Some love letters we keep to remind us we are loved. Others, we burn to forget that we were broken by another. But the inspiration behind Love Letter for Fire, a collaborative album between Sam Beam of Iron & Wine and singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop was not to remember or to forget—it was to reinvent. In this case, a 13-track album full of love song duets.
Like most loving endeavors, it began simply and in earnest—Beam and Hoop were fans of each other's music. Beam had always wanted to make a record like this one with a female partner as an homage to the classic duets he grew up hearing on the radio. He went through Hoop's catalogue on iTunes and was struck by the album Kismet. Meanwhile, Hoop was finishing her fourth record at the time and had never co-written. Hoop admitted familiarity with Beam’s music “because it had cleaned my house many times,” she remarks. So after a proper amount of mutual admiration, Beam decided he wanted to get to know Hoop better and invited her on tour, and the album was subsequently written throughout 2014.
As Iron & Wine, Sam Beam has released several highly acclaimed albums, singles and EPs, including The Creek Drank The Cradle (2002), Our Endless Numbered Days (2004), Woman King (2005) and The Shepherd’s Dog (2007). Jesca Hoop has moved well beyond her fledgling days as Tom Waits’ nanny, releasing five albums and two EPs including Hunting My Dress (2009) and The House That Jack Built (2012), and has toured and collaborated with the likes of Shearwater, Willy Mason, Blake Mills, Andrew Bird, The Ditty Bops, Guy Garvey and Elbow. Together, they are a musical combination altogether different, both restrained and eclectic, soothing and moody, candid and opaque. Not unlike the separate but complementary parts and personalities that are present on this love-soaked effort.
Love Letter for Fire has the folk-rock team of Beam and Hoop up front on vocals and guitar and features contributions from a handpicked band including frequent Iron & Wine collaborator Robert Burger on keys, bassist Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Fiona Apple, Watkins Family Hour), Wilco's Glenn Kotche (drums, percussion), viola and violin from Eyvind Kang (The Decemberists as well as labels Tzadik and Ipecac), and the first few deeply drawn notes on the opening, invitational track, “Welcome To Feeling,” come via Teddy Rankin-Parker’s cello, the touring cellist for Primus and Iron & Wine. The project has a very local finish as Portland-based producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket, Neko Case) recorded and mixed the album at his space, Flora Recording & Playback. As further proof of burning love and commitment to keeping it all in the family, even the album’s cover photo was produced by Sam Beam.
The writing process for trading lines and blending voices was a long-distance love affair of sorts where near-perfect strangers created 13 love songs covering the full range of duet styles, from isorhythmic, call and response, dialogue, and counterpoint duets. Beam’s voice is a bright, soft and steady light and Hoop’s voice encircles—a golden and mellifluous thread woven in between, hushed and hovering, sometimes flitting bird-like, here, there and over the top of the canopy of sound in wild and delightful dives and spirals.
The album title Love Letter for Fire seems to appear in the opening lyrics of “We Two Are A Moon”: “This song is a love letter to toss into the fire” and later seems to talk about the experiment of co-writing this set of 13 love songs with the phrase, “Find a soul and feel it, hearts have hidden rooms, sing with me to wrong gods, music isn't safe.” Tell me about collaborating on music, poetics and love songs with Sam Beam.
Jesca Hoop: I think writing with Sam Beam was a real process of discovery and more of a surprise in nature. You actually chose to focus on one of the songs that is the most idiosyncratic in terms of rendering a language that came from what he and I were able to do more specifically just between ourselves. That song, to both he and I, represents something that only we could do, and we couldn't have done it without each other in terms of its melody, its harmonies and its lyrics. Some of the songs might sound a little bit more like one or the other, but this one is an alloy of that type of moment and made in that particular way. It was a lot of trying to discover a different way of saying things. One way that helped discover a new language with that song was to just throw out rhyming altogether and it opened up a world of connecting words. [Watch a live performance of “We Two Are A Moon” below.]
“Chalk It Up To Chi” has for me a distinctly strange and lovely Jesca Hoop feel and vocal, whereas “Midas Tongue,” which is also in the same key, sounds like a Sam Beam or Iron & Wine tune with rhythmic guitar and whispered harmonies. Were there places you felt you broke from melding together and had a stronger lead or inserted more of your own vocal or melodic thumbprint?
Both of those songs started as old, kind of scrap Iron & Wine or Sam Beam tunes. I chose to really distort the melody on one of them, and the other one, I think I take the finishing brush strokes. The songs vary in terms of who takes the finishing brushstrokes, but the listener will not know which song started from whom and finished necessarily by whom. It leans—all the songs are back and forth, back and forth in turns, many different times.
It is definitely a conversation—there are parts where there are trade-offs, then there's a coming together in harmony and a pulling apart for more counterpoints. It's a really nice album that sounds and feels like an actual conversation, not loaded like your standard love ballads. But I can still hear each of you in the trades.
I really did take my liberties with “Chalk It Up To Chi,” I just got far more left of field. I can get pretty weird, and I wasn't sure how much of that to insert in this project. Whatever I decided to do, I did. It would either work or not. We brought all these songs to the table with the producer and they also told us what they wanted—the producer, Sam and the band. They all weighed in on what songs we recorded and what they responded to. That was another part of those songs being on the record.
The album was recorded in Portland with Tucker Martine at Flora Recording & Playback. What was the experience like inside and outside the studio?
Portland is a fantastic place to spend, what was it, 10 days? Which was how long it took to make the record. Tucker's place is really warm and accommodating, and Tucker is a great facilitator—he's darling and funny, musically savvy, and he works with a lot of heart. Most of all, it was just fun. I think the band and everyone was really happy to be there. We worked quickly, we are all very focused. It's all in the casting—we did well by going to Flora with Tucker and with these band members in place.
You can also hear how spontaneous the music is. The songs are labored but I think the record has a soft, vulnerable quality because it was done so quick. I think that’s part of its lasting charm.
The lyrics on “Know the Wild that Wants You” have this refrain of “love yourself and come home” against the backdrop of city noise and imagery. Is “home” in this case, the wild of nature and is this a love song for it?
It's more about the nature that is your uncontrived self, the part of you that's taken away from what's most important, the part of you that's been distracted by the stuff that's off of the ground or stuff that isn't real. What you are if you drop all the little traps that you get pulled into by people, survival and all of that modern life. I think what I was thinking about when writing this [was] the place I was standing, and the perspective that I was drawing from was knowing someone when they were still innocent.
Are there any standout tracks you’ve especially enjoyed performing live together on this tour?
“Know the Wild that Wants You,” “Bright Lights and Goodbyes” and “Valley Clouds. Those are my three favorites to sing. I like singing “Chalk It Up To Chi” because it breaks the mood a bit and it takes a left turn, and you get to theatrically shout at the audience, which is kind of fun. But there's a lot of eloquence in those three songs and Sam is a very eloquent singer. I enjoy the subtleties and singing in harmony with Sam on those songs.
What’s next for you? Any new solo music in the works or perhaps some future collaborations?
I have a record finished that is due to come out in the beginning of 2017. We're putting the finishing touches on that one. I'm looking forward to putting that show together. There's more Beam and Hoop tour coming up, but that's enough for me [laughs]. All of that is quite a bit to do, so I'm not scratching my head for something else to report. There's no question what my next couple of years will look like, although there may be some surprises in there. That's life.