Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam had an ulterior motive when he invited Jesca Hoop to support him on tour. Having ruminated on the idea of doing a duets album for some time, he suspected that he just might, in Hoop, have met his match. He just hadn’t met her yet.
So he asked her to join him on the road to serve as his opening act, all the while quietly testing the waters, trying to figure out whether or not his suspicion was correct. As luck would have it, while the pair were on tour, a musician with whom Hoop was supposed to collaborate bailed on her. She turned instead to Beam, and the success of their temporary partnership gave him the courage he needed to propose a collaborative EP. It was her idea - much to Beam’s relief - to make it an entire album.
Given its tentative beginnings, the symbiotic assuredness of Love Letter For Fire is an even more remarkable feat. Hoop’s husky, languid vocals wind their way around Beam’s atop country-tinged instrumentals, as they flit between singing in turn, in unison and in harmony. “I get lost a lot, can you meet me there?” asks Hoop in ‘Every Songbird Says’, to which Beam replies, “I can close my eyes and find you anywhere.” Not bad for a pair who, until recently, had never even met.
Speaking to Gigwise - Hoop from Austin, Texas (“I’m speaking sort of hushed because there’s a sleeping babe in this house - not mine”) and Sam from his home in North Carolina, the pair talked Gigwise through the joys and challenges of a collaborative album.
How did the collaboration come about?
Jesca: "It came about as a surprise to me, but not as a surprise to Sam. I was called out to do an opening slot on an Iron & Wine tour, and along the way it came to my awareness that Sam had called me not just to tour, but to see if I was the person he was looking for to do some writing. He was kind of hatching a plan, unbeknownst to me, when I came out to just play some shows. It was a plan that Sam hatched and just let me in on it somewhere down the line. He would say things like, ‘If we ever write songs together,’ and what he meant by that was, ‘I think I’d like us to write songs together’.”
Sam: “I had it in mind that I wanted to make a record like this one with a female partner, but you know, it’s a big deal to jump in the water like that! It’s a small boat and the water is wide, and so yeah, I brought her on tour. I knew she could sing and I loved her songs, but you’ve got to get to know someone a bit. I mean people do co-writes all the time, but I hadn’t done anything like that. There was a bit of poking around, making sure that the tyres were OK, but it didn’t take very long. We both were fans of each other’s work - I think I just had faith in the project, so I was looking for someone to challenge me, to put my ego aside and say, ‘Let’s see what we can make when we’re not trying to steer the ship’, so I think we both jumped in feet first that way.”
How did co-writing differ to writing for yourself? Did you have any apprehensions?
Jesca: “I’d never shared lyrical or melodic responsibilities. At the start of any song, it comes with a bouquet of apprehension and fear, because there’s all sorts of intimidating factors when you approach a clean slate. My primary fear in approaching co-writing, especially if we were going to write love songs, was that they were willing to be genuine, and that I could stand behind them, that they wouldn’t be generic. I wanted to make sure these were songs that only he and I could create, and that I couldn’t make by myself. That no matter what we came up with, that I could stand behind them and feel proud that they were mine.”
Sam: “I mean every step of the way was a compromise - for the better, but that’s the spirit of the thing. You get into it, and [I would] give her a few phrases and then she would react and I would be met with a challenge to what I had written, and it worked the same for her. So every step of the way, when you’re usually accustomed to controlling how the thing progresses, you’re met with a challenge. I found it really fun.
“I mean sometimes it was frustrating, but at the same time, I think we both went into it with the idea that it’s not a math problem, where at the end it’s either right or wrong - it’s art, and so it can turn out however you want it. You just have to let go and have some faith. Or just find joy or value in it becoming something that you couldn’t have imagined, couldn’t have done by yourself. So I think with that faith in our pocket, we just went ahead and let things slide, things that we would change, or things that I thought were important that got dismissed, you just let them go. It was an exercise in patience and understanding for controlling people like me.”
You also have to allow yourself to be quite vulnerable.
Sam: “Yeah, I mean it definitely takes working with someone that you trust, so I felt lucky in that sense.”
Jesca: “Sam’s quite gentle by nature, but he also wasn’t precious in terms of discarding or starting fresh with something. We set a precedent that no idea was too precious to just change. When we decided that we were going to endeavour upon a body of work, I went home and I did kind of a splurge, like a train of thought kind of recording, and I just sent him this stream of thoughts to demonstrate my willingness to be unedited and foolish and vulnerable. Because I had no idea what he would think of what I’d sent. I wanted to establish that I was willing to go to a vulnerable, foolish place in order to find the good ideas.”
How was it allowing yourself to be honest with each other?
Jesca: “That’s a good question, I’d probably have to go read through my emails. I think I would focus on what I loved. If I didn’t love an idea, I would work on it, and change it until I felt more alignment with it. Sometimes there would be a little arm wrestling, in a fun, positive kind of way, about sticking to an idea. The person who came up with the genesis of the idea, we could assert ourselves and say, ‘I really think that this is the stronger idea’, or, ‘This is what I want to say’.”
Jesca, you said once that you have an identity crisis every time you start a catalogue of songs. How did you negotiate that when writing with another person?
Jesca: “I think one of the great joys of this project was that I had a teammate, someone who understands the whole process. I’m not sure Sam goes through the torment that I do when writing. I call my writing room the torture chamber, but I’m not sure that he goes through that so much, but we had each other to share the weight of the work, and it was easier and it was funner, and I wasn’t as attached to what this offspring would look like. It was like my first writing, of my own, I didn’t approach that with any kind of fear, I had no preconceived notion so I just did it for sheer joy, which is what I did this for. The teamwork relieved me of that. I was more concerned with being able to stand behind it, because we were willing to work to get to a unique voice between the two of us, to find a common language that both he and I could share and feel confident.”
In terms of the lyrics, how did you go about writing them - were they mostly done separately or together?
Sam: “We would just try and use the time we had together, which was few and far between, we would try to make full advantage of those small slots of time, so most of it was sending gibberish to one another. We’d keep reacting and sending each other lines, and eventually it started to take shape. We would come up with the material separately, and then we would sit down and start to cut and paste and shape. It was fun, we just didn’t have a whole lot of time to do that.”
Jesca: “Most of the heavy lifting happened separately. That’s not true across the board, ‘Valley Clouds’ we started together, and it was the first song we started together. It was a real feat to sit in one room and start a song together. That takes some real patience and some real trust. ‘Know The Wild That Wants You’, the very first idea of that song was about a very young member of my family who passed away, so it started from that place, and you’ll find seeds of that in some of Sam’s finished lyrics, but you won’t know what the starting point of the song was.”
Given that the project was your idea Sam, why did you decide that this was something you wanted to do now?
Sam: “Finding the right person was definitely important. I’ve been holding onto the idea for quite some time, but other interests sort of pulled me in other directions, but this is something I had a little space after a couple larger records. I just wanted something different. It felt like a good time just as far as… I don’t know, I don’t really plan things out too well. I probably should.”
Was it important to you that it was a female voice?
Sam: “Yeah I guess that’s just how I approach love songs, at least that kind of conversational love song. It certainly doesn’t have to be a male and a female but that’s how I write ‘em, so it was important to me, I like contrast. I like the sonic contrast of the voices, the different things that a woman saying a line [brings] than what it means when a man says it. Contradictions are fun to play with.”
Was it important to you to understand the meaning behind each other’s lyrics?
Sam: “No not really. Sometimes the less information you have the better, because you can make your own associations. If you have too much information then you want to stay true to the inspiration, whereas if you’re just reading the words and reacting to them with your own background, you’re much more free to dabble and poke and change.”
Jesca: “If the language is cryptic, it’s because I want to incite the imagination and I want the listener to open up their own language, and let them discover images of the words connect to them.”
The album was recorded in Portland, Oregon. Does the location in which you’re recorded have an effect on how it turns out?
Sam: “It definitely does. I think for some people it has more of an effect, because some people feed off the vibe of a place and end up writing a lot while they’re recording. I don’t really do that - we’d come to the table with most of the stuff prepared. We went to Tucker Martine’s space, and he’s quite a host, I mean he has a very gentle way of directing things, which is really fun, and so as far as feeling comfortable… I mean it’s a very well known fact that your creative energy works a lot better when you’re happy and laughing, that’s the way your spirit works. It was a wonderful place to make a record because we were surrounded by really warm and talented people.”
That’s interesting because there’s the whole tortured genius thing - the idea that when you’re at your darkest and bleakest, you’re at your most creative.
Sam: “Conflict definitely makes people want to write, but it doesn’t necessarily help them make the best decisions! It’s hard to write happy songs. People aren’t inspired to write about how beautiful a sunny day is, they want to go out and enjoy it.”
Love Letter For Fire is out now via Sub Pop.