Iris DeMent interview: After 16 years, the songs start to flow again

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Iris DeMent’s much-celebrated 2012 release, “Sing the Delta” (Flariella), marked the singer’s first album of new material in 16 years. But it was an album of old-timey gospel songs she essentially released for herself in 2004, “Lifeline,” that made “Sing the Delta” possible.

“I wasn’t writing, but that record, honest to God, my heart was sunk in that record all the way,” DeMent says. “I felt so aligned in my spirit with those songs. I didn’t even promote it -- I did one interview. It was so close to me I couldn’t run around and do interviews. Those songs have belonged to everybody for so long, and those songs shaped who I am. Those songs are what I sing when I’m down in the dumps and want to jump off a bridge. I was in a severely depressed stretch for a couple years. I couldn’t write anything. All I did was play those songs on piano, and they kept me alive. When I called the album ‘Lifeline,’ I meant it.”

DeMent is steeped in a tradition where she and her family, first in Arkansas and later in California, would pass around a hymnal on Sunday afternoons and choose gospel songs to sing in four-part harmony.

“There is a deep connection to my family history,” she says. “I was the last of 14 kids, and my Mom had all of us in church the first Sunday after she delivered each one of us. That was her pride. So from the get-go I heard those songs, they were woven into everything I am. Not just the songs, the context. It’s part of all these other layers of life that make who you become. As my daughter will tell you, I don’t listen to my records, but I sing along to that record in the kitchen, and I’ll be crying. Those songs go to my heart. That wasn’t just a filler album to take up the dead space (between ‘real’ albums).”

DeMent has a complicated relationship with religion and God that informs her work and gives it a veracity, a sense of real-life struggle that is rare for any artist, let alone one coming out of a hardcore country-gospel tradition as she is. From “Let the Mystery Be” (the first song on her first album, the 1992 classic “Infamous Angel”) to the “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray” on “Sing the Delta,” DeMent explores the difficulties of keeping the faith.

In “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” the narrator is haunted by the memory of watching a baby brother die in a household accident.

“It’s about a friend of mine who told me he was an atheist, and when I asked him why, he told me the story of losing his little brother when he was 8,” DeMent says. “It took me a long time, but when I got that line – ‘the night I learned how not to pray’ – I was able to finish the song. Who doesn’t relate to that disillusionment at a young age? I’m still figuring out how I think about religion and faith. I never had any problem with the feeling part of it, that’s been with me since I was 5. Even when I was 16 and left the church because I disagreed with some of the theology, I never questioned the underlying feel and heart of it. I’ve always missed that. A few years ago I found a (nondenominational) church (in Kansas City) where I could have that soul part without all the nonsense. Those kinds of churches are few and far between. There was soul in there that means everything to me. It still does. I carry it with me to a show. It’s not about the dogma. I can sing ‘Let the Mystery Be’ and still not feel one step removed from my upbringing, though some of my family members feel otherwise.”

DeMent weathered her own loss last year when her mother, Flora Mae, died at age 93. Her father had died decades earlier, and the knowledge that she was finally saying goodbye to her last surviving parent shook loose many of the songs on “Sing the Delta,” including the title track, about her home, and the poignant “Before the Colors Fade.”

“My mom had a huge love for music that she never was fully able to express,” DeMent says. “She had a dream of being a professional singer, but ended up raising all these kids. Something never got complete in there for her. My affection for her and my love of music got wrapped up in her dream. Even though I’m 52, my mom’s life – who she was and her musical passion – was all tangled up in mine. But I find whenever there is a big change happening, it also opens a creative door. When I wrote (the song) ‘Sing the Delta,’ it was before my mom died, but I felt that coming on. There is an intensity about change, the senses get sharper, maybe because of that fear or terror you have that you are going to lose somebody. You see things more clearly, which is what ‘Before the Colors Fade’ is about.”

DeMent’s life and art changed too. “Out of all that stress and depression, you come to accept that God or the universe is trying to tell me something, like, ‘Hey, Iris, maybe there is something else you should be doing with your time besides trying to write songs.’ To be honest, I learned how to be part of a family as an adult. I finally went from my childhood family, and a life that was all about making and singing music, to finding other things to do, like being a mom, a wife, and a grandmother. I continued to work, people continued to come and see me sing -- much to my amazement. I had always made singing secondary. When I didn’t have the writing part, I still had the love of music, and I learned how to sing. I learned how to put more of what life has offered me into my voice. A lot of good stuff happened in that time that didn’t translate into songs.”

greg@gregkot.com

Iris DeMent: 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St., $32, $35, $40; citywinery.com.

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