It’s not surprising that when Ben Bridwell first met Sam Beam in the suburbs outside of Columbia, South Carolina, long before there was an Iron & Wine or a Band of Horses, the two bonded over music. While both have been mainstays of the music community for now more than a decade, this was a time when they had little to no aspiration of becoming professional musicians. But like many that choose to pursue musical endeavors, they were collectors of songs, always on the hunt for more to make a mark on their lives. In each other, they found new sources for musical discovery.
Beam was friends with Bridwell’s older brother, Michael, and the pair first hung out when Bridwell was visiting his family over Christmas while living in Seattle. The friendship solidified quickly with the pair sharing music back and forth as each began to get further into his own endeavors, Beam as a solo artist and Bridwell with his early band, Carissa’s Weird.
“I freaked when I heard Sam’s music,” Bridwell recalls by phone from Denver, where his band is opening a show for Neil Young. He adds that he thinks Beam was actually listening to the early Iron & Wine demos in the car that picked him and his brother up on the first night they met.
“His older brother, Mike, and I were friends growing up,” Beam says by phone from North Carolina. “I knew Ben but I didn’t hang out with him until his brother and I were roommates for a time. Ben would come over to my apartment and we’d listen to music. That was how we sort of hit it off and got closer. From Seattle, Ben would send me stuff he was working on with his first band, and I’d send him stuff I was working on. I guess he was talking to Sub Pop about his band and stuck my stuff in their ear, and that’s how my whole career got started.”
Bridwell took a more roundabout way to becoming a songwriter, starting with running his own independent label, Brown Records, and eventually joining Carissa’s Weird as a drummer, and later as a bass player. It wasn’t until after that band had disintegrated that Bridwell chose to learn guitar, starting Band of Horses in Seattle and joining Sub Pop as well.
“Where we come from, there’s Hootie and the Blowfish selling millions of records, and not much else,” Bridwell jokes about his home state of South Carolina. “So, the fortune that we’d both end up signed, and on the same label, is not lost on us.”
“When Ben started Band of Horses I checked them out and and wanted to do right by him,” Beam says, as Iron & Wine had already began earning a serious fanbase by the time BoH released their debut album, Everything All the Time, in 2006. “Fortunately they were really good, so we ended up taking them on the road with us early on. We sort of lost track of each other for a while after that, but we’d always talked about doing a record together.”
Now, nine years after Band of Horses released their debut album, and 13 years after Iron & Wine offered up its debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, the pair have finally made do on the long-time desire to collaborate with a covers album, Sing Into My Mouth. The pair split the lead vocal duties, with each singer adding harmonies on tracks that he doesn’t sing lead. The album runs the gamut of songs familiar and obscure, drawing from acts as disparate as Sade, Spiritualized, JJ Cale, Bonnie Raitt, and the Talking Heads.
Maybe by coincidence, maybe by something else, Bridwell’s brother again played an instrumental role in the two getting together, this time helping the collaborative album become a reality.
“I was out in Charleston at a beach house celebrating Michael’s 40th birthday and he had a bunch of old friends there, just a group of grown men acting like children,” Bridwell remembers. “I hadn’t caught up with Sam in a really long time, without the distraction of a festival or show going on, but we got to reconnect. And Sam brought up the possibility of doing something together again, and through his persistence, we were able to actualize this.”
Though the pair had been out of each other’s lives for the past several years, both were still very much caught up with what they were doing musically, even seeing some imprint of each other’s influence showing up. Beam admits to stealing one of Bridwell’s early band’s melodies, leading to him naming the song “Carissa’s Weird” that appeared as the b-side of a seven-inch bonus single on the vinyl release of his first album.
“It was fun to see Ben’s career incorporate some of the music, be it country or rock and roll, that I knew that he liked once he started Band of Horses,” Beam says. “Carissa’s Weird, which Ben was less principal in the sound and the songwriting, made beautiful music, fragile and very Pacific Northwestern in the jingle of the guitar. But to see Ben’s own music take on this shape of influences that I knew were there based on the conversations we had, and the music we shared for a long time, it was really fun to see.”
And once he had run into Bridwell at this party in South Carolina, the answer for Beam was clear as to when they should start working together. “For me, it was why wait?” Beam says, chuckling. “I find that if I put stuff on the calendar, they happen.“
When it came time to select which songs they would work into the album, there were no set ground rules as to where the songs needed to come from or whether both needed to have an already deep connection to the work.
“A lot of the songs were little pieces from our timeline that we shared back and forth,” Bridwell says. “Like, Sam got me into JJ Cale, and Sam got me into the Marshall Tucker Band. The songs that we shared on mixtapes over the years kind of crept in there. But then some of the songs were more recent, when the project had already started taking shape. Like, Sam telling me ‘I gotta show you this Ronnie Lane track’ or songs that I had tried with the Horses and had never really had the time to make more than just ‘Band of Horses playing this old song.’”
“It was never a thought of ‘my voice would sound good with this song,’ but more an attempt to light a candle at the alter of these songs, to pay a service to this music, and hopefully turn people on to something the might not have heard before,” Bridwell adds.
One song in particular that speaks to the timeline of Beam and Bridwell’s friendship is the cover of “Bullet Proof Soul” by Sade. “Ben’s dad is a huge Sade fan,” Beam says, laughing. “The thing about Sade, is she has this instantly recognizable voice, and she knows her thing and does it on every song so effortlessly. I like things like that. I think JJ Cale is the same, where he had this thing that was his, but he always gave you some slight variation that made each song a little different.”
“My folks grew up on ‘60s R&B and soul records,” Beam adds, “and when Ben and I were growing up, Sade was sort of the current version of that.”
The Sade song might be one of the more recognizable songs for fans on Sing Into My Mouth, but the album’s lead track, from which the title is pulled, is obviously the most ubiquitous. But, it seems not everyone knows about Talking Heads’ “Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)” and the saturation it has made on pop culture.
“I didn’t realize ‘Naive Melody’ was as well-known as it is, but it makes sense because it is a great song,” Beam says when informed that it was the theme song for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. “I think I’m in touch, but then something like this will happen that will remind me how out of it I am. When we finished recording that one, a friend of mine says ‘oh, it’s the Arcade Fire song.’ He told me that Arcade Fire used to cover it at every show or something.”
“It’s such an obtuse love song,” Beam says. “It’s very approachable and doesn’t use large words, but the words don’t often stick together like you’d expect them to in a complete sentence or a complete thought.”
On the more obscure end is a band like Unicorn, whom Bridwell admits to also being unfamiliar with until recently. “I’m lucky in that I have friends with good taste in music that tip me off when I’m unaware of something,” he says. After receiving the song “No Way Out of Here” as a YouTube clip, it was a quick love, with Bridwell noting there is also a David Gilmour cover that more people are aware of, with the song being performed by Bridwell and Beam on David Letterman’s final stretch of shows.
The original conception of the project was thought to have members of both Band of Horses and the Iron & Wine touring band playing on the recording, but Bridwell’s players ended up being unavailable to work on the recording, resulting in Bridwell being the odd-man-out of sorts, likening the experience of walking in to Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, North Carolina to the first day of school, knowing no one but Sam.
“I was a little nervous about what my role was going to be, and how collaborative the project would be,” Bridwell admits. “But I was immediately put at ease by everyone there, and we got to be like kids in a candy store together. The songs had already done the heavy lifting by being great. All we had to do was have some fun and bring our imagination.”
Working together for the first time also afforded both Beam and Bridwell an opportunity to learn about each other’s capabilities as musicians, only previously knowing each other as friends, as colleagues and through the recordings that they had made.
“I learned that Sam’s producing and arranging skills were much more honed than I would have imagined,” Bridwell says. “You start to wonder at what point someone stops being good at everything. Speaking of other people doing the heavy lifting, sometimes it was amazing just being a fly on the wall and watching Sam work with the band. “
“I had no real expectations or preconceived notions of working with Ben,” Beam says, “but I was struck by how brave he is in the studio. Some people get into recording and they tend to play it safe, but I think Ben knew he was getting into new territory with this project, not necessarily the rockin’ atmosphere of Band of Horses. The performance of “The Straight and the Narrow,’ the Spiritualized tune, I think it is a really unguarded and beautiful performance. It might be unexpected if you look at this guy with this more macho band and a bunch of tattoos. I think people have a preconceived idea of what he’s about, and this might dispel some of those.”
Spiritualized’s placement comes from a different place for Bridwell, with him recalling wandering the streets of Seattle, hungover and sad, and that song never ceasing to speak to him. “The greatest songs, you forget that they are someone else’s stories, and they become your own,” Bridwell says.
This image of Bridwell in darker times comes through on some of his selections, with Unicorn’s “No Way Out of Here” also finding a somber tone. This is something that Bridwell notes is more in line with the earlier Band of Horses records, and has sort of drifted away as he has advanced in his career. To hear Bridwell tell it, this is a positive thing.
“Maybe I’ve gotten older or wiser or happier,” Bridwell says, “but some of the change I attribute being a fan of Iron & Wine, and that getting me into a lot of great music. Maybe that has shown up more in recent years, but I’m sitting on a record right now with the Horses that goes in a different direction than this upward trajectory towards a more Americana sound that we’ve been on. I feel like I still have a connection to the wide open spaces and loneliness and disenfranchisement of my earlier work, though.”
“I legitimately am a happy person,” Bridwell continues. “I feel like the luckiest person in the world to get to keep doing what I’m doing, to be creative and have a family, to have kids and a wife that I can take care of through being creative. It just gives me genuine joy. I still get stage fright and never feel completely at home in this profession, but as I’ve gotten older, I let the joy in more. I don’t wrestle with that stuff as much as I used to.”
And where Bridwell’s music has found more peace as it has progressed, Iron & Wine’s has expanded and grown full.
“I started out making music as a hobby, and it took off from there,” Beam says. “I’ve always liked a lot of different types of music, and I never set out to solely make the kind of music that the first record was for the rest of my career. Starting out, I had an acoustic guitar, a four-track, and a banjo. That said, I wasn’t shifting what I like to make that music. I’d always loved stuff like that. Over the years, it has been about learning how to make other types of music that I like. I still wouldn’t know how to approach making something like a Marvin Gaye record. So, it took a long time, meeting different musicians, trying different things. I’ve never made any aesthetic decisions based on just being able to afford things. It has always been more of figuring out how to afford the things I wanted.”
“I’ve always appreciated artists that find their thing, and refine it and polish it until it keeps coming out shinier and shinier,” Beam says, “but that doesn’t make me excited to go back into the studio. It’s more about discovering something for me, and we just have to be willing to disappoint people. In the end, hopefully it balances out, that you are able to keep people’s interest by keeping yourself interested. You can’t really predict what people will like. I think your sole responsibility as an artist is to follow your obsessions.”
And this idea of following obsessions has driven both Bridwell and Beam on very similar career arcs, finally succumbing to the inevitable meeting on Sing Into My Mouth. This includes both jumping from Sub Pop to major labels at the same time, and this album being the first release in a long time for either to be self-released.
“Sometimes it seems like Sam and my careers are like two moons orbiting the same planet, but just never coming close enough,” Bridwell says. “We seem to even hit the same plateaus and maybe the same valleys. It’s funny even our labels each have a color in the name, with his being Black Cricket and mine being Brown Records. I’m currently without any sort of parent company watching over my shoulder for the first time in a long time.”
And as quickly as Beam and Bridwell’s paths finally crossed, both will again go in their own directions. Bridwell needs to finish mixing the new Band of Horses record and figure out on what label to release it. He employed a hero of his, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, to produce the album and notes that Lytle’s influence helped him embrace his weirder tendencies.
“I chose to go in opposite directions for the past few albums,” Bridwell says. “With Infinite Arms, producing a lot of it ourselves, we went with as many sounds as we could. And then with Mirage Rock, we went back and decided to do everything live and record with no synthesizers and minimal overdubs. So with this one, we are trying to again go in an opposite direction, enlisting Jason Lytle, who is not only a great studio rat producer, but also a great player, a great singer and a great lyricist. He brings everything and more than I could have possibly wanted, and you can feel his influence on the new songs.”
As for Beam, he has co-written and recorded a duets album with Jessica Hoop that he thinks will come out in about a year. And for Iron & Wine, he hopes to get in the studio in the next year to work on his next solo release.
“I’m lucky in that I’m at the point in my career where I don’t need to borrow money to make a record,” Beam says. “Of course, that can get you into trouble if you spend too much, but that freedom—that’s always been the dream, being able to do the work that you want without anyone telling you what you should do. Ben was doing it long before me. He was starting his label long before he was even starting his band. But, it has been great, even if I don’t end up putting out a record myself, to at least do the heavy lifting. It’s empowering.”
“Now we just gotta get people to buy records,” Beam jokes.