Ever since I was given a copy of Iron and Wine’s 2002 tour EP, I—like thousands of others—have spent countless hours wandering around the detailed worlds of Sam Beam’s songs. A few weeks before the Woman King EP was released I got the chance to talk to him about songwriting past present and future.
PopMatters: The big thing that everybody seemed to write about when Endless Numbered Days came out, was the production value in relation to The Creek Drank the Cradle. How do you feel the songs themselves were different, and are progressing or changing?
Sam Beam:Well, it’s kind of hard to say when you’re in the middle of it. But speaking in hindsight, that record in particular was affected quite a bit by the birth of my last daughter. You know, and you’re faced with a lot of mortality kind of things. When you’re faced with a new life you start to think about your own, your beginnings and ends. So these things popped up thematically in the songs. But like I said, it’s a lot easier to look back on these things than what’s going on now.
PM: Has the process of just sitting down to write or when you write has changed at all since you’ve had a couple albums out and there’s an audience
SB: Oh, do you mean do I write more for the audience now?
PM: No, not at all.
SB: No, I don’t mean that that’s a bad thing. A lot of people do that. I don’t really do that. ‘Cause I don’t know what I’d write for them (laughs). But yeah, I mean, it’s changed a lot since I’ve first started. You start to realize your strengths. Either work with or work against it or whatever you’re doing at the time. But I think it’s mostly you change as a person. You encounter new things and factor them in, and that’s always changing. Especially with experiences, like I said, like my kids being born. All these things change you as a person, change your outlook, change how you react to what you’re writing, how you edit your writing.
PM: The song “The Trapeze Artist” that just came out (on the soundtrack to In Good Company)—is that an older song or is that fairly recent?
SB: I finished it right before they finished up the movie It is actually a really old melody. And then I had several versions of it. I wasn’t really happy with it. And then I’d spoken with them, and they said they wanted to use some of the old songs, and they wanted me to do some new stuff too. So I went back to that one and sort of shaped it to the movie. It was kind of cool, in the sense that it gave me a sort of fresh breath for that song, an image to hang on, given some of the stuff that happened in the movie.
PM: Did it surprise you how long the song turned out (9-and-a-half minutes)?
SB: (laughs) Yeah it did! I mean, usually what happens is I have a lot of verses for all the songs and you pick the ones you like best, whittle it down, conform a bunch of verses together like frankenverses. But that one, I probably had twice as many for that one, and just left it where it was.
PM: I think about “Passing Afternoon” also from a writer’s standpoint. I’d be interested to hear how that came together because the patterns that are established in it are very intricate. Do you edit a lot to get your songs to that point?
SB: Sometimes they’re real wrote-out kinds of things. Sometimes they’re just happy accidents. That one in particular was more of a happy accident if I remember it. It’s been a while. But I think ... I really don’t remember (laughs). I wish I could tell you more.
PM: One of things that I noticed is that the chord progression goes forward and then backwards.
SB: Yeah, I think that was sort of a melodic thing. I think that was an unintentional thing too (laughs).
PM: Well that’s a good unintentional thing!
SB: Some of those ones are fun when you don’t really have a proper chorus, because you put your emphasis on other areas, to find familiarity, the familiarity an audience usually gets from a chorus, like “now I know where I am again”, and you can start another chapter. You lose that lift, so you find other things to hang your hat on.
PM: With Woman King, what I’ve read is these songs didn’t start out intended for a collection of songs about women, but were culled from a larger group of songs.
SB: Well, it’s not really a great story. I mean I’m always writing, so I had all of these songs lying around. The “Woman King” song came about, and then I realized I had all of these other songs with women characters. So the idea just sort of made sense, it gave the other songs a home.
PM: I’ve also heard some rumors about a collaboration with Calexico?
SB: Yeah, we recorded some stuff back in December. We did this EP collaboration. We basically took a bunch of my old songs that were either out on the Internet, or stuff that hasn’t made it to a record but that I thought would be fun to revitalize, that would be fun for people to hear. We’re still mixing that, it should probably come out in September.
PM: Do you have specific things that you’re aiming for with your music, or things that you haven’t done yet that you feel like you’re building towards?
SB: Well, I’m always trying to evolve, and keep from getting in a rut, making the same record over and over again. On this last EP, there’s a lot more percussion, a lot more playful instrumentation. Keep things interesting. Like what haven’t we tried?