"Dad-deeee," one of them coos incessantly. Is that your daughter in the background? "More like the foreground," Beam corrects me, putting me on hold while he finds a way to occupy her.
Yes, Beam is an unlikely rock star, if you could call him that (and judging from the impressive sales of his debut album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, the widespread critical back-rubs he receives, and the venues he sells out during his infrequent tours, you can). For one thing, he's married and has two kids. For another, he's a damn college professor, employed in the film department of the Miami International University of Art & Design. (Oh yeah, he's a folk singer from Miami -- how weird is that?) But perhaps the strangest thing about Beam's celebrity status is that he's earned it playing docile, meditative tunes in the vein of Nick Drake or Will Oldham, hardly the stuff you'd expect to get released on the label that signed Nirvana.
But when you've got talent, success has a way of finding you, and Beam has truckloads of talent, which is why a few years ago Sub Pop Records came a-knockin' after a mutual friend played a few Iron & Wine demos for label boss Jonathan Poneman. Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 2002, Creek was released. It was not an instant hit. Slowly but surely, though, people started talking.
On the surface, there isn't much that's special about the record. Poneman had decided simply to cull 11 of his favorite demo tracks and release them, so what you hear is just a voice, a guitar, and the hiss of the tape recorder. But with each repeated listen the tunes sink in that much deeper. There's something about Beam's breathy whisper, his spare acoustic-guitar playing, and the sheer intensity of his minimalist songs, which tell stories alive with rich, bucolic imagery: "Mother forget me now/ Let the creek drink the cradle you sang to/ Mother forgive me/ I sold your car for the shoes that I gave you/ So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten/ Sons are like birds flying always over the mountain."
Imagine if this guy was your screenwriting teacher.
Pretty soon, Beam was in the spotlight. By the middle of last year, scores of us had fallen in love with Creek, and it's not hard to see why. Beam's music runs in perfect, palliative contrast to these hectic modern times. In our world, where the color wheel of terror spins round and round like part of a game show hosted by Ray Bradbury, things seem pretty bleak. In Beam's world things sound simpler, calmer, better. The guy's got it under control. It's as if he's just sitting out back on his rocking chair, gee-tar in hand, plucking out ditties about cattails and bullfrogs.
It's no surprise, therefore, that when it came time to record the follow-up, Beam took it in stride. Despite the fact that his music could no longer be considered just a hobby -- which it had been during the years when he was going through film school, then working production jobs on commercials, then teaching, all the while recording songs on a four-track when the mood struck him -- and despite the fact that he was now one of the biggest names on the biggest indie label in the United States, Beam says he didn't feel any pressure about recording his studio debut. He just took a deep breath and laid the sucker to tape, adding, for the first time, drums and banjos and female backing vocals, pushing his voice further up in the mix, and essentially rolling the dice that the fans who loved the naked sound of Creek would take to the upgraded model of Iron & Wine.
And it worked. The just-released Our Endless Numbered Days is every bit as good as, if not better than, its predecessor. "On Your Wings," the record's first track, finds Beam sounding more confident than ever as he leads into a romping backwoods jangle complete with drums and slide guitar. "Cinder and Smoke" features bass and banjo arrangements, as well as bits of percussion and backing vocals, compliments of Beam's sister, Sarah; "Free Until They Cut Me Down" is an urgent meditation based around two interwoven guitar lines and a clomping drumbeat. Thankfully, the added accouterments never interfere with Beam's signature intimacy. Lines like "Love is a dress you stitch long to hide your knees" don't get lost amid the brushed drums and chirping banjo of "Love and Some Verses"; "Fever Dream," a soft, shimmering ballad that Beam sings with his sister, is one of his simplest, truest songs yet.
How does Beam do it? It's not like he's some high-plains drifter emerging out of the shadows with guitar in hand, ready to tell some tales about the lonesome crowded West. No sirree, Beam is a busy guy. His life is probably quite a bit more hectic than yours or mine. How does he calm down and craft these quiet, beautiful songs?
"I wish I had a formula for it to try and explain it," he says, "but nothing's really that organized. I just daydream. Sometimes it's inspired by something I read, people I meet, something I dreamt about. ... Maybe I just don't think about it. It's just something that I've been doing for a long time. I've just developed a lifestyle around it. It's not something that's out of step with the rest of my life."
Like I said, Beam is a modest guy, not the sort of artist who's interested in blabbering away about the so-called creative process. Still, I'm insistent. I want to know how he does what he does. Like so many of the best poet-musicians before him -- guys such as Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith, artists to whom Beam is often compared -- doesn't he suffer for his art? Doesn't he crash pickup trucks, swill moonshine to calm his nerves, stuff like that? Not unexpectedly, Beam answers my stupid questions with examples he knows a thing or two about.
"Look at any movie [about artists]," he says, "like Pollock, or the Mozart movie [Amadeus]. They're all depicted as being these insane characters, like off the hinges -- that means they're artistic. But I think that's just the lazy media. ... I think any writer or artist or anyone who's really worth a shit -- I think they're really focused. Very few of them are insane. Hold on a second ..."
And suddenly I'm on hold again as, in the background, Sam Beam tends to his daughter's pleas for her daddy to get off the phone.