IRON & WINE at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (June 29). $10. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
For former college film studies professor Sam Beam, writing songs was just a hobby he'd been fooling with since his teens. He never seriously considered playing them for anyone, let alone assembling a band to record and perform them. But between the 2002 release of Iron & Wine's wistful debut, The Creek Drank The Cradle (Sub Pop), and the finely crafted follow-up, Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop), Beam has gone from teaching undergrad screenwriting courses to softly singing his bedroom creations for enraptured floor-sitting crowds of sensitive backpack kiddos across North America. Suddenly, the bearded father of two is the Nick Drake of emo.
There's an attractive sense of intimacy to Iron & Wine's music which has as much to do with Beam's whispered delivery as with his poetically oblique yet image-rich narratives. It's completely understandable why some people have a hard time separating the singer from the intriguing characters in his songs.
"People always want to know how much of my own life goes into the songs," says Beam on a highway stop in Ohio. "I have to confess it's not really a lot.
"What I do sounds more personal because of the presentation. I tend to work in the first person and I have a quiet style of singing, so people just tend to assume what they're hearing is autobiographical. But unfortunately - or maybe fortunately for me - it's not."
Cleverly applying a pillow-talk aesthetic to his vocals has worked well for Beam in creating a sense of intimacy with the listener, but that's only part of his great success with Iron & Wine.
He's also really good at fabricating authenticity by casually dropping fine details in the right places. A little juniper shade here, some bougainvillea blooms there go a long way toward making every revelation sound convincing.
"That's sort of a trick I learned from screenwriting, where you limit yourself to describing the action and allow the characters to bring in the subtext through dialogue. I'm really glad I've found a way to use my film training in writing songs."
An important subtext in the music of Iron & Wine is religion. Yet for all the references to god, the devil, prayer, etc, in his songs and a recent tour with Sufjan Stevens, Beam would like to clarify that he's not on any sort of sacred mission to save heathen souls.
"I'm not a religious person myself. I grew up in the Carolinas, the Bible belt, so religion definitely was a big part of my childhood. But I'm more interested in how religion plays itself out in our contemporary culture. Judging by what's been going on in the news lately, it seems that just about everyone else is also interested in religion to some degree."