‘I'm Not Putting on a Mask'

Iron & Wine continues to evolve, but Sam Beam and his beard remain the same


Though Sam Beam set the gold standard for bearded indie folk in the early 2000s, his Iron & Wine project has changed dramatically in the years since. Back then, Beam made hushed, haunting bedroom recordings in between teaching film and cinematography courses at the University of Miami; today, Beam sells out major venues like Red Rocks in Colorado and Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Back then, Beam cultivated an aura of quasi-Christian, Southern Gothic mythology; today, he's an effusive father of five daughters who can bring down the house with his deadpan between-songs banter.

Most significant, the music Beam writes, records and performs as Iron & Wine is stylistically and creatively light years beyond his early stark folk. Sure, everything Beam does is still built around fingerpicked acoustic guitars and his unique wall of multilayered vocal harmonies. But recent albums Kiss Each Other Clean and Ghost on Ghost feature complex string and horn arrangements, R&B shuffles, even jazz riffs. The constantly evolving approach keeps old fans on their toes while always appealing to new ones — a smart creative strategy if ever there was one.

Those Iron & Wine diehards get a treat on March 1, when Beam bends the heavenly acoustics of Ponte Vedra Concert Hall to his will for a rare solo performance. We chatted with Beam about the possibilities of the format, his deep Florida roots and the driving force behind his work.

Folio Weekly: You're playing six shows in Florida this month. Given that you attended school in Tallahassee and lived in Orlando and Miami for a spell, are you excited about returning to the Sunshine State?

Sam Beam: Definitely excited. It's been too long — probably two or three years. I lived in those places, but when I was working on movies we'd go everywhere. I worked on a movie in St. Augustine, in Tampa. Lots of memories, lots of things to see, and lots of people to try and visit. I'm really looking forward to Florida. Especially since I'm not coming in the summer. Florida's hot, holy shit. It gets brutal.

F.W.: Last fall, you toured with a 12-piece band. Does performing solo this tour allow you more freedom to pull from your whole discography?

S.B.: Yeah, I have more than a decade's worth of songs now, so people can shout stuff out and usually I'll play it — if I hear 'em. [Laughs.] Some shows, it's all requests. You can achieve a fuller sound with a band, and it is more fun to play with other people. But at the same time, solo shows have their own quality because you can change things around. I don't have to worry about people following me. That's a lot of fun, too.

F.W.: Given the relatively sad and subdued nature of your music, Iron & Wine fans with no experience of your live show might be taken aback by how damn funny you are on stage.

S.B.: [Laughs.] I take it seriously, but fun has always been a part of it. It's nice to strike a balance in life.

F.W.: Critics have always hailed your songs' narrative qualities. Is it hard to strike a balance between fiction and real-life storytelling?

S.B.: It's not hard to. My experiences usually set the whole thing in motion, and then sometimes other people's experience adds another dimension. It depends on what's more interesting. I don't really create a lot of alter egos — well, that's not true. [Laughs.] I'm going to stop before I say some bullshit.

F.W.: Please, go on.

S.B.: I'm not really an actor, you know what I mean? I get up on stage and perform, but I'm not putting on a mask. I'm not looking for someone else to be. So the characters in the song, I never struggle to remove myself from them.

F.W.: You've said in the past that art school taught you to never rest on your laurels and always worry about what's next. Is that why every Iron & Wine album has so greatly expanded your sonic palette?

S.B.: That's definitely a big part of how I work, but I don't think it's a conscious thing any more, like, "In art school I learned that I'm supposed to do this …." That way of working puts importance on your ideas — it's a lot more about the process than the product. I don't consciously apply that to my work, but at the same time, it was absorbed way back then and I think it's been really helpful. Not just in music, either, but in other art forms, too. It's more about the act of doing the work than success or any lack of attention that you might get. Pleasure should be the reason that anybody pursues an art form. It can be interesting, sure, but it's gotta be for pleasure. o

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