Samuel Beam was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina. His grandmother played piano in a country church. His mother enjoyed singer-songwriters and his father listened to Motown. When Beam was 14, he got a guitar and played Joy Division songs in his bedroom. Upon realizing this might disturb sleeping family members, he started playing more quietly.
Well, times change: Beam is now married, living in Miami with a young son and daughter, and a third child on the way. But some things never do: He still writes songs in his bedroom. And they're still real quiet most of the time.
A few years ago, some of Beam's 4-track recordings were passed around amongst friends. Sub Pop got a hold of them and decided they should be heard. The result is Iron and Wine's 2002 album The Creek Drank the Cradle. These were the crushed whispers of a blessed man with an acoustic guitar the picture of idyllic grace and literacy. A mixture of folk elements, verse and affecting melody, Beam's music politely scratched the surface and then bore straight through the current rock canon, a dulcet offer to lead its followers to another place. And they were happy to follow. Beam found himself tossed gently into the strange world of touring (going out with bands like The Shins, The Decemberists, Fruit Bats, Ugly Casanova and Broadcast), and perhaps the much stranger world of hot-blooded fandom. (Case in point: I interviewed Beam about two years ago and he was marveling at the fact that a young man with a Mohawk had approached him at a show to offer his praises.) Over the course of the next two years, Beam released Our Endless Numbered Days (2004) and The Sea and the Rhythm EP (2003) continuing a modest journey into the crevices of our own mortality, morality, desire and faith our quiet guidebooks through those rites of passage we tenuously share.
His latest EP, Woman King, furthers the tradition. Recorded in August 2004 at Brian Deck's Engine Studios in Chicago, the album also widens Beam's musical blueprint, ushering in piano, electric guitar and more percussive elements to mingle with acoustic guitar, banjo and sister Sarah Beam's saintly backing vocals. Thematically, these six fine-spun songs delve into the cult of the woman hopeful in our shadowy roles for her, and veiled in the corners of Beam's own memory. "Thank god you see me the way you do/Strange as you are to me," sings Beam in "My Lady's House" vocalizing what's undoubtedly the heart of a tenuous covenant with the sexual other. Though it's a purely coincidental thematic strain (emerging only after this batch of songs was culled from a larger body of recently recorded material), Woman King (as you might guess from the title) focuses almost wholly on the female, as idol, monarch, warrior, saint, lover and enemy, exploring the theme via new instrumental sounds: guttural drones ("Woman King"), lulling piano ("My Lady's House") and frenetic urgency brought on by the unexpected, welcome appearance of total distortion ("Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)").
Beam's unflinching gift lies in harborage. In many ways completely insular existing outside of the trappings of popular music, untouched and never swayed by their expectations or trends, fancy clothes or loud noises his questions mirror ours. And we need, for just a few minutes, to see things through his eyes. Even guys with Mohawks.