Without even listening to their new record, you can tell Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop are perfect complements for each other.
“Neither of us had written a song with anyone else, so we both were like, ‘How do we do this?'” Beam says. “Because our own styles are fixed things, it was kind of like, ‘What’s that going to be like when you put those two together?'”
“It was like walking around a forest in the dark,” adds Hoop. “A nice healthy forest.”
“With one leg,” adds Beam.
“With wood sprites.”
Both Beam, under his stage name Iron & Wine, and Hoop have found success in the past decade as idiosyncratic solo artists in a nebulous region of the musical universe somewhere close to folk, but often experimenting with rock, country, pop and even electronic music, and always penning interesting, ear-catching lyrics.
“There’s a song of hers called 'Moon Rock Needle' that I discovered on the information superhighway," says Beam. "The first line is, ‘There’s food at your house, let’s go to your house.’ After that I was hooked! And I just got enamored with her voice and her songwriting.
"For a while I had this seed of an idea for a project of duets," he continues. "I like duets. I like the conversation element of it; you can have a monologue song that you’ve written for yourself, have two people sing it and it becomes a very different song. I thought we might sound really great together, so I asked her to come on tour.”
Hoop accepted, going on tour with Iron & Wine, performing as the opening act. But it was Hoop who made the first move to record music together. “I took a chance and asked him,” she says. “When we started singing together, it was just the most natural thing. It didn’t take much trying to find common ground.”
To join them on that common ground, they enlisted a modern-day version of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew session musicians, including Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger (John Zorn, Lucinda Williams), violist Eyvind Kang and former Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg. Together these musicians helped to create a nocturnal, lazy river for Beam and Hoop's vocals to swim around and harmonize in.
“It’s all acoustic, but there are some songs that sound straight-up synthetic in a strange way,” Beam says. “There are some musical flourishes, but it’s more of a melodic, vocal record.”
The finished product, Love Letter for Fire, puts Hoop and Beam's vocals and lyrics front and center for the listener to decipher.
“The recording process was a fluid joy,” says Hoop, “but the writing process was a lot of stumbling around in the dark. But you know when you’re in the dark and your eyes eventually adjust, then you can see? That’s what it was like.”
“It was a lot of emailing back and forth,” says Beam. “We would send poems, trade lines, just do things to get things started, and just have fun. Then we would get together and do tours, and hash things out across the table, because there’s a lot of nuances that don’t get translated over emails.”
On many of the songs, Beam and Hoop seem to be addressing each other as lovers. When asked about the possible discomfort of writing and singing a love song as platonic friends, Hoop quickly replies, “Have you ever been in love? Yes? Then let’s write a song about it right now. I’m sure there’s something you could say about it, because it’s something we can all relate to, and there’s endless material to draw from. From our own experiences, to the experiences of our parents, brothers and sisters, our friends and family.”
“We’ve both written love songs," adds Beam, "but to have someone else’s experiences and thoughts come into play in your own songwriting. … I’d send her a line, and then she’d send me a line and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I never thought about that.’ I had to adjust. As a writer it’s fun, and when you have a man and woman singing together you automatically have a sexual tension whether you’re talking about love or not.”
“We still have different opinions on what [the songs] mean,” says Hoop. “I mean, every time you sing them, they say something different to you.”
“That’s kind of like a conversation though, isn't it?” says Beam. “Most of the times you have a conversation with someone and you sort of think you know what they’re trying to say.”
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“Exactly,” says Hoop.