"I let the songs tell me what to do."
Sam Beam is, of course, referring to the entirety of his 15 years making albums. But the singer/songwriter, who performs and records under the moniker of Iron and Wine, is also speaking about his new album, Beast Epic.
Released in August, the 11-track collection is Iron and Wine's first album of solo material since 2013's Ghost on Ghost. But that isn't to say there hasn't been music in between.
Two years ago, he partnered with Band of Horses' front man Ben Bridwell on an album of covers, Sing Into My Mouth. That was followed with 2016's Love Letter for Fire, an album of duets co-written with singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop.
In an accompanying statement to Beast Epic, Beam spoke of a "certain kinship" the new record shares with his first home studio-recorded releases. Many media outlets and fans also have echoed that sentiment.
But for an artist who has never been afraid to push the boundaries of singer/songwriter tropes, it was less about coming full circle, and more about continuing to find the best space for each song to thrive.
"These are pretty introspective songs," Beam said from his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "I was enjoying just playing them at the house and really wanted something rooted in that kind of feeling. I love arrangements, playing with other people, and what those things bring to the complexity of a musical statement. But I felt like the core of these songs were quieter songs. And I let that guide the process."
That process involved recording most of the material live, using minimal overdubbing, and reuniting with the label that put out his first three albums, Sub Pop Records.
But unlike the last few Iron and Wine releases, which sought to expand the idea of what the project should sound like, the songs of Beast Epic are much more minimal in nature - a move partially (and somewhat surprisingly) motivated by Beam's recent collaborations.
"I'm always vigorously trying to discover new sounds," he said. "What those two projects asked me to do was the exact opposite. It was to just be me. And let that shine in contrast to the other person. The whole point was to sound like myself and I really enjoyed that for a change. I was still discovering, but it was different. I was trying to discover some sort of unguarded moment instead of push myself into unfamiliar territory."
There are a variety of unguarded moments on Beast Epic, from the slow, sweeping introspection of Summer Clouds to the spirited, Southern charm of About a Bruise.
And in the video for single Thomas County Law, the bearded troubadour takes turns both addressing the vastness of a barn-turned-church, and systematically preparing for his own funeral.
While the themes of mortality, religion, and specific geographies are consistent throughout Beam's career, it's the return to more straightforward and nuanced sonic structures that have drawn the comparisons to his earlier work.
Although it's not exactly something the songwriter planned, he is quick to acknowledge the similarities.
"I don't really write records," Beam said. "I'm just sort of writing all the time. But I do feel like it has a kinship with the older records. Obviously, if you listen to them back-to-back, you'll say they sound nothing alike, but I feel like the intent was similar. And I feel people picked up on that correctly."
Iron and Wine
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 28
Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., downtown
Cost: Sold out
Beam has assembled a five-piece band for his current tour with musicians from Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. He is excited to play with them and expand his set with selections from Beast Epic.
He also has a few new projects in the works, but isn't ready to elaborate on them just yet.
"I like to try to stay in the moment," said Beam. "I want to enjoy it more than I have in the past, along with this talented band I have, and the opportunity to play all of these songs again. It's foolish to be too lost in the future. I like a balance where I try to keep irons in the fire and have something to look forward to, but also not distracted from what I'm doing right now."
The current Iron and Wine tour runs across the U.S. and Europe through February. And with quite a few of the dates already sold out, it seems that Beast Epic will help Beam stay in the moment for quite some time.
"I think a lot of people who listen to my music were really ready for a record like this," he said. "And I was ready for one, too. Exploration of boundaries is inspiring and fun, but I feel like a core of people who listen to my music wanted this kind of statement. It's nice when things serendipitously line up and you can make a warm handshake like that."