Listen to this track by Iron & Wine lead Sam Beam and experimental pop singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop. It’s “Valley Clouds”, a track as taken off of their joint album Love Letter For Fire. That album was released just this past April, making many a music fan’s eyes widen by the possibilities initially, and by now how well Beam and Hoop’s voices intertwine to create something new out of a well-traveled approach to the making of pop music of a certain vintage and spirit.
The intent of the album was to take an established form, the duet, and to import a modern take on it as well as create a songwriting partnership out of that process. This album was the result, with this song being a lead single to establish its tone, which is a sort of quietly intense atmosphere of a campfire singalong.
As one might expect, this record of duets centers around the subject of love. But, what it also explores something that this established form has always intended, and that is how writing songs for two voices expands thematic possibilities, creates tension, and adds a sophisticated emotional dynamic that can only exist when two points of view are expressed in the same song.
This project between two established artists is another example of how musicians in the 21st century are freeing themselves from the confines of what record companies might have imposed on them even twenty years ago. Instead of sticking to one stream of music making in solo careers and in bands, artists are now actively seeking new ways and new contexts to challenge themselves when it comes to their craft, sometimes outside of their main musical channels. Beam had thought of doing a duets record that explored the idea of a song as dialogue for a while, without much of an idea of who might provide the other side of that conversation. Thanks to iTunes, he dived into Jesca Hoop’s work and reached out to her. She was receptive, with the idea of making a whole album together coming from her.
The amazing thing to me is that as much as I love the work of both songwriters, I never would have thought to put them together. To my ears, Hoop has always been more experimental in her writing, with sumptuous and elaborate arrangements. Beam’s music is more down-home, spare, and with his existential angst on his sleeve a bit more. Somehow on this song, and on the record as a whole, they find a middle ground without losing any of the things that define them as individual writers and performers. This is sumptuous and spare. This is emotionally direct and conceptually evocative. During the process of making the record, that mandate to challenge their own regular approaches to their music is well in place, with each artist alternating between laid back and bold, cerebral and soulful. You can hear that in this song, a series of snapshots of a life shared.
The most important thing of all of course is how well their voices work together, intertwining and complementing each other, never getting in the way of the melody or feel of the material. The production and the arrangements make sure that this comes across, full of brushed drums, acoustic guitar, melodica, piano, and even a little fiddle. But the two are such strong singers, both interested in framing the songs they’ve written for listeners more so than doing the same for the idea of them singing together as two artists with catalogues of their own. With this song, and with the album they’ve made together, the novelty of two songwriters with such distinct musical signatures isn’t the focus at all.
It’s about the same thing that all best duets have delivered to listeners down through the decades of pop history; a reflections of our own lives, feelings, sentiments,, with melodies and moods buoying up our own associations with the terrors and joys of what it means to share your life with someone. Does the title “love letter to fire” mean burning up our expectations of love? Or is it an expression of its all-consuming nature? In this, that established musical form reminds us again of how powerful the sound of two human voices can be, regardless of how we choose to interpret what they’re singing to us in detail.
Those details are often more powerful still when we fill them in ourselves as we listen.
Learn more about how the record was conceived and made in this short that features both songwriters talking about their approach and process.
For even more, here’s an informative interview about how the two got together in the first place.