Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

The Sound of Songwriting: With Sam Beam of the Iron & Wine

11 min read

We tend to speak of our lives in generalities, while in our mind, when we sit alone and reflect on the past, we tend to recall specific details. The details are personal. They invoke substance. They’re in our head like a collage of still frames and at times they all just seem to blend together.

On “Walking Far From Home,” the opening track to Iron & Wine’s latest release Kiss Each Other Clean, the narrator highlights salient images from his life: “A Pair of hearts carved into a stone,” and the words that two lover’s once whispered to each other, “Want me like time, Want me like time.” All vivid details from a life littered with love, and told in a way that exhumes evidence from the author’s past without the use of well-worn phrases like, “I love you, baby.”

“That song is like a painting,” Beam would later tell me during our discussion, commenting on his approach to writing the song. Actually, a great deal of Beam’s music comes from a place inside himself that is closely bound to his experience studying and creating art in those years that preceded Iron & Wine. He’s an observer of the world. Many of Iron & Wine’s most beautiful songs, like “The Trapeze Swinger” and “Resurrection Fern,” refrain from directly communicating feelings, or from opining on how one should live their life. Rather, they are an assortment of images culled from the narrator’s memory.

Whether or not the character in “Walking Far From Home” is Beam himself doesn’t matter so much. His take on the music of Iron & Wine is quite formalistic: he believes that the artistic value is based on the work itself; absent from the historical background and life of the author who created it. Beam alludes to such ideals by explicitly divorcing himself from the content of his characters. “I live a boring life,” he would remark.

If Sam Beam was a painter I’d imagine him as Claude Monet: using thin brush lines, approaching his subject from an unusual visual angle, and using soft colors that simultaneously mask and accentuate the passage of time. Lyrically, his method might be paraphrased: describe in great detail, and with all sincerity, the imagery that surrounds a song’s theme. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke gave similarly inspiring advice a century ago, “Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose. For the creative artist there is no poverty – [no detail] is insignificant or unimportant.” I can picture Beam like this, with brushstrokes of grammar, writing alone in his backyard.

Musically, one of Beam greatest songwriting talents is his ability to reduce art to its most necessary elements. Listen to “Cinder and Smoke” to hear an example: it’s a song with only four chords (Bm – Dm9 – F#m – Dm9) and a lyric-less chorus, which consists of Beam languorously oscillating his voice between two notes (D and C#). Meanwhile, we follow the subtle imagery of (what appears to be) a lover looking to regain trust as his relationship falls apart, “Give me your hand,” Beam sings, “The farmhouse is burning down… as if you were listening.”

Iron & Wine’s fourth studio release, Kiss Each Other Clean was released just last week and musically it continues the evolution of Iron & Wine’s career from Sam Beam the solo folk guitarist, to the Sam Beam the leader of a drum and saxophone backed band.

I met with Beam before a private live show at the Mercury Lounge where he was preparing to showcase his new songs for two hundred lucky fans in New York City. In person he stands tall with his bushy beard and a chocolate brown blazer – dressing more like the college professor he once was before leaving the lectern for the stage.

Upon being introduced he gives me a warm two-handed shake. He speaks very deliberately, rarely using words “like” and “um” as filler. The exception to this would be when I asked him about any song that came before his latest album. He claims that he’s forgotten the meaning behind his old songs: “those songs no longer belong to me”, he would say.

Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

But when he talks about the new songs on Kiss Each Other Clean he gets very excited, he sits upright in his chair and his eyes sparkle. So it’s lucky for me that I came prepared to talk about the album a few weeks before it was released, before he relinquished ownership of these new songs to his fans, and before he would inevitably forget why they were once important to him.

Can you take me through the process of writing a new Iron & Wine song?

Well, they’re all a little different. It’s just hard to say, Chris. I will say that I treat songwriting as a job – where I sit down from when I take the kids to school until the time I go to pick them up. Some days you do more sitting and writing, some days you do more recording. As long as you keep working.

I will say that there are a lot of days that you don’t get shit done. [laughs] You know, you’ve got to be easy on your brain, but then when the muses work you got to be there to catch it. So it’s much less about inspiration then it is about rewriting and editing. Just trying to push it as far as you can go with it. Usually there are several versions of each song and lots of thrown away lyrics. It’s hard to say because each song has it’s own set of rules.”

When you started writing songs it was just you and your guitar?

Well it’s still that way. But I have been writing more on the piano lately.

The song “Godless Brother In Love” [from Kiss Each Other Clean] starts with that pretty piano melody. Is that song an example of one you wrote on the piano?

Yeah it is. For me, someone who is more familiar with the guitar, you follow the patterns where the hands know where to go. So the piano is nice because it’s all laid out in a line. It ends up being more melody driven, instead of rhythm driven.

It’s still just me and the guitar at the beginning hashing out a melody and chord structure. Then when you come to record it, then you record it as many ways as you can, to see what clothes you think look best on it.

But you can record a song any number of ways. And some work best to stage, whatever you are perfectly trying to get across in the tune, or sometimes it works best in contrast to what you’re saying.

How do you know what works best? Do you ever sit by yourself and wonder, “Is this song any good?”

[Beam laughs at this question]. “You don’t worry if it’s good! I went to an art school, so you get very accustomed to making it about what you’re doing rather than what you end up with.

It’s more about the process and you get very accustomed to putting yourself out there to people. Of taking what you’re working on and saying, ‘Look at this’. And you get very accustomed to what other people’s praises are worth. I mean, at the end of the day it could be great to somebody, and a piece of dogshit to somebody else. It doesn’t matter as long as you enjoy doing it. That has it’s own merit.

Can a song ever be too simple?

No that doesn’t matter. I definitely have versions of tunes where I think, ‘I can push this further. I could ring a little more juice out of it’. But sometimes the most simple expression is the most true, so that’s great. Or do you mean simple as in cliché?

No, just that your songs seem unforced. On some songs there isn’t a rush to get to the chorus, or to add any more instruments than an acoustic guitar.

[laughs] Yeah some of them don’t have choruses at all! You take them all differently.

There’s that tune, ‘Walking Far From Home’ [on Kiss Each Other Clean], I couldn’t think of a bridge, so then I try to see what is working and you expand on that. ‘Ok I have this descriptive thing going on, so let’s push it further, let’s continue longer than it should be going and see if I can get something out of it’.

It’s like a John Cage piece, if you push it long enough it becomes…something.

Before the release of the first Iron & Wine album you were a professor of film and cinematography at the University of Miami. Has filmmaking influenced your songwriting?

I enjoy communicating in a visual way. That’s why I was drawn to painting, drawing, and filmmaking… and writing the way I do.

I don’t like songs that tell you how to be or to argue a point- I say this, but I can probably think of a million that I do like. [Generally] that’s just not my thing. I like describing things and setting things together. Just like you do in pages: you set two images together, and ask, ‘what do they mean together in juxtaposition?’ Or then there’s a series of images: and so, ‘what does that mean?’ And then I sprinkle it with stories, and a little dramatic through-line to see what happens.

Do you see the singer as a storyteller?

To continue on what I was talking about before, I find that it’s a more collaborative process. Instead of [the idea that] our dialogue will only work if you understand my point.

Like, if I say ‘Look at this’ and then you can say ‘Yeah that’s cool. I like that part about it…’ So we can sort of do it together.

I don’t say, “Do you get it? Do you understand?” No, it’s more collaborative, we do it together. That’s what I like about just visual communication in the arts.

I wonder then, if you could imagine yourself as the director of the visual world you create in each of your songs. Do you then have your own take on the intricacies and details within that world?

Much more so in the past. As I started it was very much about trying to get it perfect – to translate what’s in my head. But you learn that it’s best to set yourself up as best you can to be surprised in a great way. I know that feels weird or sounds silly, but you really try to set yourself up where other people can come in and surprise you or interpret what you’re doing, or you can make mistakes and it sounds ok.

It’s almost like a Robert Altman thing, where he would come in and bring the right people and the right scenario and sometimes shit would just happen. His is a very collaborative process. Obviously with music, jazz is like that too. You set yourself up with a general number of bars and hopefully you can set the stage for something surprising to happen. And so that’s what I’ve been included in more recently, it’s been more fun to include other people.

Have you ever written a song and it occurs to you, “This sounds exactly like somebody else’s song!”?

[laughs] Oh yeah it happens all the time! Of course. Everybody does that and if they don’t they’re lying. There’s only so many chords and there’s a lot of music out there.

Can you think of any examples?

There’s something on the new album that sounds a whole lot like it could be a Smokey Robinson routine tune. But it could be… and once you recognize that, you have to opportunity to say, ‘Ok do I run with it and make it an homage’ or ‘What can I bring to the table to add to what the person said.’ Or you say, ‘Ok I have to change this-and-this and take something away.’

Is there one song you’re most proud of?

[He gives me an overwhelmed look, then followed by indifference]

Nah. The one I haven’t written yet.

Is that something you’re working towards?

No… [long pause] But I hope the one that I haven’t written yet is going to be the best one. You know what I mean? You keep trying to make a better one. It think that’d be a sad day when you say, ‘Well I think my best shit is definitely behind me.’ That would be awful. You’d just find something else to do.

Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk? She addresses that issue very elegantly: this pressure that artists have to always create something more magnificent than their last work. Personally she was haunted for years by this idea that her greatest success as a writer [Eat, Pray, Love] was most likely behind her.

I haven’t seen it, but I know what you mean. I feel blessed to have done the art school thing where you get accustomed to working. And you realize quickly it’s about the work and the only value out of it, is what you get out of it. You know what I mean?

I hope everyone enjoys what I’m doing. So it’s like, I don’t write songs to piss people off, I want them to enjoy it, but at the same time it’s about making it, it’s for me, my process. And so, I feel sorry for people that get famous early on. It sucks for them. [laughs]

I’d like to name a few Iron & Wine songs and get your reaction.

Resurrection fern
Yup. [long pause without an answer]

What do you remember about writing it?

I remember being in Florida and my friend had this tree with the resurrection fern on it. And I had never seen the ferns on the tree until I moved down there. And I just thought that was a wild idea – the religious image, and nature of it. I just thought it was a fun image to run with. You could apply it to any situation, a dramatic situation or whatever.

Do you remember where you where when you wrote Flightless Bird?
In Miami. In my backyard.

Naked as we came
In my backyard.

Do you have any other reaction to that?

Nah, it’s been so long ago that I wrote that one. And I’ve played it so many times that it’s hard to remember.

I noticed that in past interviews, whenever people mentioned old Iron & Wine songs you claim not to remember anything about them.

Well, it changes over the years. You know? If I had written it and just walked away from it would be one thing. But it’s had such a history with me for so many years that it’s kind of lost something. It’s kind of like saying the matra – you say it so many times you forget what the words mean.

What about “Me and Lazarus” from the new record?
I had this tune where I had this image of Lazarus on a motorcycle that didn’t mean anything [laughs] – or at least it didn’t mean enough. But then I had this other sort of Jamaican sounding thing that had a melody I liked.

I had a bunch of friends during the Bush era that were like, ‘Fuck this shit let’s get out of here! I’m leaving! I’m going to Europe or Canada.’ They had it all figured out. And I remember feeling, ‘you know, you’ll always find some problem.’

I didn’t like what the administration was doing at the time either, but the idea of running away? And at the same time there was all these bank bailouts, and so it kind of all got stirred up in the soup of ‘Me and Lazarus’ who got a second chance. The narrator paling around with Lazarus. It doesn’t mean it’s, not a particular thesis on any particular point, it’s just a big… soup.

Godless brother in love
Yeah [he pauses to think]. Well, I liked the idea of… these images of these spoiled rotten kids in a pretty setting.

The clothes of that song are the pretty piano thing. And the idea of someone who is godless. What does that mean? Godless and in love. Do they even understand what that means? It’s a contradiction. And so there are a lot of contradictions in that song. There’s a more specific context in that song that I was writing from that I don’t want to talk about because I feel that it will spoil some of the tune.

I’m really into a lot of jazz players lately. Nina Simone in particular. Just the way she could create this atmosphere through the piano in her songs. There is one, she did that Sandy Denny song ‘Who knows where the Time Goes’. Her rendition of that is incredible. I’d been trying to do something with that feel for a long time. And ‘Godless brother in Love’ is what came out.

Walking Far From Home
I was on tour when that one started – so it was easy to have that far from home feel. All of the songs have so many thrown away lyrics, that you try to get as much down on paper so you don’t forget it. You go back and pick out which ones work, and do more with those.

That song ended up with a million different things that that guy saw on his life journey. Some were more pleasant and some were… not so pleasant.

It’s like life, you know, if you look back on it you loose track of all the images. And some of it’s really surreal, some of it’s beautiful, some of it’s disturbing.

But it all kind of blends together at the end.

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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.