Sam Beam chuckles a lot and owns up to being an optimist.
"It depends on the day, but I'm generally pretty positive. It's the only way to really enjoy life," says the 36-year-old singer, the man behind the group Iron & Wine.
As if on cue, he's serenaded by a flurry of chirps indicative of the bucolic scene that surrounds him. It's all a bit different than you'd expect from a guy whose voice was once likened to the saddest velvet couch in the world. Beam does, however, have plenty to be happy about. He's the father of five little girls, owns a cozy farmhouse just outside of Austin, Texas, and recently released Iron & Wine's fourth studio-album "Kiss Each Other Clean" that lets loose and invites us to dance.
"I like to have fun. Don't you like to have fun?" Beam asks. "I take the parts that need to be taken seriously, seriously, but at the end of the day, we're entertaining people. It's not like you are redefining pi or anything," says the wooly troubadour.
Beam hasn't abandoned his characteristically deep lyrics and admits that this album is too layered with the usual "God, death, sex and whatnot." However, this time those words are flanked by more textured, vibrant sounds. Many tracks are unlike any Iron & Wine we've ever heard. "Monkeys Uptown" is drenched in world flavor with marimbas and curious percussion and the bumping bass groove of "Big Burned Hand" is straight up funky. Yes, folks, Sam Beam drops some white boy soul and the vibe is irresistible. "This is a headphones kind of record with little bits and baubles that you only hear closely listening. You can also put it on at a party and dance. I like danceable music. I want it to be a music experience. I mean, at the end of the day, if I wanted to be all about lyrics, I'd write a book of poems," Beam says.
To take the show on the road, he's assembled a dream team of sorts including singers and songwriters Rosie Thomas and Markéta Irglová (Swell Season) among other merrymakers.
While that's plenty of company, Beam admits to taking on shorter stints out to get back to family life sooner than later. ""It gets harder and harder. I don't know what I'm gonna do. At least when I go out, I know it's not for any longer than two weeks these days," he says.
Home used to be right here in Richmond for Beam. He was a Johnson Hall-dwelling, art student at VCU who regularly sought out shows and traipsed the streets of Oregon Hill where he also lived briefly. "Most of where we used to hang out is parking lots now for VCU," he says. When I mention that we're speaking to each other just days before the Rams play in the Final Four in Houston, he laughs. "It's crazy, right? It's like no one had ever heard of VCU and all of a sudden, we're in their face!" Eventually, the conversation turns to talk of the James River and provides an excellent segue into discussing "Tree by the River," a song in the making for 10 years. "It's not that uncommon to have songs sit around unfinished and you return to it. I sat on it for a long time because that opening line just felt like it was going in a sappy direction, so it took me a while to get over that," he says. He adds with a chuckle, "I really just got tired of working on it."
The prolific singer is full of more surprises over the course of our phone conversation. Beam isn't all about well-worn corduroy blazers, vintage amps and reading collections of Southern short stories by a fireplace. He also admits that he does in fact raise his voice above a whisper every once and a while. "Of course, I get loud!" he exclaims.
The perceptions of him are amusing and elicit a laugh from the humble singer. For those interested, his latest reads have been Kurt Vonnegut and William Gass books. He's surprised to hear that people take him for a totally analog kinda guy. "I have an iPod and I record music with ProTools. I really think our subconcious plays into whatever we are tweeting or blogging about. Underneath it all, it's all about the human endeavor and is kinda timeless," he says. He notes that same connection in the music and adds, " I actually try to write music that's not held only to its time and place. I try to make something like an old painting. 100 years from now it'll still be good."
Iron & Wine performs at the National on April 27 at 7 p.m. The Low Anthem opens. Tickets $25-$30. For information, go to thenationalva.com.