Love Letter for Fire, the new collaborative album by Sam Beam of Iron & Wine and expat singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop, opens with a droning synth, faint static, bowed strings and a single bell chime, before the intertwined harmonies of Hoop and Beam bubble up, whispery but strong.
The song, "Welcome to Feeling," is only 58 seconds long, but it establishes the template for the 12 songs that follow. Hoop and Beam sing beautiful couplets—chiefly concerning love stories—her malleable voice wrapping around his sturdy tenor, but they never let the songs be simply pretty. Yes, they are often very pretty, but always augmented with touches that upset their balance just so: clanking percussion, distorted bass, shifting tempos, otherworldly vocal inflections, guitars jutting out unexpectedly. It's easy to picture Hoop and Beam nodding to each other with sly grins every time they throw the listener off the expected trail.
"I think Sam and I both agree that if left to our own devices, the music that comes out of an individual is weird," Hoop says via telephone from the road, on tour with Beam in support of the record. "What comes out intrinsically is kind of weird, and by that definition I mean magical, mystical and fantastic. We wanted to embrace kinks and blemishes, vulnerabilities and strengths and make it human."
Both Hoop and Beam have made a habit of this kind of subtle disruption. Initially associated with indie folk, Hoop quickly veered with her 2009 album Hunting My Dress, which incorporated hip hop and world music influences. On songs like "Four Dreams" and "Whispering Light," Hoop inserted her voice into knotty, theatrical songs, often sounding freaky in a way that separated her from the freak folk scene, of which she seemed to skirt the edges.
Beam broke in the early aughts with hushed, intimate recordings like 2002's The Creek Drank the Cradle, sparsely recorded as demos on a four-track but released as a his breakthrough album by Sub Pop Records. But he too quickly cast off stifling restrictions of genre, recording the electric guitar laden Woman King EP, collaborating with Calexico, and with 2007's The Shepard's Dog, he embraced a more experimental approach, teaming with members of Calexico and Califone to graft Latin rock and jittery textures to his songs. He's only gone in more progressive and sophisticated directions since, exhibited by the jazz rock leanings of his 2013 LP, Ghost on Ghost.
Love Letter for Fire is Beam's second consecutive duet album, following 2015's Sing into My Mouth with Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell. While that album featured covers of songs by the Talking Heads, Sade, JJ Cale and Peter La Farge, the collaborations on Love Letter for Fire are all original, written jointly by Hoop and Beam.
"The primary focus was to see what kind of songs he and I would create from our points of origin, to just see at what point they would meet and settle into a common language," Hoop says.
Beam had "designs" on working together, Hoop says, when he invited her to open an Iron & Wine tour, but rather than let him make the first move, she asked him to appear on her 2014 album Undress, which features acoustic versions of songs from Hunting My Dress.
"We actually didn't start singing together until I asked him if he would record a song with me," Hoop says. "I beat him to the punch in terms of spurring on a collaboration. I made it easy for him to ask and he made it easy for me to ask as well because he had this thing in his mind. I brought a little serendipity to his design."
Paired, the two quickly found compelling common ground, in both ambling material like "One Way To Pray," a beautiful countrypolitan ballad, and complex, twitching songs like the stop/start jam "We Two Are the Moon," bolstered by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, who also plays on the album.
"Both [Sam] and I are quite idiosyncratic and very different, but we knew there were sensibilities we shared in common," Hoop says. "We were searching for a language we could develop between he and I that took us out of what we do on our own."
That shared vocabulary led to songs like the blushing "Kiss Me Quick," a smoldering slow jam, and the supremely strange "Chalk It up to Chi," on which Hoop contorts her voice elastically. "You're a sorry black boot, I'm a shiny marble," Hoop sings, a call and response with Beam who responds affirmatively with a humorous shagginess in his voice. Though the result was one of the record's best songs, "Chalk It Up to Chi" took some developing.
"[It] wasn't sure what kind of song it was necessarily," Hoop says, "until we were able to look at it and go, 'Okay, it's a little monster.'"
That recognition—and the desire to find weird corners in the songs, never smoothing out their inherent strangeness—proved vital to the recording of the album.
"We tried to draw up little monsters in all the songs, whether they be cloud monsters or carpet monsters or brick monsters or lamp monsters, whatever," Hoop says.
The record ultimately became, in Hoop's estimation, a record she couldn't have made solo, nor Beam on his own. Even though both of their distinctive qualities are apparent on the record, the balance between their voices as singers and as songwriters adds up to a singular effort.
"It became greater than what we could do by ourselves, [something] only he and I could write," Hoops says. "I stand firmly behind the notion that the songs that are on this record couldn't be reproduced by anyone else. The thoughts are universal but there isn't a generic expression on there; we played with chemistry and took the elements, watched them boil over and collapse and explode, to see which ones formed gold in the end."