TORONTO - The Iron & Wine's Sam Beam has undergone quite the artistic transformation in the 11 years since issuing his sparse debut "The Creek Drank the Cradle," transitioning from the rustic homemade folk of that record to the loose, lushly orchestrated roots-pop of his latest, "Ghost on Ghost."
Much as the low-key Beam likes to attribute his artistic metamorphosis to forces beyond his conscious control, he acknowledges that he's made a real effort to expand his sound with each of his five long-players.
He hopes his fanbase keeps up, but doesn't seem to worry much about it.
"I'm definitely hungry to try something new — I'm hungry for what's around the corner," said the sharply dressed indie troubadour during a promotional trip to Toronto this week. "I went to an art school for college and one of the things that was impressed upon me very early is that you're only as good as your next idea.
"You can look at that as a defeating, horrible way to live. Or you can look at it very optimistically as in: Maybe my best work is around the corner and I don't know what it's going to be."
Beam's creative restlessness hasn't seemed to harm his commercial prospects. "Ghost on Ghost," released in April, became his third straight record to ascend to the 26th spot on the U.S. chart or higher, with 2011's "Kiss Each Other Clean" standing as his commercial pinnacle.
But it's also given Beam the sense that some listeners aren't quite sure what to make of him. The first impression he forged as a solitary storyteller with a minimalist streak and a luxuriously appointed beard has proven surprisingly enduring, even as his music has changed.
It might bother Beam, if he ever seemed bothered by anything.
"I definitely feel that some people ... they kind of decided what I was doing five years ago," he said, before calmly discussing the fickle way of the music industry and press.
"They're definitely hungry for the new shiny thing that they haven't seen before. It's not the same way with movies and stuff. It's a strange phenomenon that only exists in music, really. You don't see it in painters. People are always anxious to see what the tried-and-trues have done.
"But at the same time, I just keep working and see what happens. I never felt like I had to please everybody, either."
Beam, who will play the first of a slew of Canadian dates in Winnipeg on Thursday, took a winding path to the industry. He began as a musical hobbyist whose primary pursuit was teaching film and cinematography in Florida. When his music career gained unlikely momentum, he wasn't necessarily sure what to make of it.
It took years before he cultivated some confidence in his voice, for instance, and he generally felt as though he was learning on the fly.
"I feel like the first few records, it was a hobby. I was doing it in my spare time," he said. "But also the subject matter of those tunes, they were pretty appropriate for the type of songs they were, to deliver them that way. I wish I could say that was all by design but it was all kind of serendipitous.
"I only knew a couple chords," he recalls. "I still only know a few chords."
Still, he handled multi-instrumental duties on his recordings until his latest one, and he emphasizes how freeing it was to hear his songs interpreted by a crack team of musicians that included frequent Joni Mitchell collaborator Brian Blade.
Though his music (especially early on) has been steeped in the folk tradition, Beam has rarely been a confessional songwriter. Is it possible that his personal life — he's married with five daughters and lives just outside Austin, Texas — is simply too stable to fuel his songwriting?
"Don't assume too much," he says, laughing. "But you know, yeah, I'm a homebody."
He continues: "I'm not a super confessional poet but I'm not hiding anything. There's just not a whole lot that I find that interesting."
Clearly, what he finds interesting is gradually nudging the boundaries of his sound, infusing what once seemed a fairly limited palette with a range of new colours.
He's never really had a plan — and even if he did, music wasn't originally it — and he isn't sure whether his creative wandering will help or hinder his commercial prospects.
Seemingly, it won't affect him either way.
"I just try to approach (music) intuitively and see what else is out there," he said. "It's probably short-sighted. (It's) not the best way to build a career. 'Cause I feel like most people like Big Macs. They like to know what they're getting into.... (But) I would hate to force someone to eat the same meal over and over again, (even if) some people seem to like that.
"And I think," he added, "even if the experiment fails, it's worth the experiment."