Sam Beam is, of course, best known for his music. He's recorded five much-acclaimed studio albums under the name Iron and Wine, beginning with his 2002 Sub Pop Records debut The Creek Drank the Cradle. This past April, he released a new album of rustic, folk-smoky songs, Ghost on Ghost, his first for the chic imprint Nonesuch.
Along the way, Beam has also made films and music videos, painted and designed album covers, even taught film and cinematography courses in Miami.
So does Beam dislike the sobriquet of "Renaissance man" that critics routinely apply to him? "No — it's one of my favorites!" he replies with a laugh. "I think most creative people dabble in lots of things — most people who are into painting really like music, or vice versa. But fortunately, I've just gotten the opportunity to do it a lot."
With Ghost on Ghost, Beam fuses flickering, cinematic lyrics to a loose-knit tale of two young lovers on the lam, in poetic tales like "Caught in the Briars," "Grace for Saints and Ramblers," "Singers and the Endless Song," and "New Mexico's No Breeze." His tunes are awash in striking colors and ominous shadows, with storytelling elements that read like screenplays.
With one major difference, the South Carolina-bred artist clarifies. "In a screenplay, you're basically limited to a description of action and dialogue," he explains. "But with songs, you can go a lot further and into different places, just like a poem. So I'm always searching for the right combination of settings, characters, what they're wearing, their background — little bits of information that move the story along. So it's sort of a balancing act, and there's no real right or wrong answer."
Beam also professes a love for Herzog, Tarkovsky, Altman and Cassavetes. "But I was always into music, even when I was studying painting and film in college," he adds. "I'm just one of those people with a lot of creative energy to burn. And most creative people love music anyway, so like everyone else, I'd fool around with guitar. But I definitely tend to write more visual songs because that's the kind of communication that I like — I like describing more than explaining."
Although he's uncomfortable discussing them, Beam actually filmed several shorts after graduation. One, he sighs, was inspired by Herzog, and dubbed The Settlement. "It was a Conquistador thing, because I was in Florida and it was easy to go shoot in the swamp," he says. "And it was a piece of garbage, that's for sure. But you have to go through things like that to learn what not to do."
All of which actually helped Beam teach film. "I'll be honest, I was always one of those people who thought that if you can't do, then you end up teaching," says the singer, who now feels otherwise. "You have to get really specific about what you know in order to explain it to someone else. So a lot of things that I'd kind of absorbed without fully understanding became really clear when I had to explain them to other people."