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Iron & Wine Tips His Cap to Paul McCartney, Marvin Gaye

Iron & Wine's Sam Beam ghost on ghost interview

“I didn’t really intend on having a music career,” Iron & Wine mainman Sam Beam explained over the phone before a recent North Carolina show, “it just kind of happened.” His career more than just happened, it thrived. The new Ghost on Ghost (Nonesuch) is the singer-songwriter’s fifth studio album, and moves his ruminative, glittering songs further into warmer and more complicated territory than his early acoustic-based works. Where the old Iron & Wine material seemed intended for hushed, reverent audiences, the new music might even compel them to dance.

We spoke with the native South Carolinian and lifelong Southerner about the influences behind Ghost on Ghost, which is due out April 16.

Melody Masters
“Something that got vetted around in our conversations as we started [Ghost on Ghost] and while we were doing it was Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney — like his Ram record. I’ve always enjoyed it because there’s this sophistication but at the same time it feels human, you can sort of feel the physicality of the making of the thing. It sort of has this rough edge to it. I like that. And then Burt Bacharach, who has an amazing sense of melody.”

Genre Mixing
“There are definitely elements of ’60s and ’70s R&B [on the album] and of Charles Mingus’s music. It was fun to combine the two on the tune ‘Lover’s Revolution’ — Mingus is some of the angriest most revolutionary music that we’ve made in America. Then the ‘Desert Rambler’ sounds a lot like ‘Mercy, Mercy, Me (The Ecology)’ by Marvin Gaye but at the same time it has pedal steel guitar, country elements and gospel elements going on, so the influences get mashed together. At the end of the song it’s like New Orleans funk, but at the same time it’s prog-rock.”

“My folks had a lot of Motown records, so that was a kind of an early inspiration. I grew up on the radio really. But that was before I thought about those things; it’s all just music when you’re a little kid. But that sensibility, the feelings you get from those songs, has always struck me as something beautiful and something to try to achieve.”

Santa Fe, New Mexico
“‘New Mexico’s No Breeze’ is a little ambiguous. It paints more of a picture of a malcontent in Santa Fe. I was [in Santa Fe] a couple times and I was really struck by how dry it is and just the scene — it was beautiful — but at the same time finding seashells there and feeling how things change so dramatically over time. How you can be in a place that’s so beautiful but at the same time so ancient. The fact that [the city] used to be underwater made it feel desperate, and like a place that would inevitably be left.”

“I don’t try to make the songs exclusive to people, or just Americans, but they are American songs. The subject matter is America. I try to make them so people in Europe can enjoy them, but the context is America so I use America as fire for the songs. Religion is a huge part and the biblical stories are a lot of our collective stories, especially in the South. I definitely still use that imagery and subject matter a lot, because I feel like it’s a big part of the culture.”