to lose. All of her naked boys...

The main deal is just the - it goes, like, to a different time signature and it becomes - it's starts to smooth out and feels more like a wave than the percussive jumping around of the first one. And then, you know, with that different feel, you know, it has a different emotional wave.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Do you find that there's maybe one idea or sort of inspiration that holds these 12 songs together?

BEAM: It's always hard to decide what songs to include, because I don't sit down to write a record from start to finish. I just kind of always work. I would like to have a group of songs that have a cohesive feel for one reason or another. I mean, that's such a subjective thing. What I do is just go through the songs and see if I can pick out something that ties them together.

And this one, I had a lot of songs that had this central character, this couple. They weren't necessarily the same couple. It was this couple against the world in a certain way or against one another. They were working something out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRACE FOR THE SAINTS AND RAMBLERS")

BEAM: (Singing) It all came down to you and I. It all came down to you and I. There were banged up hens stealing first base underneath the tables so we never sang grace falling out of bed for the workday week there was kissing in the cracks of the flash flood streets there were button blossoms and merry Johnny Rotten chewed up and swallowed by the profit they were trying to follow bit too green and we paid no tax on our quick romantic cul de sac. But it all came down to you and I.

And so I felt, loosely, it was fun to sort of make this imagined story where if you were interested in taking the time, you could almost imagine each song was like a new adventure for this couple.

BLOCK: You know, the way you're describing it, it sounds almost like you're imagining it as a little movie.

BEAM: Yeah, it could be, yeah. There's definitely some songs would make more interesting movies than others, that's for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRACE FOR THE SAINTS AND RAMBLERS")

BEAM: (Singing) ...sweet gum tree by the dug dunk tank, we could never give enough to the bad luck bank there were hopeless sinners, sweepstake winners they dance with the farmer's daughter, capered with the corporate lawyers...

BLOCK: Sam Beam, also known as Iron and Wine, his new album is "Ghost On Ghost." Sam, thanks so much.

BEAM: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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