Before singer-songwriter Sam Beam of Iron & Wine rose to folk-music stardom in the mid-2000s, he was a VCU undergraduate living on Laurel Street in Oregon Hill. Since the release of The Creek Drank the Cradle, the 2002 album that Beam wrote, recorded and produced from his home studio in Florida, he has gone on to produce three more studio albums and several EPs under the Iron & Wine umbrella. His most recent release, Kiss Each Other Clean, dropped in January, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard top 200 chart. We caught up with Beam while he was on his spring tour to talk about rivers, religion and, of course, Richmond.
AD: You were on tour in Europe and the United Kingdom for the first part of this year. How does it feel to be back on American soil?
SB: It's great! It's definitely different. When you're traveling, you quickly realize that a lot of things are the same, but some things are drastically different, and you try to enjoy the differences. But it's definitely nice to be home. It's strange — we played a show in Detroit last night, and people were going nuts. Singing the new songs and all that stuff, and I realized, "Oh, yeah, we've been gone a long time." We put out a record and really only played like, three or four shows in the States since the new record came out. But it's nice to be back … I hope people overseas can enjoy [my songs], and there's definitely some kind of universal element to them [but] the context of the songs are specifically American, so it's always interesting with people who are a little bit more familiar with the culture that the songs exist in and how they react.
AD: A lot of your songs carry a heavy air of nostalgia and reference the swift passage of time. From the latest album, "Walking Far From Home" comes to mind. Considering that you've been on the road for most of this year, I was wondering if that nostalgic element stems from having to spend time away from your daughters?
SB: Definitely that's part of it. It's hard to do. But I think [it's] just being aware of your life passing in general, just being engaged in your day-to-day and realizing how fast things go and trying to enjoy every moment that you can. It's just part of being alive. That's kind of what I try to get ahold of in the songs. There's so much that we do in our day to day, but in the background are these issues, you know, the big heavies — love, God, sex, death, all the fun "Why are we here?," "What the f--k does it all mean?" [ Laughs. ] You know, these things. I try not to do it in a too heavy way. I try not to be heavy handed because I don't really have a point to make about them. But those are the things that we, not necessarily obsess over, but that are constantly on our minds.
AD: Even with the shift to a fuller, more up-tempo sound on the latest album, your lyrics continue to be very descriptive — almost like you're painting a scene for the listener. Do you feel that your background in painting and filmmaking seeps into your music?
SB: Yeah, definitely. I don't think I sort of picked up things in those and necessarily apply it to what I'm doing. I think I'm just drawn to visual communication. I was drawn to painting and filmmaking for the same reason that I write songs that way. I just find it a more open style. One, I think it's easier to engage with the audience, to be honest, because when you stick tactile things, you know, sensory things that you can see, touch, smell, things that you can describe, people can engage with you, because they're familiar. You know what I mean? Whereas if you're trying to describe a feeling, or explain the depth of a feeling to someone, you know, it's not that easy, or it's kind of boring to people. Because when you're trying to describe how much you feel about something, rarely do people care. [ Laughs. ] When you describe something, they can engage with you, and they're there. It's familiar and they're with you. And then they can make their own, because most of the objects or the things that you describe have their own moral weight or some kind of connotation. You say a bird, and it's not just a bird, people see it as freedom or frigidity, and so it's all weighted. It's funny how we apply these moral weights to just kind of normal things.
AD: You saying that makes me think of all of the references to rivers that you included in Kiss Each Other Clean.
SB: It's funny that you mention that, because that's how most of the songs got put on the record, they had the river on there somewhere. Choosing songs to go on a record is kind of a pain in the ass. [ Laughs. ] For this one, the binding thing was this river image, whereas the last one it was a dog. It's like the classic cross-cultural metaphor for the life journey. And it's such a generous image; you can use it as a force of destruction or rejuvenation and all of the obvious Christian religious things.
AD: When you lived in Richmond, did you ever go down to the James River?
SB: I went all the time. Pony Pasture — I mean, I lived in Oregon Hill for a spell, so we would just go across to Belle Isle.
AD: What part of Oregon Hill did you live in?
SB: Laurel Street. I've heard they've been building a lot in there. Most of the places we used to go are parking lots for VCU now.
AD: Where did you hang out when you lived here?
SB: Well, mostly school — I was at the art school, and they keep you really busy. And I didn't have any money to do anything else. [ Laughs. ] But, you know, we'd go see punk-rock shows; we'd go see GWAR. They all lived down the street.
AD: Do you remember any of the venues you'd go to?
SB: There was one called the Metro. There was one called the Hole in the Wall. I think those are all parking lots now. I think they've all been kind of taken over. The last time I was in Richmond, we played at the National. We drove up Broad Street, and I didn't even recognize it. Because I left Richmond in '96, so it's been almost 15 years. Yeah, it's significantly different. [ Laughs. ] But my memories of that place are so fond. I met my wife there — it was a big time for Sam.
AD: Are there any places that you plan to hit when you're back here?
SB: There were definitely some restaurants back in the Fan that I always liked. And I always liked the Byrd Theatre. Don't know if that's still there.
AD: Yeah, it is.
SB: That was great. Do they still do the organ coming out of the floor on the weekend?
AD: Yeah, they do, and the $2 movies.
SB: Awesome, that was the best.
AD: Yeah, you should play a show at the Byrd sometime.
SB: That would be fun. That would be super fun.
AD: Going back to what you were saying before about using Christian metaphorical imagery in your lyrics, why do you keep sprinkling Biblical allusions into your songs?
SB: It's a big part of American culture. These are our collective stories. This is our mythology. I grew up in a Christian place. I'm not Christian now, but I use it more for loaded images. They're such a huge part of the collective unconscious. It's also an economical way to write a song. You can deal with weighted issues without having to explain too much. You say Cain and Abel, and I don't have to explain, you know, there were these two brothers and one represented righteousness and cleanliness and one represents jealousy, but they actually represent the duality in all of us. You don't have to explain all of that. You can just say Cain and Abel went to McDonald's and robbed an old woman, and it has a bit of a comedy, and it's more fun.
AD: You created the album photo art and the art for the lithograph posters for Kiss Each Other Clean. How does the album's art reflect the feel of the music?
SB: I felt like there was a lot of stuff going on. You know, a lot of different sounds and broad subject matter, so I thought a big mural kind of feel would be fun. There is also a lot of surreal stuff, so I thought a lot of psychedelic colors would be fun. The river image that we talked about got in there, and peacocks are sort of exotic, so I thought that would be fun. And the barnburner, the burning barn suggests a reference to loud, obnoxious music. You ever do those, when you were a kid in kindergarten, you would color with crayon on a piece of paper and then paint over it with a black tempera paint and then scratch it out? It started as one of those kinds of things. Where the colors are all kind of serendipitous and fun.
AD: Did you get that idea from one of your daughter's art projects?
SB: Well, they did it, and we used to do it as kids. I always loved doing it as a kid. And so I tried to do it a few times, and I kept messing up, and so I ended up just drawing it regularly and just slipping it in the computer.