Calexico and Iron & Wine to perform at the Cambridge Folk Festival for the first time
Joey Burns, of Friday night headliners Calexico, speaks to Adrian Peel.
Musical collaborations can be something of a mixed bag, with some being rather ill-advised at best and downright awful at worst.
Sometimes, though, the stars align and the two or more parties combine to create a masterpiece.
This was certainly the case with Calexico and Iron & Wine’s first joint effort: 2005’s In the Reins, a beautiful seven-track EP packed full of Tex-Mex-inspired Americana.
Now these two big-hitters in the world of Americana and alternative country have come together again to make a new album (the wonderful Years to Burn, released last month) and will headline stage one at the Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, August 2.
With elements of Tex-Mex, country, alternative country, jazz and indie rock in their infectious and captivating sound, Arizona-based Calexico – active since the mid-1990s and named after the Californian border town of the same name just across the way from the northern Mexican city of Mexicali – fully capture the musical landscape of the southern United States, especially the sparse beauty of the desert.
Iron & Wine is the stage name of Sam Beam, a folk/alternative country troubadour who put out his first album nearly 20 years ago.
Already boasting a dedicated following, Sam gained a whole new set of fans when his song Flightless Bird, American Mouth was used in the 2008 film, Twilight. Great song, the film not so much.
Calexico’s music has also popped up in various films and television programmes, including Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Suits, and the Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There.
Expect to hear tunes from Calexico and Iron & Wine’s two joint releases at the festival, as well as songs from their respective discographies.
The Cambridge Independent caught up with Joey Burns, a multi-instrumentalist and one of the three ‘main men’ in Calexico (the others being drummer John Convertino and trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela), in his car while driving in Tucson.
He had just dropped his two young daughters off at circus camp.
So why did it take 14 years for Calexico and Iron & Wine to come together again?
“It’s funny, I don’t remember us really planning on doing another album,” says Joey, 52.
“We’d stayed in touch and we’d send each other songs to share on each other’s albums, but there never really were plans from the get-go.
"We basically met in the studio in 2004 and it went really well – and the tour that followed was where we really cemented our friendship and our working relationship.”
He continues: “That tour was a blast, and then we kind of went back to just doing our own things and our separate collaborations.
"I think around the 10th anniversary of In the Reins in around 2015 was when there was talk of doing another recording, maybe an EP or just a couple of songs...
"It was just a matter of scheduling and at one point we realised that if we don’t clear out the calendar for this project, it’ll never happen because we’re both pretty busy.
"So that’s why it took a while; it took about three or four years to find that window.”
Years to Burn was recorded at the Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville, a fabled studio founded in the 1960s by Cowboy Jack Clement and a recording space where numerous country and rock artists, including Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Don Williams, Keith Whitley, Alison Krauss, and REM, have laid down tracks.
One of this writer’s favourite tracks on Years to Burn is What Heaven’s Left, which features some sublime pedal steel playing courtesy of Paul Niehaus.
“I love that song,” says Joey, who grew up in southern California before relocating to Tucson.
“I love the fact that it combines a lot of elements and a lot of genres. For me, it’s got an R&B twist, it’s got some pedal steel, it’s got some joyous horns kind of bouncing off each other...”
The eight tracks on the album were mainly written by Sam Beam, although it was definitely a collaborative effort.
“I wrote a song called Midnight Sun,” says Joey, “and I also suggested a couple of other ideas – and John Convertino also suggested doing something completely free and open, which became the track Outside El Paso.
“When we started doing more experimental stuff in the studio, like Outside El Paso, we experimented with a song called Tennessee Train.
"We did a variation on the theme of that song, and that later became The Bitter Suite, which for a lot of journalists has stood out because it’s so unusual and different from the rest of the songs on the record.”
Joey notes that there are many traditional influences in the music of both Calexico and Iron & Wine.
This writer suggested to Joey that Calexico’s music is the “sound of the American desert.”
“Thanks,” he says. “We definitely have highlighted a regional influence in the south-west – and I think Sam too with some of his arrangements, instrumentation and lyrics.
“I think that’s one of those things where you just kind of choose to do that! I consider myself an indie-rock musician, for lack of a better term, but I also love world music a lot.
"So I try and mix it all together – stick it in a big pot and see what happens.
"I think one of the most important things is just being true to your musical voice, your internal voice.”
Calexico and Iron & Wine will be headlining Stage One at the Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, August 2.