Peter Van de Graaf shares some of his favorites, from the late German tenor Fritz Wunderlich to American soprano Renee Fleming.
Singer-songwriter Sam Beam, who’s better known by his musical persona Iron & Wine, spoke about his influences, making art and his new album, “Ghost On Ghost,” after a performance at the Boston Public Library.
The performance was a part of WBUR’s new music series “Off the Record.” Produced by John Perotti, a technical director at the station, and multimedia producer Jesse Costa, “Off the Record” invites artists to perform in unusual venues around Boston.
The thing that I haven’t done yet is always much more exciting than regurgitating some lightning in a bottle.
Perotti says the idea stemmed from the constraints of working in a studio.
“Look at the small box we’re in.” Perotti told Here & Now. “I mean, it’s tight. It’s hard to fit bands in.”
So Perotti decided to invite bands to beautiful, open spaces around Boston.
He invited Beam to play in different parts of the Boston Public Library. Beam played in the iconic courtyard and hidden-away places in the building.
“We were in this awesome room in the back … that was the most interesting, reverberant, strange room,” said Perotti. “And [Sam Beam] really interacted with it.”
Perotti also conducts interviews with the artists. He spoke with Beam about his creative process.
“You can make things that sound like other popular things, but then you’re making Big Macs … and that’s not art,” Beam told Perotti. “The thing that I haven’t done yet is always much more exciting than regurgitating some lightning in a bottle.”
In the future, “Off the Record” will bring musicians to the top of a building in Boston’s financial district, and to Mt. Auburn Cemetery.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, here in Boston, the Public Library is not only cool, air conditioned. It's cool, period. It's America's oldest. There's a beautiful courtyard with a fountain, a Greek statue surrounded by white marble colonnades. There are little topiaries. And on a recent day, there was also the indie band Iron & Wine.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAUGHT IN THE BRIARS")
IRON & WINE: (Singing) Back alleys full of rain and everything shining. As holy as she can be, the trick's in the timing. Free as a...
YOUNG: That's "Caught in the Briars" off the new album by the indie group Iron & Wine. You can see a video at hereandnow.org. We're going to hear more about their new album from the artist behind the group, Sam Beam. But first, they were brought to the Public Library as part of a new music series from our mother ship, WBUR. They record, on audio and video, musicians performing in interesting locations. It's called "Off the Record." John Perotti is one of two co-producers. He also works as a technical director. So, John, an indie band in the Boston Public Library? What were you thinking?
JOHN PEROTTI, BYLINE: You know, working here a long time. I mean, look at this small box that we're in, right?
PEROTTI: I mean, it's tight and it's hard to fit bands in. We wanted to do something a little different. So we thought, hey, let's take Iron & Wine and put them somewhere beautiful. And that was the first place that came up.
YOUNG: And not just the courtyard where it's beautiful - people get married. But you - did you actually get into some of these rooms where they have old papers?
PEROTTI: Oh, yeah. Well, and we were in this awesome room in the back, the special collections room. That the most interesting reverberant, strange room. And he - and, you know, Sam Beam, who's the artist - that is Iron & Wine - was walking around and kind of finding a good spot. He really interacted with it, you know?
YOUNG: I just heard you say reverberant. So it's not just how something is going to look in the video - again at hereandnow.org - but it's how it's going to sound.
PEROTTI: Well, I think part of it is, you know, we'd like to have them interacting with these places. So sometimes there's people around. And, you know, how is that going to work for the artist? You know, basically, we just want to create something that's - is fun for them as it is for us to watch.
YOUNG: What are some of the other places?
PEROTTI: Coming up, we've got people performing on the top of a building in Boston's financial district. We have people performing in Mount Auburn Cemetery, which is a historic cemetery in the area. I mean, just any beautiful place we can get into, we're going to try.
YOUNG: OK. Well, as we said, your video of Sam Beam and the band Iron & Wine playing at the Boston Public Library will be at hereandnow.org. But you also put together a piece about the band. You spoke to Sam Beam at the library and let's meet him.
SAM BEAM: Check, check, check. Check, check, check. My name is (unintelligible) Beam, and I just hope for the best. That's what I do professionally.
BEAM: One, two, three.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE DESERT BABBLER")
BEAM: You have to follow the muse. You know, what I mean, unless you're engaged. And I think if you're not engaged, why do it as an artist? You have to have a certain amount of naive optimism and chase the rabbit down the hole.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DESERT BABBLER")
IRON & WINE: (Singing) It's New Year's Eve, and California's going to kill you soon. The Barstow boys bug eyes in the shadow of the moon. Black houses in the hills and roadside...
BEAM: You know, you can't play it safe. I mean, if, you know, there's different agendas in making a record. I like to make art, you know, what I mean? If we make some money, that's great because I like - my kids like to eat.
BEAM: But at the same time, I came from an art school background and you learn very quickly that you can never make everyone happy. Someone's always going to think it's great and someone's going to think it's a piece of (bleep), you know?
And also you can't predict public taste, it's impossible. So, I mean, you can make things that sound like other popular things, but then you're making Big Macs, you know, making like the same thing over and over that's tried and true, people like it. And that's not art. The thing that I haven't done yet is always much more exciting than regurgitating or recapturing some lightning in a bottle that you didn't have any idea who's going be popular in the first place.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW MEXICO'S NO BREEZE")
IRON & WINE: (Singing) When you friends and their friends pass the pipe or tie the knot, honeymoon music played in the drive-through parking lot. I woke up by your bed, you were wandering around the yard...
BEAM: I kind of let the song lead you - yeah, I don't have like a drawer of ideas that are just waiting to happen. I just kind of let the song guide you, you know, as you kind of hold on to the coat tails in seeing of this tune, and see where it point to. Like, for instance, there was a song on this last record called "Lovers Revolution." It started...
I've had that - I've been working on that for a while. And it started as kind of a longish folk tune with lots of long verses. And eventually, it became more of an R&B thing. And then, you know, when I finally got the title of it, revolution, it struck me, you know, that Mingus' music is some of the most revolutionary angry music that I've ever heard.
And so, you know, you follow the tune and see, you know, I would never have said five or six years ago, you know, I'm going to do a Charles Mingus tune. That's going to be my tune. But, you know, you let the lyrics or whatever the symphony of the tune say. You know, why don't you try it here or try these sounds? It's probably my favorite track on the record just because it was unique and really fun to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER'S REVOLUTION")
IRON & WINE: (Singing) I came to you, and you to me, and then we lost our lovers revolution...
YOUNG: That's Sam Beam of the indie band Iron & Wine. Is it true that that name was taken from a dietary supplement?
YOUNG: Somebody tell me if you know. I'm talking to the "Off the Record," the music series at the Boston Public Library. And we heard earlier from "Off the Record's" John Perotti.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER'S REVOLUTION")
IRON & WINE: (Singing) One of the soldiers lost and then dreams and never lose their gun. One of the wise men wondered onto the podium without a tongue. One of the trophies...
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.