A friend of mine once fell asleep at an Iron and Wine show. By the time the opener had finished and Sam Beam started in with his lullaby-like tunes, my buddy found himself a comfy spot on a pool table and succumbed to a serenaded sleep.
I always think of that story as a bit of a compliment to Iron and Wine, kind of like napping at the orchestra. The soft-spoken singer-songwriter has such a tender voice and a way with pleasing imagery that you might as well be in a dream state while you’re listening to his music.
But Beam has changed a good deal as he’s wound through a career of interesting side projects and one-offs to go along with his five full-length studio albums. These days, he sings with less breathiness and sprinkles upbeat pop numbers among the soporific crooners.
Ahead of his June 19 engagement at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion, Beam took time away from recording a covers album with Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses to talk to C-VILLE Weekly about projecting his voice, being a student at VCU, and the benefits of going commercial.
C-VILLE Weekly: Why do you use a stage name instead of your own?
Sam Beam: Blatant showmanship. Which is more interesting, Sam Beam or Iron and Wine? But I had always kind of envisioned it as a band. Now I just put several bands together. It’s a band with one permanent member.
Is there a benefit to switching up band members?
I have people that come and go; it’s kind of a pool of people, and it just depends on who is available and what style of music I’m pushing into. But yeah, it gives you a way to switch things up sometimes. It will be a five-piece that night [in Charlottesville], with Rob Burger, the fella that helped me do a bunch of arrangements on the last record, and a lot of my regulars. Matt Lux will play the bass, Jim Becker on guitar and all the shit with strings, Joe Adamik on drums.
You guys will be outdoors in C’ville. Does that matter to you?
I would prefer indoors. You have a bit more control of the sound. But at the same time I like being outside. Especially with the early material, it takes a certain kind of listening space, and it’s really appropriate for seated theaters. But after over a decade of putting records out, I’m not interested in regurgitating the recordings. We switch the songs around, pull the loud ones back to quiet, or the opposite.
I hear more happiness in your music these days. Is there anything to that?
I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten happier. I would say I have expanded the palette of what I was writing about. I was using what I had at the time. I didn’t have a band and was doing music in my spare time. I don’t feel like they are sad songs, maybe somber, but I’m not complaining about what a bad world it is, or what a raw deal I have. They are contemplative, but it has been nice to change things up over the years. The old songs can get a little tedious after a while.
You also seem to sing more clearly these days.
I definitely had to learn how to project over the years. That was how I thought I sang, and it felt appropriate for the sentiment of the tunes.
Having gone to VCU, can I assume you have some familiarity with Charlottesville?
We used to go to Charlottesville quite often to see shows or go camping. I saw a couple really good guitar players, like acoustic guitar, and some punk shows there.
What was Sam Beam like as a college student?
Well, I was super-cool, attractive, and intelligent. When I was in Richmond in art school, I thought I would be a painter. Then I got into the photography department and sort of got my interest piqued in film and went on to film school. I’ve had a lot of people approach me to do film stuff since I started making music. Before I started in music, I would have given a vital body part for that opportunity. It’s funny how life works sometimes.
Does your background in visual arts influence you as a songwriter?
I guess so. It all works together. I’m interested in visual communication, whether it is in painting or filmmaking, so I approach songs more like poems. I stick with visual imagery that a reader can respond to and then dabble in some emotion. But at the end of the day, it is a song. You start with the melody and then start daydreaming or whatever. If there were a nice roadmap to making one of my tunes, I would keep following it.
Whatever you’re doing, it seems to be going pretty well.
You can’t be doing it for the business. You have to do it because you like it. If you like it enough and you do it enough, and you keep working on your craft and your chops, you can make it. That said, I should be more commercial-minded. I should be, but I follow the muse. I think it was art school—whether it was technical training or just some kind of brain washing—but I definitely learned that whatever other people’s opinions were, you have to follow your own muse.