the best of

Iron & Wine Picks the Best Iron & Wine Songs

Both Iron and Wine are one guy, Sam Beam, who has been making music under the moniker since 2002, when he released his first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle. Since then, there’s no way you haven’t heard Beam’s music playing softly in cafés or, more recently, in the series finale of Parenthood (his cover of “Forever Young” was appropriately tear-worthy). To celebrate the release of Archive Series Vol. 1, a collection of unreleased songs written during the Creek Drank the Cradle era, we asked Beam to name a few of his favorite Iron & Wine songs. Very humbly, he obliged:

The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002): “Bird Stealing Bread” 
I put that one on the list because, in my memory, as far as all those batches of songs, it seemed like it just popped out of the environment [where] I was living — Miami, maybe two blocks from the beach, writing these songs. I learned a couple seventh chords, and I was obsessed with the overdubbing with the harmonies and things with the recording, just getting a grasp of those things. And I was obsessed with my romantic life [Laughs.] The beach just popped into my head because I heard it every day; I smelled it and heard it and felt it every day. It feels like a time capsule to me because of everything, where I was living and what I was thinking about, and all those things coalesce in this song in some way.

Archive Series Volume No. 1 (2014): “Eden” (written in 2002)
I wrote this around the same time [as “Bird Stealing Bread”]. And the only reason I put this one on there — well, it’s graciously short, which is always a good thing — but also, it was one of the first ones I can remember [where] I got into this thing of personifying biblical characters. There’s a song called “Jezebel,” and there’s a couple of other ones where I create a narration and [update] them so they [are] modern characters. I was writing about characters, specifically southern people. They were in this culture, and the context where these characters live [is] very specific in my mind. And so these biblical stories are a huge part of [southern] culture, and they would know these stories, they would know these characters and what they represent. This one in particular is obviously Adam and Eve, so it was fun to take these iconic characters and put them in everyday [settings], like let’s go buy some clothes because it’s going to be cold.

Our Endless Numbered Days (2004): “Sunset Soon Forgotten”
It felt different [from] the songs I was writing before that. A lot of the other ones seemed — like “Bird Stealing Bread” — obsessed with my love life. Not that I was writing diary entries like, “Oh, you don’t like me,” or whatever. I always tried to push them into some other area so they at least had something else going on. But the seed of the inspiration for most of the other songs was along those lines. Whereas this one felt different. I mean, love was definitely on the map that we were looking at, but it was more of a community, a group of people, a scene. It wasn’t a poem, but it only worked because it was set to music. It felt like it had this thing, this agenda, where it wasn’t like a folk song, where you just have a refrain and you rely on the rhyme to get you back to the refrain. All the images [are] dealing with things — it’s not just a plea to be good or to be bad. It’s not really a propaganda film, as far as romantic propaganda or political propaganda. It’s a heightened language that relies on the images and actions. It creates an emotional response, not necessarily one that I started out to create. It just sort of happened in the making of the tune. I left myself open to see what the images could say on their own.

In the Reins (2005): “History of Lovers”
I went in and made this record with Joey and John and the boys from Calexico and [they] really kind of blew my mind, expanding the sonic palette for me. They [took] this song I had written probably a few years prior, before we went into the studio and had recorded it, which sounded just like the other songs. And then when I went into the studio with them, I discovered I could use my songs as a script and not, like, a scripture [Laughs.] You could give it to a director and a different set of actors and it would sound totally different. Or you could change a few things and bring out totally different things in a song. So the transformation on that one in particular was probably the most extreme of the ones we tackled. It’s definitely a story-song, it’s a narrative song where this guy gets caught up in his passions and stuff he probably shouldn’t have, in the name of love, for his lady. But as far as just the sonic, the way it was approached in the studio was totally different from the way I’d originally envisioned it. From this sort of backwards, quiet confession of this guy, it became this barn-burner, like a Tom Petty tune, in a way. It became this chugging acoustic guitar and then Calexico had the brass, the horns, it was just a big mix. But it took the narrative from a confession to a sort of, “Yeah, I did this, so fuck off.”

The Shepherd’s Dog (2007): “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”
Well, that record was the first record I did after I committed everything. I quit my job and was like, Okay, I’m doing music. It’s really hard to [make a] living on music. And I had kids, so I wasn’t going to be like, Yeah man, let’s get rockin’ out. I wanted to, but it’s not the reality, unfortunately. And so this is the first [album] I started knowing, This is what I’m doing. I tried all these new things: I had started working in studios. I worked with a couple of different bands at that point and was exposed to all these new musical ideas. I didn’t even study music! I still don’t know what I’m playing, so I had no idea how to approach making a record. I just did it intuitively. And so this was the first record where I applied all these new things that I had been learning. I learned how to go into the studio with nothing and come out with something — songs that are born in the studio instead of written and designed and then just recorded in the studio. Like the difference between the first Beatles records and the later Beatles records.

“Wolves” probably went through the most significant transformation as far as my original conception, [which] was just two chords. I have to give the credit to Brian Deck, the producer. It was a big leap for me, as far as learning how to stay open to what a team can become. Because I went in to record that one, and my idea of it was …. I don’t know. I listened to one of the early demos, it sounded like some kind of broken redneck exercise equipment.

Ghost on Ghost (2013): “Lovers’ Revolution”
What I tried to do with each record is pick up where I dropped the ball the last time, [but] pick it up just a little bit further. Not that you can really hear these things, or you would have any way of knowing when you heard it on the record. That song in particular I had been sitting on for years, and it had started as this really quiet, listing kind of folk tune, almost like “The Trapeze Singer.” Then it became this R&B song. You know that Marvin Gaye song “Inner City Blues?” It’s such a badass tune. I was rippin’ on that song. And it became this really loose blues strain. I had started to play with a bunch of jazz players and listened to a lot of jazz. I’ve always really liked Mingus’s pieces; it’s some of the most revolutionary music that I still know today. And so I just put 2 and 2 together. I had the people who could play it, so I was like, Well, let’s see, I’ve never done this. And so it was just a matter of, again, learning to trust your collaborators and not be afraid to try something new. I’m always more interested in what’s around the corner than what I just did.

There’s a line in the song: “All the jaws, all the claws, they’re restless by the riverside.” And when your tune is acoustic, kind of folky thing, the “riverside” word jumps out and flows across the measure. Whereas when you do it in this sort of nasty, Cuban, ghetto fight song (what it ended up being on the record), the “jaws” and the “claws” come to your attention more. It was really wild, just to see how the script could be interpreted differently. I barely play guitar on that record at all.

Iron & Wine Picks the Best Iron & Wine Songs