Iron & Wine's Sam Beam Talks New Album 'Ghost on Ghost': 'I Felt Like Sinatra'
The indie-folk singer elaborates on his recording process and explains why he doesn't tend to listen to music that sounds like his own.
Anger isn't an emotion one would typically associate with Iron & Wine's whispery folk melodies. But that was how singer-songwriter Sam Beam described his last album, 2011's Kiss Each Other Clean. "The last record was a fairly angry record," he says, noting that there were some "surreal, violent images" and "jagged, synthetic sounds" throughout the album.
For his forthcoming release, Ghost on Ghost (out April 16), his more relaxed new material builds on the fuller sound palette of recent recordings. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Beam elaborates on how he writes his lyrics and explains that, aside from some guitar, he stayed fairly hands-off instrument-wise.
“Honestly, I didn’t play a whole lot," he says. "But we had people come in who could actually play. And I literally just sat in the booth and sang for most of the session. I felt like Sinatra or something; it was hilarious."
Beam did, however, add six-string on a few tracks, like "The Desert Babbler," "Caught in the Briars" and "Winter Prayers." But he also enlisted a team of musicians, including multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger, who added string and brass arrangements on Ghost on Ghost.
"I had never fooled with the strings section before," Beams says, noting: "What’s going on is complex, but it comes across as relaxed and sophisticated." The end result can be seen on songs like "Grace for Saints and Ramblers" or "Lovers Revolution," which includes brass instrumentation.
The album follows the central conceit of a couple ("not necessarily the same couple," Beam notes) that appears throughout the 12 songs and serves to provide narrative cohesion. "At least for me, it was a way to tie the songs together; it was a way to think of the record as a whole piece instead of these disparate group of songs," he said.
A couple can be seen in an embrace in a '70s-era Polaroid photo taken by photographer Barbara Crane on the album cover enshrined in a "big, sort of gaudy, elaborate frame." The art is in stark contrast to the black background and neon lines tracing an outline of Beam on the cover of Kiss Each Other Clean. That album was released in January 2011 and has since sold 125,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Beam recorded the band's new material at Brooklyn Sound and Mission Sound in New York, but the songs are informed by locations as disparate as Milwaukee, South Carolina, New Orleans, New Mexico and the desert town of Barstow, California. "This one is almost like a travelogue," he says.
While the sound of the new album continues an evolution away from the days of his sparse-sounding 2004 release, Our Endless Numbered Days, lyrically familiar Iron & Wine themes of simple humanity remain. When asked about the absence of drab modernity from his lyrics -- many of which evoke a more pastoral era -- he responds that his music tries to capture the essential.
"I try to write songs that pertain to us on a human level, and tools are part of it, but not the core of us; they’re just an extension, they’re part of the scenery," Beam says. He usually writes each of his songs with the music already in mind rather than writing the lyrics in prose or poetry form before crafting the melody.
As far as his own recent listening habits, Beam says that he doesn't really tune in all that often to artists that would be grouped in with him in the modern folk genre. "I don’t really listen to a lot of stuff that sounds real similar to me because I work on that kind of music all day," he explains. "I end up listening to more jazz, stuff that I can’t really play."