Ghost Stories: A Q&A With Iron & Wine

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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Like the soundtrack to some forgotten film from the 1970s, Iron & Wine’s Ghost on Ghost casts a look backward, mixing vintage saxophone solos and ‘70s string arrangements into one of the year’s most forward-thinking albums. We caught up with Sam Beam before a solo show in Chapel Hill, NC, to talk about the songs, the studio, and the challenge of combining New Orleans funk with British prog-rock.

You’re playing a solo show tonight, but you often tour with a full band. Does the new album allow you the freedom to jump between both set-ups?

Yeah, of course. The songs all originate with just me. Then, when we record them, we have endless options and different arrangements to explore. I’m not so precious about maintaining what I did on the record, though, you know what I mean? I enjoy an opportunity to switch things up and play a song differently. So I have no trouble playing them alone, if that’s what I’m doing on a particular night. I do have trouble remembering them sometimes.

So you don’t support the idea that a song’s definitive version is the version people hear on the album?

Well, it’s a shame to get a good performance of a song, and then have the song die there. When you can pursue it a bit more and see what else can be discovered about your tune… that’s where you get your juice. And music is so subjective in general. There are people who think you should never touch the song again, people who think you’re gonna fuck it up every time you mess with it. But as an artist, I think you should be exploring all the time. It’s a transition in the way you think about your work. If your work is more about the process of working, then you are still in pursuit of good results, but the result is not where you get your satisfaction. It’s the process — the process of exploring and doing.

You could say the same about Iron & Wine’s lineup. Sometimes there are multiple members. Sometimes it’s just you. It’s a process of exploring different combinations of people.

Right. I tell people that Iron & Wine is a band with one permanent member.

When so much of your work relies on exploration, how do you buckle down and decide on a specific arrangement in the recording studio?

It’s an intuitive thing. I make a lot of demos at home, and each one tries to discover something new about the tune. Some of them start with an idea and develop it. Others start with an idea and scrap it. Most of the time, we’ve worked it out by the time we get to the studio, because that’s when it starts to get expensive to experiment.

That said, you decide on a direction, but also give yourself enough wiggle room for some interpretation. You should have enough room to react. You make a pretty strong skeleton, and then leave it for the musicians to flesh out. We did a lot of pre-production work on this record — much more so than the last few, which I made at home for the most part. With those other records, I knew I was going to record some tracks, cut them up, scratch some parts, add other parts… It was that sort of process, because I was at home and had the time and energy to do it that way. But with this one, we went into the studio and got the whole thing recorded in about two weeks. When you deal with horn sections and string sections, you don’t really have the time to improvise. Going into this album, we had a pretty good idea of what we were pursuing.

The songs are shorter this time around, too.

I don’t like to wear out my welcome. I think it’s wiser to say what you have to say and then get off the stage. I like shorter records, records that you can digest in a sitting. It’s not a jammy kind of thing. If we extend something, it’s for a reason — at least on the album. The live show is a different story, but you can get another song on the record if you keep the jamming to a minimum, you know?

Let’s talk abut some specific songs. “Singers and the Endless Song” has a funky ‘70s feel to it. What sort of exploration led to that song?

That one was started as a swampy blues thing, and it ended up sounding like New Orleans funk — like Allen Toussaint or something. There’s some English prog-rock in there, too. It’s kind of a mix. I thought the lyrics were fairly heavy and surreal… the whole idea of teaching your children this and that, and showing them right from wrong. I thought it would be fun to make it danceable, too. It makes you wanna shake your butt.

Children often pop up in your songs. What sort of things were you trying to say with this record? Were there other themes?

Well, I don’t really approach it the way you’re suggesting, when you sit down and say, “Ok, let’s start writing this record today.” I write all the time. I treat it like a job. You just write, you know? When it comes time to put out a record, you kinda look at the songs that you’ve got, and try to pick out ones that would work together as a group, as an album. The Shepherd’s Dog — a lot of those songs were included because they had a dog in it. Ha! On Kiss Each Other Clean, a lot of songs had a river in it, which was the binding image. On this one, a lot of the songs had a couple in them. This couple against the world, or this couple dealing with one another, or this couple being affected by the place they’re in, or this couple bonding together. A lot of songs were about those people, so the songs seemed to work together, thanks to that binding factor. So… I’ve kind of forgotten the question now, but there’s some of these songs that I’ve been sitting on for the better part of a decade, and some are brand new.

If you have songs that are a decade old, how do you keep track of them while continually writing new material?

I have notebooks full of stuff, and I also do a lot of demoing at home. Often times, you do those demos so you don’t forget [the songs]. Other times, you do them to help work out ideas.

Talk to me about “Joy.” That song almost sounds like a lullaby.

It’s a human expression. It has some autobiography in it, but I push further than myself, too. It’s about someone expressing a true emotion… a broken person expressing how he finds happiness in someone else, even though they’re not perfect. That’s what love is all about. That song is my [Burt] Bacharach moment. I’ve always loved his melodies. It was funny, you know, to work with that kind of melody. You start to look at what kind of words sound appropriate with what kind of melodies. Motown and R&B melodies demand a certain kind of language. It’s been interesting to explore that. The phrasing you can put together in a song like “The Trapeze Swinger” wouldn’t necessarily work for a song like “Joy.” It’s funny how a melody and rhythm will demand a certain kind of language.

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