Sam Beam has been putting out a steady stream of albums and EPs despite living in a house filled with five daughters, some of whom are Beliebers and one 3-year-old who can be his toughest critic.
"She's the only who is like, 'Stop playing!' " he says. "It's good to have critics around."
Perhaps they're waiting for him to do that Katy Perry duet that will hit Top 40.
"I don't even think that would work," he says. "Dad's always dad, no matter what."
Dad might be dad, but Sam Beam has been an ever-evolving artist under the banner of Iron and Wine. The South Carolina native was working as a professor of film and cinematography in Miami when he debuted in 2002 with "The Creek Drank the Cradle," a hushed, haunting bedroom style recording in the vein of Nick Drake and Will Oldham.
After a second similarly spare album, he started to experiment with more instrumentation on "The Woman King" EP in 2005, while also joining forces with Calexico for an EP. With third album, "The Shepherd's Dog," Iron and Wine was a full ensemble wrapping a wall of sound around his poetic songs and whispery delivery.
"At the time [of 'Creek']," he says, "it was just a hobby I was doing in my spare time, making the best of the instruments I had. And so, yeah, I don't like the idea of doing the same thing over and over again. So I keep trying to challenge myself. It's been a fairly intuitive thing."
He realizes that fans drawn to the minimalism of "Creek" may want Iron and Wine to stay just like it was.
"You're kind of [burned] if you do, [burned] if you don't," he says, using a word he probably wouldn't around the kids.
"At the same time, I feel really blessed that people connected with this last record or two, because a lot of people don't get THAT. I wish people could give it a chance. The problem is these days people don't really have to listen. There's so much out there and people come and go so quickly. I think with most of my records, even my first record, people didn't dig it at first. It was pretty much a word of mouth thing. You have to live with it a bit and I don't think that happens much anymore."
The recently released fifth album, "Ghost on Ghost," finds the band stretching further with the breezy '70s folk-rock of "The Desert Babbler" and a Motown-style groove on "Grace for the Saints and Sinners," which he can chalk up to his parents.
"That was their generation's college music," he says. "We had R.E.M. and they had the Four Tops and Smokey. So, I grew up listening to that stuff and I think it's informed a lot of the way I structure songs. Not so much what I write about, but the way I structure songs, even the first record. So, that was a fun thing to play with."
If that weren't enough of a departure, there's "Lovers Revolution," which starts as a slow vamp before peeling off into a boisterous jazz workout.
"I've been playing with jazz players for a long time and it's something I've been wanting to do, but never really knew how to do until recently," he says. " 'Lovers Revolution' that is a straight-up Charles Mingus-kind of arrangement, but it started as a folk song. The delivery of the lines and the way it's structured is more a folk thing. So it's kind of mixed-up. That said, all these types of music are so interconnected. None of these forms developed in a vacuum. They all inform each other. Blues and jazz and even folk stuff, all of it is part of the same continuum."
A constant with Iron and Wine, regardless of style or size of the arrangement, has been a tight melodic tension in the songs. This one, according to a press-release quote from Mr. Beam and our own ears, comes with less "anxious tension."
"It was just a different group of songs really. I feel like that statement came out in the bio and I kind of lost control of it in the telling," he says, laughing. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, these are so anxious, I don't want to do that anymore.' It was more along the lines where I had a different group of songs that really demanded something different, and I was just kind of interested in a kind of quote-endquote 'sophisticated' record. There's a lot of angry songs on the last two. They were surreal, aggressive tunes, and there's some of that on this one, but not so much. Most of these have a narrative element and generally with a narrative, there's a certain amount of drama and drama demands conflict, so they're conflicted, the characters are conflicted, but the style of writing is a little bit different. It's a more relaxed record."
On the other hand, just because he has a Motown groove or a Bacharach lounge vibe doesn't mean he's writing straightforward verses into pop choruses. The songs are still abstract and dense with imagery.
"It's a tricky thing," he says of Motown and vintage pop, "because those type of songs and those types of forms demand -- I can't tell if they demand or if we've really gotten used to hearing those kind of things -- they demand a certain simplicity. Simplicity seems like it would be easy, but it's actually really hard to do that kind of succinct delivery. Sometimes it's a little limiting as far as what I want to accomplish in a song but sometimes it's too hard to get to. I end up working those songs more than I do some of the longer songs people would assume took longer to do."
He doesn't think having a master's degree or being a professor gets in the way of that lyrical simplicity.
"Just because you read a bunch of books doesn't mean you're a complex person," he says, laughing. "I have pretty base emotions. At the same time, when you sit down and write a song, we've all heard a lot of songs. Songwriters today are not only working against their peers but this history of recorded music to find something original."
He says when he starts writing something that sounds overly familiar, he discards it or tries to push it further.
"It is a wall," he says of the past, "but I feel like that wall has always been there, for Tin Pan Alley and Lennon-McCartney. They had the benefit of a huge social change and technological changes that make things sound new. And we haven't really had any of those in a long time. At the same time, people are still infatuated with a good story and an original delivery. It's definitely worth trying whether you succeed or not. It's the trying that's so fun about it."
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: scottmervis_pg.