Iris DeMent talks about long-awaited new album, this week's date at The Ark
But the wait is over. DeMent’s new album, “Sing the Delta,” is her first album in 8 years, and her first album of her own songs since 1996. The reason for that long gap between records, says DeMent, is a simple one: “The songs just weren’t coming to me.”
But she doesn’t believe in the notion of “writer’s block.”
“Even when I started, it took a while for songs to come to me,” she says. “I didn’t finish writing my first song until I was 25, and that was after years of sitting at the piano for hours, thinking, and waiting, for the songs to come. So songs have never really come to me on my own clock, when I wanted them to."
But plenty of living went into those years, and, in turn, that living went into her new songs. “After my last album of my own songs, and a few years went by, and the songs weren’t coming, I just made a decision to just live my life,” says DeMent, who comes to The Ark on Saturday for a solo-acoustic performance.
“And during those 16 years, I now realize that those songs were working on getting written. It seemed to me at the time that nothing was happening, but now I know that something was happening—it just wasn’t happening at the pace I would have liked. But that’s the nature of life—things don’t always happen according to the plans you’ve made,” says DeMent by phone from her home in Iowa City.“I know that my heart was still there, and that I still had that connection to whatever it was that called me to songwriting in the first place. And all of that living just turned into music for me.”
“Sing the Delta” in many ways picks up where DeMent left off in 1996. Her voice is still a startling instrument: She still sings with that high-lonesome purity, and her vocals still have that yearning, heart-fluttering quality, one that seems to spring from ancestral memory, as she channels previous generations of country-gospel singers—like her mother, grandmother and other family members who taught her to play the piano and sing when she was just a girl.
Indeed, on her current album, her vocal phrasing—the way she forms her vowels—seems to resonate with even more of a Deep South / mountain-music twang than it did on her stellar 1990s albums that won her so much acclaim, and established her as one of the finest singer-songwriters on the roots-music scene.
DeMent was born in Arkansas, but moved to California with her parents when she was 3 years old. She was born into the Pentecostal church, but left the church as a young woman. But she never left the gospel and country styles she was immersed in as a child. And she still plumbs subjects like family, and history, and spirituality.
In the ‘90s, several of her songs, like her beloved “Let the Mystery Be,” probed notions of spirituality and the afterlife, although they weren’t “religious.” Some of the new songs that also tread that terrain are “The Night I Learned Not to Pray,” “The Kingdom Has Already Come,” and “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” which use biblical imagery and metaphors, but are deeply grounded in everyday life here on terra firma.
““The Kingdom Has Already Come,” for example, starts with the singer stopping at a church to pray, even though she muses: “I don’t even know if I believe in God.” But as the song unspools, she sees children playing in the water from a fire hydrant and imagines them being baptized, and she hears something akin to hymns in the sound of the wind rustling the trees.
“When I was growing up in the church, I remember being told that ‘the kingdom of heaven is within us,’” says DeMent, discussing the inspiration for the song. “And I thought, “What if that’s really true? What if I took that notion seriously, that it really is within me, and within everything else?’”
And in “Whole Lotta Heaven,” she sings about human connections and love of family—and how, perhaps, heaven exists within that love, as people try to hold onto hope and faith in one another, in a world often fraught with pain and loss and sadness.
“For a long time, after I left the church, I thought of myself as spiritual, but not religious—but now I even shy away from saying ‘spiritual,’” says DeMent. “But whatever I am hooking into in these songs, it’s things I can see and feel and trust. Doubt can be a healthy thing.”
Generally, DeMent backs away from parsing the meaning or intent of her songs.. “It’s almost impossible for me to discuss after I’ve written the song,” she asserts. “It’s just instinctual for me—whatever I needed to move through, I moved through it by writing the song, and it met a need in me, and if it met a need in someone else, that’s great. But I try not to analyze them.”
Musically, this album departs somewhat from her ‘90s albums, which mostly framed her voice with the rootsy country-folk textures of acoustic guitar, fiddle, dobro, etc. But on “Sing the Delta,” DeMent’s churchy-sounding piano is front and center, anchoring the songs. “I grew up playing piano, and the people I learned from played in that gospel style,” she says. “It wasn’t until I began writing songs that I learned to play guitar. So I’ve always felt more comfortable on piano, and I’ve sort of surrendered to that in recent years.”
But augmenting her piano are Al Perkins’ alternately sweet and mournful pedal-steel and dobro, and the soulful flourishes of Reese Wynans’ Hammond B3 organ, as well as the subtle and supple textures of acoustic guitar, bass and muted drums.
Indeed, the lead-off track, “Go On Ahead and Go Home,” follows a rolling, semi-syncopated piano line that wonderfully conjures elements of Randy Newman’s playing—and even the Antebellum-era melodic sensibility we hear in some of his music.
DeMent began writing some of the songs on “Sing the Delta” as far back as 1998, but was never quite satisfied with them, so she massaged them, on and off, over the years. Then, last year, “a door sort of opened, and about five new songs walked through it and came to me, and some of the unfinished ones came together,” she reveals.
So, now that that door has opened, have the songs continued to come, to the extent that we might hear another record from her in a year or two?
“Well, we’ll see,” says DeMent, somewhat warily. I’ve learned not to try and plan too far ahead any more, or subject myself to those kinds of expectations. My attitude now is the same as it has been for the last several years. The songs come when they come, and I try not to force them.”
Kevin Ransom, a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com, first interviewed Iris DeMent in 1995, for The Detroit News. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.