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John Lamb, Published September 22 2013

Seeing the light: Songwriter Sam Beam faces how geography shapes his songs

Fargo - When Sam Beam released “Ghost on Ghost,” his fifth album as Iron & Wine, some longtime fans did a double take.

For his first handful of releases, fans also did a double take – to better hear what the hushed vocalist was saying. The singer delivered scenes in a whisper-soft tone, accompanied only by sparse guitar.

What fans heard on last April’s release was more assertive, more colorful and, well, more pop.

Fargo fans can hear the new-and-improved sound of Iron & Wine when Beam brings his expanded act to the Fargo Theatre on Tuesday night.

Beam doesn’t mind the new album being referred to as “poppy,” though he hears it a different way.

“I didn’t go into the studio planning to make an R&B record, but I think, at the end of the day, I made one,” he says. “I feel like it was a natural progression. I didn’t really push anything. I don’t put out records I don’t like.”

The 39-year-old started making spare vocal and guitar recordings “as a hobby,” before going to bed and before going to work as a professor of film studies in Florida.

“It didn’t feel appropriate to be yelling in my room,” he says with a laugh, when asked about his early, tranquil releases.

The style also reflected the limitations of his voice as well as the subject of the material. His breakthrough album, 2004’s “Our Endless Numbered Days,” is a collection of pastoral odes to family, life and death.

The inspiration came largely from his immediate surroundings – he and his wife had two young daughters at the time.

“Family has definitely informed the way I write,” he says from his home. “It changes your whole perspective on life, so inevitably it changes your perspective on songwriting. It changes what you’re interested in, what your obsessions are. You’ve never felt so closely tied to the world but also horrified at it at the same time. All these things change your perspective.”

His view on music evolved over the next few years as he teamed up with the Southwest band Calexico, known for atmospheric, often cinematic instrumental works, for the E.P. “In the Reins.” The collaborative effort and working with a horn section opened his eyes and ears to expanding his own sound.

“I feel like it was a crystalizing moment for me,” he says. “That whole year-and-a-half of making that record and touring with it was like going to school for me, basically learning how to collaborate with other people.”

The musical evolution started with 2007’s “The Shepherd’s Dog,” but reached a full realization on his newest disc.

“I thought it would be more like ‘A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night,’ ” he says, referring to Harry Nilsson’s 1973 album of standards.

Beam was open to what the other musicians were feeling with the songs and says it reflects his own Motown influences.

“I feel it has more of an upbeat feel to it than some of the other records,” he says.

He’s employing a 12-piece band with a horn section and back-up singers on the current tour to fill out the new songs, though he says he’s playing music from his whole catalog live.

Old influences could take him in a different, though familiar direction. In August, Beam moved his family from the Austin, Texas, area to North Carolina, to be closer to his South Carolina roots and family.

“Writing, you take cues from all of your senses and emotions. The landscape you’re in affects you. The people you surround yourself with affects you,” he says when asked how geography informs his writing. “Everything’s fair game and nothing is sacred. You take from wherever you can and use it. We lived in the Hill Country (outside Austin), where there is not a lot of trees and a lot of light. I enjoyed that.”

While the pop notions from his last album may have been influenced by his time in Austin, his growing family, now five daughters, may have played a role as his older girls listen to their own music.

Beam knows he already has a large audience of young women. His most popular songs on iTunes are two versions of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” each featured on a “Twilight” soundtrack.

While his oldest girls have seen the movies and recognize their dad on the soundtrack, they’re not overly impressed.

“Most of them haven’t really known anything else except dad does music,” he says, laughing. “I think dad’s music is not going to be cool no matter what.”

If you go

• What: Iron & Wine and Widowspeak

• When: Doors at 7 p.m., music at 8, Tuesday

• Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway

• Info: Tickets for this all-ages show are $31.50, though additional fees may apply. Tickets available through www.jadepresents.com or (866) 300-8300.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533