There are few indie-folk anthems more potent to millennials than Iron and Wine’s 2002 cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” The stripped-down track, featuring Beam on vocals and guitar, commanded an instantly dedicated following, and he’s remained a staple in music since releasing 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle. [more after the jump...]
Beam attended Florida State University’s lauded College of Motion Picture Arts, receiving his MFA and eventually teaching film in Miami. He returns to the Sunshine State, and Tampa, on the heels of his fifth album, 2013’s Ghost on Ghost. For this record, he worked with an arranger to bring an 11-piece band into the studio for a two-week recording session. The record’s tracks feature renowned Louisiana jazz drummer Brian Blade (Daniel Lanois, Joni Mitchell, Ellis Marsalis, Herbie Hancock), among others, and Beam teamed up again with Chicago producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Califone); the duo previously worked together on Our Endless Numbered Days (2004) and The Shepherd’s Dog (2007).
But when he comes to the Straz Center for the Arts on Wed., Feb. 26, it’ll just be Beam and his guitar. The soft-spoken, bearded singer-songwriter spoke to Creative Loafing from his new home outside Durham, N.C.
You’re playing in Tampa, is this your first time? Any Tampa memories?
Sam Beam: I used to play in Tampa a bunch. This is the first time in a long time. I haven’t been there in ages. I used to come there [before Iron and Wine] for film-related reasons. I used to play at this bar in Ybor City. I can’t remember the name, what was it? Sorry, I can’t remember. It was a great little bar, though.
Can you talk about this album’s recording process? What’s it like for you after you release an album?
The previous two albums before Ghost on Ghost, I’d built a home studio. I took the time to use the home studio, and work on records for the better part of a year with each of those. It’s a blessing and a curse having a home studio. You can work whenever you want to, and I enjoy working that way. The songs were mostly written, and then we got an arranger friend of mine and arranged them. We got into the studio and performed the thing in two weeks and that was it. I think the string section gives a different feel than other records.
You’ve played with jazz musicians the last few years. What is about that approach to music that you prefer or find interesting?
I love playing with jazz musicians because usually they know what they’re doing. It’s an American tradition of music I love. If you play jazz, you can play all kinds of music. They all kind of feed from each, I like lots of different types of music, though.
Does your experience in film influence your songwriting perspective? Does it somehow play into how the narratives in your songs are shaped?
I don’t know, a lot of people ask me that. I definitely feel like I’m drawn to that kind of communication. I’m drawn to writing songs the same way I was drawn to writing screenplays.
Have you worked on anything recently, or have anything film-related you’d like to work on the in future? When you’re not releasing killer albums and touring and all, of course.
[Laughs] I have a hard enough time trying to just do that. I was doing some music videos when I first started, but nothing lately.
After writing so many songs, I imagine working on your music has some kind of routine now. Do you have a pattern or process you adhere to?
I try to. It’s not always easy, but I have a little studio space where I work in the mornings, when I’m more clear-headed. And so I try to put in a few hours on the guitar, I’m a big fan of the guitar.
Do you listen to your albums after they’ve come out? Obviously when you’re touring, you’re playing those songs, but do you revisit the album itself?
I don’t obsess over it. You can’t, really. I work really hard on these records, to make it sound like the right thing to do at the time. Sometimes those become surprises later in a good or bad way. When I’m playing these songs at concerts, I’m able to change things. But the last thing I want to do is listen to the record.
Does your family listen?
Yeah, my kids always tease me that “maybe you wouldn’t forget the words to your songs if you listened to the record more.”
You’ve got five daughters, right?
Are they getting into music at all yet?
[Laughs] I think music might take a little too much practice for them right now.
What music have you been listening to lately?
I haven’t been listening to a lot lately. One reason we moved to North Carolina was because, in Austin, I was always in the car. You know, Dad’s taxi service. I listened to a lot of music, very successfully, during that time. That was my music listening time. Now I’m not driving like that so I don’t have that time anymore.
Some of the tracks on Ghost on Ghost seem to capture these very live, or impromptu kind of moments. Was that due to the nature of the short, jam-packed recording sessions?
Yeah, I mean most of it was arranged, but it really feels improvisational. It was fun. All that said, though, when I come to Tampa it’ll just be me and my guitar. You’ll have to imagine all the horns.
Because you do tour solo, what’s it like distilling your songs down to something you can manage on your own?
Any of those songs, any song in general, boils down to a couple chord changes and a melody. It’s a different presentation I’m attempting, but I’ve done that a lot over the years. My early material is really sparse. Here I played with a big band, embellished the arrangements. But the new stuff and all its complexity boils down to me and the guitar, and that makes it fun.
Concert details: Iron and Wine plays Wed., Feb. 26, 8 p.m., at Ferguson Hall at Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. Macinnes Place, Tampa; tickets are $32.50-$44.50. More info at 813-229-7827 or Strazcenter.org.