Sam Beam was working as a film professor when he started making music as Iron & Wine 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. — Rachael Maddux
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, The Creek Drank the Cradle — 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!
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?
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.