Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Iron and Wine employs big band for haunting new album, tour

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Sam Beam

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The conventional view of the man with the stage name Iron and Wine is of a soft-spoken, stay-at-home sort partial to penning image-filled lyrics performed by himself without fanfare or gimmickry.

Only Sam Beam's mountain-man beard -- what we would call a four-round hockey-playoff beard -- comes across loud and proud.

Sounds right to Beam, who is making his debut in Winnipeg proper on Sept. 19 at Pantages Playhouse Theatre after a two local appearances in Birds Hill Park at the 2009 and 2012 Winnipeg folk festivals. His quiet anonymity, aided by living in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina, has yet to be threatened despite five much-appreciated albums, including the 2013 release Ghost on Ghost, which again reveals little about its creator.

"I don't really write autobiographical songs but take whatever is useful from my life," says the 39-year-old Southerner during a telephone interview from his home he shares with his wife Kim and five daughters, age 3 to 15. "Unfortunately, there is not a lot to write about from my life, except about making lunches and picking up people from school."

Before the release of his folky 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, Beam was a hobby musician with no urge to hit the road.

"I learned to like touring," he says. "It was not a natural thing for me at the beginning. I'm much more of a writing-recording kind of person. I'm an introvert, unfortunately."

Beam says he was schooled by the members of the Arizona Tex-Mex band Calexico (he appeared on their 2008 album Carried to Dust), who taught him how to collaborate with musicians and make space for fellow players in his songs. Before he discovered the joy of collaboration, his custom was to put all his efforts into getting his tunes right on the page before they were heard on stage.

"I learned you can keep a song alive by finding ways to re-interpret it or improvise it so it doesn't die as soon as you record it," says Beam.

His evolution and forays into new sonic territory will be on display at the Pantages when he arrives here fronting a 12-piece big band that includes a three-person string section, a three-man horn section and a trio of female backup singers. Beam has found his current show has evolved into more of a party than the straight-up concert originally intended.

"It's fun to watch people squirm in their seats because it's really danceable material. In hindsight, we should have had someplace where people can dance," he says.

As a serious musician, he loves the big band for the flexibility it affords him to match the arrangements -- the thrum of the brass on Caught in the Briars or the oohs and aahs from female singers on The Desert Babbler -- from his records or go the unplugged route for his solo material. As an economic enterprise, it is less satisfying, given "you can't really make a dime" owing to the costs of bankrolling such a large contingent across the continent, but that's the price he is willing to pay for his maturation from folk minimalist to roots maximalist.

Beam agrees his songs have blossomed and the arrangements have gotten more complex since his lo-fi early efforts. That was bound to happen, seeing that he was a film professor at the University of Miami moonlighting as a singer-songwriter with his acoustic guitar and banjo.

"There wasn't a whole lot of other directions to go except go larger after the first record," he says. "I don't like to repeat myself."

With Ghost on Ghost, Beam again did not have any overriding concept when it came time to go into the recording studio. That's when he goes into his overstuffed songbook and pulls out the likeliest candidates. It is only then he studies them for "a binding factor" that might loosely pull them together thematically. For his 2007 album The Shepherd's Dog, he noticed a lot of the tunes involved dogs. For 2011's Kiss Each Other Clean, it was a repeating image. In Ghost on Ghost, a phrase from lead single Grace for Saints and Ramblers, Beam discovered a young couple (a snapshot of them entwined graces the album cover) was at the centre of the dozen pieces.

"I've never been successful writing a concept piece," says Beam, who went to school with the idea of being a painter. "Serendipitously, I tend to write about the same things over and over again."

Beam listens to all kinds of music, from synthetic avant-garde to jazz to the most rustic folk music. His mentors were, not surprisingly, "wordy guys" like Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan, although his early favourites came from Motown, for which he credits for his sense of song structure, verse and melody.

Beam says his go-to subjects are God, love and death, and if he can allude to all three, the better the song. His inventiveness as a songwriter makes his lyrics the source of intense scrutiny by Iron and Wine devotees.

"I like to make records where you have to listen intently," he says. "You get what you need from first blush. If you want to go further, you will be rewarded as well.

"They are not essays. It's not me pontificating on a certain subject. I treat them like poems. It's always interesting to hear someone's take on the lyrics."

No matter the contentious public debate in his homeland about a punitive air strike against Syria, illegal immigration, corporate crime and wealth inequity -- you won't see the thoughtful Beam riled up enough to pen a protest song like some of his contemporaries.

"I tend to stay away from politics. I don't have a beef that I'm afraid to share, but I find it polarizing," he says.

People shut off if they think they are being sold an opinion they don't agree with, says Beam, who favours a broader, philosophical approach.

"I don't use songs as a soapbox but as a narrative exploration, and put some poetry out there. It's not what makes me put pen to paper. Politics are more frustrating to me than inspiring," he says.

His frustrations with the world pour out of him as strange or foreboding images rather than an angry rant. Beam doesn't think he could do it even if he wanted to.

"Even the way I sing, I have a hard time yelling. It's not the way my pipes work, so I tend to sound like the snake in the tree hissing rather than someone on the mountaintop screaming their ideas."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2013 C1

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Updated on Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 6:48 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline, adds video

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