It sounds like a dream: Two old friends, supporting each other from afar, both carve out stellar reputations in the music industry. Then, when they're established enough to call the shots, they band together. For two musicians, it's what really happened.
One is Sam Beam, the folk artist known as Iron & Wine, and the other is the southern-fried frontman for Band of Horses, Ben Bridwell. Their new album, Sing Into My Mouth, is a collection of covers, including songs by Talking Heads and Sade. Beam says it's the jam session they never got to have back when they were growing up together in Columbia, S.C.
"His older brother's one of my best friends, and Ben would come over, and we'd be listening to records," Beam explains. "We kept in contact over the years, sent each other music — you know, like friends do."
"When we first started corresponding with mixtapes through the mail and stuff like that, we share the same affection for a lot of different kinds of music," Bridwell concurs. "If one of us had a particular passion about a certain song, we'd usually agree."
As Iron & Wine and Band of Horses took off, the two friends graduated from sharing music to sharing stages — and they're about to tour together again, with each musician choosing a few of the other's songs to perform at each show.
Beam and Bridwell spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about the making of Sing Into My Mouth and the development of their musical friendship. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.
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ARUN RATH, HOST:
Here's a beautiful story. Two childhood friends go their separate ways and individually carve out stellar reputations in the music industry. One is Sam Beam, the folkie known as Iron & Wine.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EACH COMING NIGHT")
IRON AND WINE: (Singing) Will you say when I'm gone away...
RATH: The other is the southern-fried front man for Band of Horses, Ben Bridwell.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAREDO")
BAND OF HORSES: (Singing) Going to take a trip to Laredo, going to take a dip in the lake...
RATH: Now the old friends have finally combined musical forces for a collection of cover songs, the jam session that should've happened a long time ago. They're calling it "Sing Into My Mouth." Here's a Bonnie Raitt song they both love.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANY DAY WOMAN")
IRON AND WINE AND BEN BRIDWELL: (Singing) If she's a woman, she'll try to make it last. You're a man now. You better end it fast.
SAM BEAM: Let me introduce you, Ben, and then you'll introduce me. This is Ben Bridwell.
BEN BRIDWELL: Hey. This is Sam over here - Sam Beam.
RATH: And Ben and Sam go way back.
BEAM: We grew up in the same town in Columbia, S.C. His older brother is one of my best friends, and we - Ben would come over, and we - you know, we'd be listening to records and we sort of bonded over the types of music that we liked. And we kept in contact over the years, send each other music, you know, like friends do, sharing stuff and eventually, had a lot to do with each other's early music career. Ben introduced my music to a label that I was involved with called Sub Pop early on. And then I would take him out when Band of Horses started on the road with us.
BRIDWELL: And then he thus got my band signed to Sub Pop as well. So we - in a way, we each got one another signed to Sub Pop, coming up from the catty-corner of the country.
RATH: So you guys are even.
BRIDWELL: I think so. I'd like a little bit more, actually.
RATH: I've got to tell you guys, when I first listened to this record - I like to listen kind of purely. I didn't even, like, look up the song names or any of the background...
RATH: I didn't realize until I was about halfway through, these are covers. My producer's saying come on, you had to recognize the Talking Heads. I thought these were all original tunes until I was about halfway through.
BRIDWELL: That's great, that's great.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS MUST BE THE PLACE")
IRON AND WINE AND BEN BRIDWELL: (Singing) Home is where I want to be, but I guess I'm already there. I come home, she lifted up her wings. I guess that this must be the place.
RATH: The one I started to realize on, and it was because of the words and I had to look it up later, you do a cover of Sade's "Bulletproof Soul."
BEAM: (Laughter) Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BULLETPROOF SOUL")
IRON AND WINE AND BEN BRIDWELL: (Singing) I was so in love with you. Rarely see a love that true. Wasn't that enough for you?
BEAM: It's funny because Ben and I and his dad used to like sit around and listen to Sade records (laughter)...
BRIDWELL: A little bit.
BEAM: ...At his dad's house. That song in particular on the record was a fun throwback to, you know, our friendship from a long time - a lot of these songs are that way. They're specifically songs that we shared, and some of them are songs that we found along the way and just enjoyed. It's been a fun project.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BULLETPROOF SOUL")
IRON AND WINE AND BEN BRIDWELL: (Singing) Too busy thinking. Love is a gun. Hit me like a slow bullet, like a slow bullet.
RATH: So did you guys see eye-to-eye on all the selections here? Were there any songs that one of you guys had to sell to the other one?
BEAM: How about you take that one, Ben?
BRIDWELL: OK. No, just, like, when we first started corresponding with mixtapes and through the mail and stuff like that - we share the same affection for a lot of different kinds of music. So if one of us had, you know, a particular passion about a certain song, we'd usually agree. I mean, I don't think - I can't imagine being like actually, I think that song's terrible. If anything, there's so many songs, it was trying to pare them down.
RATH: It's funny, I kind of feel like we're in an era where I need to say a mixtape was a thing - well, we had these things called cassette tapes, and we would pick our favorite songs and give them to friends.
BEAM: Yeah, I forget we have to explain what those are to people.
RATH: So you guys are about to go on tour. What's it going to be like? Do you guys set ground rules before you pile up in a tour bus together?
BRIDWELL: We should probably make a couple, at least. I don't want to see Sam in his undies. I don't want people in their undies.
BEAM: That's odd 'cause that's my rule - I always have to be in my undies.
BRIDWELL: (Sighs) All right, well...
BEAM: That's my rule. Actually, the only rule seems to be to have fun, do music that you like. And we'll be doing stuff from the record and covering our own material. You know, I'm going to do some of his songs and Ben's going to do some Iron & Wine songs.
BRIDWELL: We share the same kind of fan base as well, which is girls and their reluctant boyfriends, I think...
BRIDWELL: ...You know, through the doors. It's good, you sell two tickets instead of one. No, I think there'll be some cool surprises for the show-goers to get to hear us interpret each other's work.
RATH: What do you guys get out of playing each other songs? Like, you know, Ben, what do you get out of the Iron & Wine songs?
BRIDWELL: Oh man. Well, I've probably been Sam's biggest...
BEAM: A hand cramp.
BRIDWELL: I get embarrassment when I can't figure out his Beatles chords or whatever. Just like with any cover song, you hear the narrator tell a story, but you put it into your own story, you know? And I think Sam has an amazing gift with phrases and painting incredible pictures with his words, so it's nice. I get to actually, like, interpret it my own way and put my own feeling into it because these songs have lived with me for so long.
BEAM: See why I like hanging out with this guy?
BEAM: He's very kind. And I've got to say, just the project that we're doing is really fun to interpret other people's music that you don't particularly know, but just you have an affinity or a soft spot in your heart for a song. But it's even more fun when you know the person who wrote it, and you can, you know, bring what you know about the writer to your performance of the song. It informs what you do. And, you know, we've been friends for so long, it's a treat to be able to do his music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DONE THIS ONE BEFORE")
RATH: Sam Beam is Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell fronts Band of Horses. The new album together is called "Sing Into My Mouth." Gentlemen, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.
BEAM: Likewise, thank you for your time.
BRIDWELL: Absolutely, thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DONE THIS ONE BEFORE")
IRON AND WINE AND BEN BRIDWELL: (Singing) Light comes a-creeping in the morning. The curtain will rise again. I know, I know because I've done this one before. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.