There’s something disarmingly honest about Iris DeMent. The Arkansas native may have grown up in California, but the South’s gospel-tinged purity permeates every song she’s ever written.
The youngest of 14 children, raised in a Pentecostal household, DeMent says she was “submerged in sound” from birth. Her mother dreamed of becoming a Nashville star before having eight children, while her fiddle-playing father considered music necessary for survival. At 25, after driving through a dead Midwestern town, DeMent wrote her first song. Now, 32 years on, she’s still at it, though on her own fiercely independent terms.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the gut-wrenching warble in DeMent’s voice. It’s the elegant emotion that’s heard knotted up in timeless hits like “Let the Mystery Be.” Perhaps the best of all her many attributes is the thoughtful way she approaches her role as a singer, a songwriter and an artist.
Folio Weekly: How has your relationship with the craft of songwriting changed over the years?
Iris DeMent: One of these days I need to look up “craft” in the dictionary, but until I do, I can tell you that I’ve never used that word when I think about what I’m doing. That’s partly because some of the earliest things I wrote still hold up today, even though I wrote them [having had] very little experience.
What I can relate to is having listened to a lot of music—from the time I was born, to be honest. I was submerged in sound from the get-go. I didn’t start writing until I was 25, after wanting to write from the time I was 10. Whatever I’ve done is a result of what I’ve absorbed—then finding my own way to reshape that and put it out in the world. That’s why I don’t relate to the word “craft.” Everybody’s got their own way of doing things.
What is your process? Do you write on a daily basis?
I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about writing, though I really admire people who do that, and I’m always considering starting. It’s really smart, no question about it. A lot of great work comes out of that little thing called ‘applying yourself.’ But it’s always been a phased thing for me. My writing history is being submerged in something for five or six months. I’ll get on some kind of wave that will grab ahold of and become consuming. I’ll see that through and then go away for generally quite a while. That’s just how it’s gone for me. I’ve accepted it, even though it used to trouble me a lot.
I would try that daily thing, and I’d get so anxious my heart would start racing. I’d feel the pressure and start hating the whole thing. At some point, I decided to make peace with my pattern.
Have you made peace with your role as an artist? In past interviews, you’ve eschewed the term “performer” and said that, instead, you’re performing a service—even offering people a lifeline through your music.
I don’t know that I perceive myself as a lifeline. The music, for me, is and always has been a lifeline. That’s how it was presented to me as a child. It’s my hope when I go out there that I’m offering something along those lines to other people. What it ends up being to them, I don’t know and can’t say. But if anything, that sense of my purpose has gotten stronger as I’ve gotten older.
At 2017’s Americana Music Association’s Honors & Awards, you received the American Trailblazer Award. Did that add to your sense of purpose or dilute it?
Boy, this is an area where I’m, like, “Should I be honest?” I don’t expect to ever be offered anything like that again, but I didn’t want to go there. Everybody was kind, and I was honored to be recognized. It feels great to be honored and respected, but it’s a personal thing. It’s so unnatural and uncomfortable for me. At the end of it all, it has that tainting quality about it. It takes the music out of what the music was always about for me, which was a spiritual thing about lifting each other up. Some of the people who lifted me up the most and set me on my path could hardly carry a tune. But they sang from such a deep place that they turned my world upside-down. Those folks are never going to get acknowledged. So [receiving that award] was very against my grain and I wish I hadn’t done it. That’s the end of that.
Your music has always hit me in a particularly personal way. When you say that music is “about lifting each other up,” do you consider the impact it can have on individual listeners?
Sure I do. The first thing I’m looking for is connecting with my own self—what’s in there that matters enough to explore? But no doubt about it: I’m talking to people when I write. My husband amazes me when he says he would write whether anybody else heard it or not.
I’m not so sure. To me, it’s always been about talking to somebody. I need to know they’re out there, that they’ve got an ear, and that they’re listening. I’m writing to communicate. I’m writing to get with somebody else. I’m writing to connect and have a relationship with the other folks I share the world with. That’s what’s going on for me.