sights & sounds

sights & sounds: sam beam of iron & wine

by Rachael

Sam Beam was working as a film professor when he started making music as about a decade ago, recording hushed, poetic love songs into a four-track machine with just a guitar and a little bit of banjo to accompany him. Beginning in 2002, he released three albums for the venerable independent label Sub Pop before joining up with Warner Bros. for the release of his fourth LP, Kiss Each Other Clean, in January 2011. Even if you haven’t listened to any of Iron & Wine’s beautiful, increasingly ornate records, you may have heard Beam’s soothing voice singing in the background of movies like Garden State and Twilight. Beam happens to be a talented visual artist in addition to a sly wordsmith and guitarist — he’s done the art for most of his album covers, and he happily shared some background info on the images he’s chosen to pair with his music. —

Cover of the “Walking Far from Home” single

Tell me how you started doing visual art. I know you studied painting, but I’m wondering when it started for you earlier in life.
Sam Beam: I always liked to draw as a kid. I was always drawing. And then I went to art school — I thought that’s what I wanted to do. And then [I] studied photography and film there, in art school. But yeah, I always loved to draw and paint and shit.

Have you done the artwork for all of your album covers?
Sam Beam: The only one that I didn’t do was the first one, — that’s a clipart image there (laughs)  . . . I sort of knew that I wanted a tree, so that’s what [Jesse LeDoux, Sub Pop’s in-house designer at the time] found. I tried a couple of drawings of trees and wasn’t really into it, so he found that one. I thought it was good — it looked kinda like a woodcut old thing.

CLICK HERE for the rest of Sam’s interview after the jump (and to see more of his beautiful cover designs).

Did you take the photos for Around the Well, The Sea & The Rhythm and Woman King?
Sam Beam: You know, I did the photo for Sea & The Rhythm and for Woman King, but then you’re right, I didn’t do Around the Well. It was basically my idea to do the crop circles, the irrigation circles — that photo was just pulled from, like, a NASA thing or something. In a plane, you know, you see from an airplane — I always thought they looked like records or some kind of sonar thing. There are so many different connotations. Or it looks like some kind of abstract impressionist painting, you know?

I think the same thing every time I fly! I was gonna ask about the fact that you seem to do a lot of self portraits for your albums.
Sam Beam: (laughs) I’ve only done two!

Cover of Our Endless Numbered Days

I don’t know if this was included in the actual album packaging, but you also did one in the style of The Shepherd’s Dog cover, I think.
Sam Beam: Oh yeah, you’re right. That was on the back of the cover. So yeah, I guess I did two and a half. (laughs)

Is that something you started doing out of the necessity of having an image of yourself, or have you always been interested in doing self-portraits?
Sam Beam: No, not necessarily. I mean, I’ve definitely done a lot over the years, but mostly for school. But then maybe I just grew up with people on the record covers (laughs) — you know, the artist always on the cover. And it’s fun to take an image and sort of try to match it with the style of the music on your record — in a surreal way sort of tangentially comment on the music by painting yourself. I like the challenge.

Is it weird to just be working on the image of yourself? Like, “Here I am, drawing myself.”
Sam Beam: Yeah, kind of. I usually try to take myself out of the art for the most part — you know, the songs — but I guess with the covers I don’t.

I think it’s really interesting that the ones you’ve painted, they’re all really different — they don’t necessarily look like they came from the same artist.
Sam Beam: I try to make it fit the record, and you know, I also try not to put the same record out twice. A lot of the time, peoples’ first impression of the record is what they see on the shelf — or it used to be what you see on the shelf, before you listen to it. So I like the idea of setting it up from the beginning, doing it differently, not doing it in the same style. At the same time, I love the labels that have a recognizable style — like the 4AD thing, like the Blue Note shit where you can always recognize their covers. I like that idea, I just work the opposite way. (laughs)

Your own work that you’ve done over time — that you haven’t put on your record covers — is it as eclectic?
Sam Beam: To be honest, I never really draw until I have a record cover to do. (laughs) It’s a good excuse to clear the schedule and do some drawing.

Tell me about the new record cover — how did you do it? It looks almost digital, but I don’t know if it is.
Sam Beam: The original idea was — remember when we were kids and you’d color on a piece of paper with a crayon and you’d paint over that with black Tempera paint and then etch out the drawing?

Cover of Kiss Each Other Clean

That’s exactly what I thought it might be!

Sam Beam: Do you remember that?

Sam Beam: The idea was to do something like that, so I actually did a bunch of physical ones. But I kept fucking up, so I did it with, like, black ink and a brush — just drawing on white paper. And then we flipped it in the computer and then we were able to color it. We did a bunch of different versions of the colorization and still kind of kept that main idea of all those random colors you get when you actually do that kind of a etching kind of thing, where the color bleeds into the objects in the background. We were able to do a bunch of different versions. . . . We toyed with the idea of including ones for people to draw themselves, but it was kind of a big commitment.

Since you usually only get to do this stuff when you’re working on your own album cover, do you listen to the album itself while you’re working on the art?
Sam Beam: Usually — at certain times, yeah. Sometimes when you’re doing, like, early sketches and stuff, it’s great to help you remember what you’re actually illustrating (laughs), and then if I get in a jam, I’ll turn it back on. But I try to listen to it as little as possible.

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  • I love Sam Beam!! I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this post. I just ordered Kiss Eachother Clean for my husband for Valentine’s Day and after listening to him on NPR and Conan promoting the album, Tree by the River is growing on me more and more (a pretty pair of blue eyed birds…) We’re huge fans of all the albums (Iron and Wine and Iron and Wine & Calexico), concert goers, etc. he was actually a professor at my school (before I attended), I missed his last concert in Miami this past November, hope he makes it back here soon:)

  • My goodness, I stock your website daily and I almost died with joy when I saw the interview with Sam Beam. I got into it when I found Woman King and the music has really shaped some of my own art. I am now in art school and completely forgot about that album. Thank you so much for some inspiration for my day

    P.S. Sam Beam, I love how you do your own cover art. It’s nice when a music talent also flows over into the art world.

    Love from Canada,

  • This is my favorite feature on the site! Thank you so much. I love Sam’s music, so this makes me love him even more.

  • I love, love, LOVE Iron & Wine. I had no idea Sam did the album covers, either. Great interview, and I can’t wait to see I&W in concert this spring!

  • Thanks for this amazing post! I’m a huge fan of Iron & Wine, and I didn’t even realize he designed his own album art. I have The Shepard’s Dog LP at home, and it’s one of my favorite pieces of art.

  • What a wicked interview! You asked amazing questions, Grace…swear, every time I read a question, I was thinking if you were gonna ask it just before you did and I was all “YAY!”

    I have always loved cover art for albums in general…and his are always unique and amazing!

  • This is phenomenal! I had the chance to see him perform at a folk festival last year, but this interview has opened up a whole new interesting facet of Sam as an artist to me.

  • Great interview, I love Iron & Wine and really like his album art.

    Just in case this type of column is going to be making another appearance (which would be great! :) another great musician who also does his own album artwork is Chad Vangaalen. Might be a good next installment.

  • I absolutely love this new Sights and Sounds series! Music is my first love, design is a close second. I’m over the moon. Album art has always been very inspiring to me and is another way that I tend to connect with the musicians and experience of listening to their music.

  • love Iron & Wine. I must say that I was tickled to see peacocks in his new album art! It’s lovely to see and read more of the artist behind the work (both musically and visually). Wondering if Mr. Beam would be interested in collaborating with visual artists/ illustrators in the future……………….. ;)

  • oh wow, who knew? those covers are great (i love the shepherd dog cover so much) & the etched out painting is such a great idea! man, i used to love those as a kid. photo with peacock is pretty amazing too. love this! keep em coming! :)

  • No way! We saw Iron & Wine a week ago and I’d just posted about it. It was a terrific show and Sam Beam is was a hoot. Great to read the backstory on the design, too.

  • I just saw Iron and Wine at Radio City Music Hall 2 weeks ago. Nice to hear Sam’s voice again through your interview.
    Thank you, D*S.

  • I love Sam Beam and his beard! I am another huge Iron & Wine fan and I peed a little when I saw this interview! I asked for the actual new CD for V-Day cuz I still love to have the “album” and the cover art! Thank you for featuring Mr.Beam!!!

  • everyday, there is another reason that i love your blog, i’d say this adds ten! my husband and i love his music and art style. we have really enjoyed keeping up with his stuff over the years. great interview!

  • Sam’s art is always a real treat! Much design credit is also due to Dusty Summers of The Heads of State and the Sub Pop art department for all the hard work he’s done on most of these releases! He and Sam work really well together, they always turn out incredible pieces.

  • I love Iron and Wine!!!
    below is an acoustic version of Tree by the River! Its sooo great to listen to on the way to work…or from…if I listen to it at work…I get a little sleepy :)

  • Thank you for this great interview! I am a huge fan of Sam Beam, his music and, now, his artwork! I hope he gets to Miami soon, we miss him!

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