Iron & Wine Take us Inside 'Ghost on Ghost' Studio Sessions

There may be a few Iron and Wine/Sam Beam fans out there who cling to the notion that the talented and visionary singer-songwriter is still a pastoral folkie at heart—the gentle acoustic guitar-picking soul that put out the stunning solo album The Creek Drank theCradle, recorded in his modest home studio a decade ago.

Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron and Wine.THERE MAY be a few Iron and Wine/Sam Beam fans out there who cling to the notion that the talented and visionary singer-songwriter is still a pastoral folkie at heart—the gentle acoustic guitar-picking soul that put out the stunning solo album The Creek Drank the Cradle, recorded in his modest home studio a decade ago. But with each subsequent Iron & Wine album, Beam’s music and arrangements have become more complex and stylistically diverse.

So fans who have stuck with him and seen him grow will not be too surprised to learn that on his latest album, Ghost on Ghost (on Nonesuch), we are treated to lush arrangements featuring strings, female backup singers, and a horn section that occasionally ventures into jazz. There are flashes of ’70s soul, some clearly Beach Boys- and Beatles-inspired moments, a dash of New Orleans here, gospel there, and more piano than guitar this time around. There are plenty of unusual sonic touches and interesting combinations of instruments, yet through it all, Beam’s strong, distinctive vocals and his evocative and often elliptical lyrics shine through.

There were a couple of songs on 2011’s brilliant Kiss Each Other Clean that hinted at this direction (Beam actually employed horns back on his 2005 collaboration with Calexico, In the Reins), and the tour following that album featured a large band that included a reeds player, but Ghost on Ghost still represents quite a musical departure.

“Sam’s wanted to reach for larger instrumentation for a while, and I think he felt the songs he was writing would fit that kind of instrumentation,” comments producer Brian Deck, who has been Beam’s primary recording ally since 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days. “Because of the way his albums have built, from bedroom 4-track recordings to larger productions every single time, people think that mirrors his musical vision and his ambitions. But the fact is, when I first met him, before the Creek Drank the Cradle came out, he was opening for Ugly Casanova [Isaac Brock’s solo project including Deck] when we were on tour, and he had a really big band at that time—it was a seven-piece—and he’d always had these sorts of ambitions for what he wanted to do with his music.”

Beam says the experience of working with horns on the previous album and tour “didn’t really affect the writing of the songs [on Ghost on Ghost]—the core of the songs—which is always me fooling around with the guitar or piano. But as far as the approach for recording the tunes, it definitely did. As an artist, you’re always reaching out for something else, so it was fun to get into these other textures, and also to free the melodies from the guitar and write more on the piano. I’m not that good a piano player,” he laughs, “so it’s a different sort of writing experience for me. I basically hum a melody and then try to find it with my fingers.”

Beam’s home demos incorporated some string pads and horn samples, “though they didn’t have the complexity and elegance of what we eventually arrived at,” he says. “The basic parts were there and you could get the feel of what I was getting at, but there was certainly plenty of room for the musicians to develop ideas and parts, which was really important on this album.”

He called on keyboardist Rob Burger, who has played on the past three Iron and Wine albums (and is perhaps best known for his work with Tin Hat Trio and John Zorn) to work up string and horn arrangements. “In my composing studio, I employed Vienna Instruments and L.A. Scoring Strings for Kontakt to mock up my arrangements,” Burger says. He also contributed dynamic and sometimes subtle textures on a multitude of instruments: “Keyboards I played were acoustic, electric, and prepared pianos; various Hammond, Yamaha, and Farfisa organs; Clavinet, celesta, Orchestron, and Arp synths. Non-keys I played were tubular bells, jew’s harp, and hammered dulcimer.”

Another departure on the new album is that it was recorded in New York, at Brooklyn Recording and Mission Sound (also in Brooklyn), using top local musicians brought in by NYC resident Burger. “The last few records all took a long time to make,” Beam says. “There was a lot of going to Chicago [where Deck has his studio] and then bringing it back here [to Austin, where Beam lives] and fooling around with it, and then going back and forth. I don’t think I could’ve made the records I did if I hadn’t approached it that way, because a lot of it was using the studio as an instrument and making discoveries along the way. It was a good process, but I definitely wanted to do something different and shake it up. So we went Brooklyn, because that’s where Rob was.”

The core group for the sessions at Brooklyn Recording included Burger, the extraordinary drummer Brian Blade (Dylan, Daniel Lanois, Wayne Shorter), bassist Tony Garnier (Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III), and Beam on vocals (and occasionally guitar). On a few tracks, Tony Scherr took over on the upright bass and Kenny Wollesen played drums; both are members of the NY jazz group Sex Mob.

“The basic tracks for every song was piano, bass, drums, and lead vocal,” Deck says. “Sam did the lead vocal live with the take, and when we finished the take, the vocals were finished. We recorded to Pro Tools, but there is zero editing on this record.” Engineering in the Brooklyn’s main room, which boasts a customized Neve 8068, was Neil Strauch, who has worked with Deck the past eight years at Engine Studios in Chicago, and helped on a few Iron and Wine projects.

Deck says, “Brooklyn Recording was a great place to work. The guy who owns the place, Andy [Taub], is a serious collector. He’s got a stereo pair of anything you’d ever want to use, and tons of keyboards, guitar amps; everything.

“There were two spaces in Brooklyn Recording we used for drums. One was the main room, a little off in the corner, because we had live piano in the same room with the drums and we had to get some amount of separation. That large room probably has a reverb time of less than a half-second; it’s very tight and not terribly bright. Then there’s a large booth where most of the time Sam was set up singing, but for a few songs we put the drums in there, and that was brighter because there’s a big glass door. We did not do a lot of tight miking on this album.” The approach to capturing Blades’ drums was relatively straightforward—an AKG D12 on the kick, a Neumann KM86 on the bottom of the snare, Neumann U67s as overheads, and an RCA 77 ribbon as a mono kit mic about five feet away and two feet off the ground.

Beam’s vocal mic was an obscure vintage tube model made by Klangfilm, which Deck describes as “a company in postwar Germany that specialized in making motion picture equipment, and they contracted the making of this microphone from Neumann. It had an M7 capsule and it sounded incredible. The rest of his vocal chain was an old RCA tube mic preamp, and for compressors, an LA3A into an LA2A.” Though Beam’s vocals were recorded dry, Deck notes, “We had an EMT plate [reverb] on an aux send for him, and probably a little slap-back, and he was listening to whatever amount of reverb he was enjoying on a song-by-song basis.”

For the most part, the string and horn parts and the backing vocals were added in separate sessions later at Mission Sound, another Neve room (theirs is a 8026 with 1073 preamps), but there was one notable exception: For the song “Lover’s Revolution,” which the L.A. Times perfectly described as a “post-beatnik coffee-shop- jazz experiment,” the horn players were brought into Brooklyn Recording, Scherr handled the upright bass, “and that song was completely live except for the background vocals and the tambourine,” Deck says, “and Brian Blade overdubbed the bebop tambourine immediately after we nailed the take.

“In the development of that song, Sam had a baritone sax idea on his demo and the song went from slow to fast to chaotic, and then slowed down again [as does the finished version]. But in terms of the development of the horn figures, and here’s where the musicians are going to go ape-shit, we didn’t know what that was going to be—it just sort of developed over the course of the day, running down the chart and rehearsing, discussing the arrangement.”

“That was take four,” Beam adds. “That was a magical day. You hear stories about how records used to be made with everyone playing at once, but it’s really uncommon these days. It was fun to go in and feel like at the end of the day you’d made a whole thing.”

Beam says that Charles Mingus’ “angry, revolutionary” music provided some of the inspiration for the jazzy approach to that track, but also notes, “That song had been demoed in lots of different ways. It was more R&B and sort of an inner city blues at one point, but then I thought this approach brought out a lot more.”

The horn players who worked on the album included Doug Wieselman on saxes, clarinet, and bass clarinet; Sex Mob’s Steve Bernstein on trumpet, cornet, and alto horn; his Sex Mob band mate Briggan Krauss on saxes; and Curtis Fowlkes (Lounge Lizards, Jazz Passengers) on trombone.

The string players were Maxim Moston (violin), Marika Hughes and Anja Wood (cello), and Hirokmo Taguchi and Entcho Todorov (violin, viola)—all respected players around town. “Each day we were working with three pieces—violin, viola, and cello,” Deck says, “and then we would triple it, quadruple it, quintuple it; whatever we thought a song needed. On ‘Baby Center Stage’ we really stacked it up a lot; on some of the others we tried it pretty pared down.”

Beam readily acknowledges the influence of the string sound common on so many early ’70s soul/R&B records, from Motown to Philly: “It’s so sophisticated and complex, but at the same time it comes across as so effortless and beautiful.” He also mentions a couple of perhaps unexpected inspirations—Harry Nilsson, whose songs often featured dramatic string arrangements and reverb-drenched vocals, and the mellow late-’60s pop act Seals & Crofts, best-known for “Summer Breeze.”

“People don’t really do that sound anymore, and there are a lot of people who would argue there’s a reason for that,” Beam laughs. “But I love that music, so we mixed up that sort of feeling with some other things. There’s a fine line between being delicate and beautiful and overplayed and schmaltzy.”

Calexico steel guitarist Paul Niehaus added wonderful flavoring to four songs, often as a sweet counterpoint to string lines. The backup singers, who are quite prominent on several tunes, were Josette Newsome and Carla Cook.

Deck mixed the album in Pro Tools in his home studio “with 16 outputs going into a Dangerous 2-Bus—which is clean and reliable, with height, depth, and width—and then several channels of a couple of different analog flavors to give it a little more smear and schmutz. I used some old Scully 280B tape electronics, and I’ve also got some of my stuff going through an Electrodyne 8-channel rack mixer that has program EQ.” He favors Altiverb reverb plugins, but notes “I get tired of going to the same old [plug-ins]—the Wendy Carlos 140 and the Cello Studios chambers—so I start reaching into the post sounds settings: I use a lot of forests, just trying to do something different; parking lots, industrial parks, things like that.”

“I love working with Brian,” Beam says. “When we first started working together, there was a lot of him teaching me how a studio works, and a lot of me teaching him what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. Now it’s really searching together, exploring different sounds.”

Blair Jackson is a regular contributor to Electronic Musician.