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Iron and Wine

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on April 13, 2011

Recording under the name Iron and Wine, Samuel Beam has been at the leading edge of the hipster reconsideration of American folk and Appalachian music that blossomed into a bona fide subgenre—call it beard rock—for nearly a decade, from an understated debut album recorded at home to his latest, full-band effort, which debuted at number two on the Billboard album chart in January.

“I’ll never get away from the folk thing, and that’s OK—I have a very broad definition of what folk music is,” Beam says in a telephone interview from his home outside Austin, Texas.

When he plays MASS MoCa’s Hunter Center tomorrow, in a sold-out show also featuring the Low Anthem, he’ll do so with a nine-piece band.

Though Iron and Wine’s sound has gradually filled out across three previous LPs and sundry other releases, many listeners are hearing the new Kiss Each Other Clean as a sea change in the band’s musical identity. But the center of gravity continues to be Beam’s deft touch with melody, his literary lyrics, and quietly assured vocals that manage to pierce the bone with a minimum of fuss.

In reference to the new album, Beam has cited the influence of Motown records as well as FM rock from the ’60’s and ’70’s, specifically nodding to the ambiance of early Elton John albums. When asked about the shift in aesthetic to arguably a more accessible approach, he insists he had no master plan to take over the pop charts.

“It’s kind of a genre potpourri. I wouldn’t say I sat down and said ‘I’m going to write a ’70s pop record,” he says. “You try a couple different arrangements [for a song] and sometimes what works is a Wurlitzer—and you start playing it and it starts to sound like ‘Daniel.’ You find something that works and go with it.”

He says a key to his process is to abandon any attempt to anticipate audience tastes or think of his new work as part of a musical tradition.

“I want everyone to like it, but I can’t make things just because I think people will like them. Because that means doing what you did before, “ he says. “Your brain is always trying to file things, whereas what you really want is to let yourself go. There’s only so many notes. Someone’s already played them in that sequence. So you really try to just buckle down and do what you enjoy. And what I enjoy is melody.”

Beam is a multidisciplinary kind of guy, having earned a BA in art and an MFA from a film school. (He drew the cover art on the new album.) He was teaching in a film program when his demo made it to the right people and he found himself cutting his first record in 2002. When he talks about his music, he’s likely to use metaphors borrowed from other realms of art, implying that all these creative impulses come from the same place.

Unlike the sound of bands who might be considered first or second cousins to Iron and Wine, Beam’s is informed by American roots music but doesn’t set out to be the musical equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.

“I try to think of  [Iron and Wine’s music] as timeless and hopefully current at the same time. I don’t do sepia-toned photographs, stuff that’s meant to be at an antique store or Ye Olde Music Shoppe,” he says. “At the same time, I don’t like to do t-shirts either, something that’s meant to be here today and gone tomorrow. “

Some of the lingering relevance he hopes to achieve comes from lyrics that probe the most universal of concerns—a few of which he cites in a run-on litany of existential dilemmas.

“I write about what’s in the background all the time when we’re sitting in traffic or tweeting or something. In the back of your mind you’re wondering, how much time do I have and who loves me and why and who do I love and what does that feel like. Why am I here? Is there a God? So, that stuff doesn’t change.”

Iron and Wine will perform Friday (April 15) at MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center. The show is sold out.