Iron & Wine's Sam Beam talks genre-hopping

Matt Sullivan
Photo by Craig Kief

When Iron & Wine last played Anchorage, it was on the heels of "The Shepherd's Dog," a collection that found songwriter Sam Beam pushing beyond his project's lo-fi bedroom-recording origins. While Iron & Wine's 2002 debut "The Creek Drank the Cradle" opened the door for a decade of indie-roots artists, Beam continued pushing his recording project into more expansive territory with each new release.

Play caught up with Beam over the phone to talk about his penchant for mixing and matching different genre conventions, though he was quick to offer a joke about how the songs start: "There's an acoustic guitar, so people call it 'folk.'"

Over the course of the two records he's released since his last Anchorage show -- 2011's "Kiss Each Other Clean" and last year's "Ghost on Ghost" -- Beam has touched on jazz, R&B, pop and classic rock.

For his upcoming show at the Egan Center, Beam will be joined by multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger, who's performed on a number of Iron & Wine records. The pared-down setup will strip some of the newer material down to its original form, when Beam was recording solo demos for the tracks that would end up on "Ghost on Ghost."

Other songs will get reworked entirely. "Sometimes they're totally different chords and a different melody, just to shake things up for myself," Beam said.

That's reflective of the way Beam approaches songwriting: A song is never really finished. "I demo a lot at the house, just fooling around with the edges of what a song can do, especially the boundaries -- try to break it and put it back together," he said.

That approach isn't just confined to the music. "It's not like the lyrics are sacrosanct or anything," Beam said. "If I like the music and feel like the lyrics have to change to suit it, I have no problem doing that."

Instead of writing for a particular record, Beam writes all the time. When he's pressed to put together another record, he groups together songs from his repertoire that have some sort of connective tissue. On "The Shepherd's Dog," a lot of the songs had dogs in them. The songs on "Kiss Each Other Clean" often mentioned rivers. With "Ghost on Ghost," a central theme was the idea of a couple against the world.

But when it came time to put this group of songs to tape, Beam took a different approach. "The other records were about discovering the record in the process of making it," he said. "I had a stronger idea of what I wanted to do this time."

As Iron & Wine continues to tour behind what might be his expansive album so far, Beam said he plans to release a collection of old material, some of which was written around the time of the first album -- "some super early stuff that's been sitting around too long," Beam said.

But even as Beam's palate has seemingly widened with each new album, he suggested that the scope of Iron & Wine has basically been the same, even since the more rustic-sounding days.

"It's not like I'm listening to music that I didn't listen to before," he said. Iron & Wine's trajectory has had more to do with acquiring new resources than new inspiration. "It's a matter of learning how to play with new people and just when the time is right."

By Matt Sullivan
Daily News correspondent