"I get restless pretty quick," is how singer-songwriter Sam Beam, who records under the name Iron and Wine, explains his latest album, "Ghost on Ghost." Recorded with strings and horn sections and backup singers, it's an eclectic folk/pop/R&B album that practically swings.
Even for longtime Iron and Wine fans, who over the years have gotten used to Beam's frequent detours from his bedrock whispery folk, "Ghost on Ghost" was a shock to the system. Beam is unsure exactly how the album has been received-not very well, he has a feeling, but it's hard to tell, and he's trying to remain detached. Tell him the album has gotten mostly positive reviews and he'll say, politely, "Oh, yeah? That's great," as if it had nothing to do with him at all.
Interviewers often use words like "recluse" to describe Beam, who recently moved his family from their longtime home of Dripping Springs, Texas closer to relatives in North Carolina, but in a recent phoner he was friendly and quick to laugh. In advance of his upcoming benefit show for the Old Town School of Folk Music (he plays two sets there Saturday night), Beam talked Burt Bacharach, beards and trying (or, mostly, not trying) to keep his fanbase happy.
The following are edited highlights from that conversation:
On the critical and fan reception to the new album
I don't know, I think it went under a lot of people's radar. We had a lot of fun playing it. We had a string section and a horn section and a lot of backup singers and stuff. The shows were a lot of fun. But I never felt a big, open arm bear hug for the record. It's hard to tell these days, don't you think?
On being an old-fashioned band leader
I definitely took advantage of it. I was a lazy bum. I made everybody work so hard and just sat back and watched them. I did most of my work in the pre-production. ... It was the first record I'd done with a bunch of union players who had union hours. We would go in and leave with, like, two or three tunes. That never happens in indie rock, where you're arguing about a click track or whatever.
On the comparative ease of recording "Ghost on Ghost"
The records before this took the better part of a year working off and on. This one was the opposite. I did the pre-production work, and it was recorded in two weeks. I like the idea of working fairly quickly. I don't think I'll ever labor that much over a record again. I like the idea of finishing a song in a day, and not coming back to it.
On recording with bassist Tony Garnier, one of Bob Dylan's former musicians
(Tony) was commenting on my lyrics and I was like, I have so many lyrics. I've only been doing it for ten years, and I'm having trouble remembering all these lyrics. I can only imagine what Dylan does, he's got some really long songs. And he goes, 'Oh, (Dylan) just kind of mumbles. He doesn't even know what he's saying half the time.'
On Burt Bacharach as an unlikely influence
We definitely talked about Burt Bacharach a lot in the studio. He's fearless with melody. I love what he does, but this is a genre potpourri. (It's) Bacharach meets everybody else that he probably wouldn't hang out with.
On having a beard in the hot Texas summers
It's a commitment to excellence. Everybody asks me that. I think hats in the summer are a problem. Beards are not a problem.
On artistic restlessness
I don't really think about it too much. I just kind of do what I like. You could definitely spend a lot more time thinking about how to make a cohesive sounding set of records or how to hold onto a fan base than I do. ... I'm not necessarily impulsive, but at the same time, I go where my ears are pulling me at the moment. I feel like I make a decision based on what I like at the time, then move on to the next thing. You could really sit and doubt what you're doing for a long time, but at the end of the day, it's not a right or a wrong answer. It's not a math problem, it's art, and hopefully you'll like it again the next day.
On what the next album might sound like
I do feel like it's time to cleanse the palate a little bit ... I have a few songs that sound like a cross between hymns and country music. I have a couple of other things I've been working on, too. (Band of Horses frontman) Ben Bridwell and I have been talking about doing some stuff. ... I'm kind of keeping the schedule open. To see what wants to be born first.
When: 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
Price: $100; 773-728-6000 or oldtownschool.org