Iron & Wine - Biography
Iron and Wine is the moniker of one Samuel Beam, a singer and songwriter from South Carolina. Since 2002 Beam has crafted intimate, earnest indie folk characterized by vividly poetic lyrics, melancholy yet uplifting melodies and a plaintively distinct vocal delivery. His poignant and wistful songs radiate a sincerity not often heard in indie rock, marking Beam as the genuine article and winning him a devout following.
Sam Beam was born on July 26, 1974 outside Columbia, South Carolina. He attended school in Richmond, Virginia, earning a BA in art, before moving to Tallahassee, Florida to attend film school. Beam was working as a professor of film at the University of Miami when Sup Pop’s Jonathan Poneman heard Beam’s 4-track demos. Beam had been writing songs for about seven years before recording them and giving them out to friends when one of the recordings landed at the label. Poneman immediately asked for more recordings and Beam sent two full albums worth, resulting in a deal.
Sub Pop released The Creek Drank the Cradle, Beam’s first album as Iron and Wine, in 2002. Poneman was so impressed with Beam’s demos that he supposedly considered releasing two full albums right away. Instead the demos were edited down to one record. Boasting a homegrown lo-fi sound, these songs explore a lilting, sparse, often brooding take on folk music. Beam recorded the entire album at home and plays all the instruments including acoustic guitar, slide guitar and banjo. The songs feature Beam’s breathy, urgent vocals, beautiful vocal melodies and excellent guitar playing that at times recalls Nick Drake as well as elements of John Fahey’s classic fingerpicking style. Tracks like “Lion’s Mane” and “Southern Anthem” have a timeless, reflective quality and immediately point to Beam’s quiet but immense talent.
2003 brought the follow up EP The Sea And The Rhythm. Taken from the same recording sessions that produced the debut full-length, these five songs pick up right where that album left off. Standout tracks include “Beneath the Balcony” and the haunting “Jesus The Mexican Boy.”
Beam took Iron and Wine into a professional studio for the first time with his second album, 2004’s stunning Our Endless Numbered Days. Recorded in Chicago at Engine Studios with Brian Deck, the record boasts noticeably cleaner sound and Beam’s minimal folk sounds all the better for it. On these songs he manages to capture everything promised on the earlier recordings, forging a gorgeous, hypnotizing collection of hushed epics that blend gentle and elegant songwriting with classic southern gothic dread. Beam’s lyrics, melodies and angelic vocal delivery are still very much the focal point, but Our Endless Numbered Days adds a few new touches. Beam’s sister Sarah adds vocal harmonies while other musicians add a few sparse instruments like pedal steel guitar and percussion to the mix. Tracks like “Naked As We Came,” “Cinder And Smoke” and the softly rocking “Sodom, South Georgia” perfectly update the Iron and Wine sound while staying true to Beam’s original vision. Easily one of the best albums of 2004, this collection was Iron and Wine’s breakthrough, with several tracks featured on film soundtracks and in commercials.
2005 brought two excellent EPs. February saw the release of Woman King. A collection of six songs, the EP added electric guitars and more varied, lush arrangements for percussion, banjo, violin and piano. Later that year Iron and Wine teamed up with Arizona based cinematic rockers Calexico for the In The Reins EP. Based on songs Beam had previously written, the EP features seven tracks of widescreen twang, Mexican folk music and dusty Western swing courtesy of Calexico. The expanded sonic palette adds a colorful depth to Beam’s quiet songs.
Sub Pop released the third Iron and Wine full-length in 2007. While not overtly political, Beam has said The Shepherd’s Dog features songs written in response to the reelection of George W. Bush. Musically the album is the most diverse in Iron and Wine’s discography. Again the instrumental palette is expanded with songs featuring organ, vibraphone, piano and processed guitars. The arrangements are lush, inventive and beguiling, shading in the simple, earnest songs with mysterious detail on tracks like “Peace Beneath The City” and “Boy With A Coin.” Ultimately the tunes are still about Beam’s urgently hushed vocals, melancholy stories and spooked gothic ambience. The arrangements serve to bolster all of these elements, lending a deeper sense of atmosphere here than any of Iron and Wine’s previous records.
Though there hasn’t been a new Iron and Wine studio album since 2007, the group has released a few iTunes Exclusive EPs as well as a 2CD collection of B-sides and rarities from 2009 tiled Around The Well. While fans remain enamored with his core sound, Beam has steered Iron and Wine in new directions ever since the project’s debut. His next move will undoubtedly be an interesting one.