There are as many ways to approach writing songs as there are people. So it only stands to reason that there’d be at least a few songwriters out there, even fantastically gifted ones, who don’t fit the mold in terms of productivity and who can’t keep up with the album-of-new-material-every-couple-of-years pace to which the music industry, critics and engaged music fans are accustomed.
If we seldom hear about that tension between external expectations and internal creative process, it’s probably because most songwriters aren’t nearly as open about such things as one Iris DeMent. Twenty years after her lauded debut, Infamous Angel, and sixteen after her last collection of originals, The Way I Should, she’s given us a new, devastatingly wholehearted country-blues album, Sing The Delta.
I’m sure over the past decade you’ve been asked many, many times when you were going to write some new songs. Did you develop a way to deal with that?
Well, I dealt with it by just not talking to anybody. [laughs] I did maybe five interviews in the last ten years or more. Because I don’t know the answer to it, you know. I don’t know why I started writing in the first place. I really don’t. My fear for a long time was that I was lazy. But I realized it wasn’t that I was lazy. I mean, I made myself available but the deal just wasn’t ready, wasn’t there. I don’t know. I finally made peace with that. It took me a long time, but I finally have fully accepted I’m not in charge of that. So I just made the decision to live my life. I continued to sing. I had enough people who still wanted to hear me sing that I could live. And I’ve continued to find a lot of joy and satisfaction in singing. So I just thought, “That’s what’s available to me right now. I’m gonna go with that. And if the music comes, it comes.” I always knew the songs would come. I knew that I might be 80 years old and nobody would care at that point. Seriously. That whole, like, career aspect of doing music I just let go of. I just let it come in its own time, and do what I can with it. And if that’s it, that’s it.
Were you and you audience able to separate your singing from your songwriting?
I continued to work quite a lot. And the rooms, there were people who’d been listening to me for years and years who would say, “God, we’d love another record.” But overall I feel like I was feeling what I was doing, and people could tell that. There were enough people out there that were getting something from what I was doing, even though there weren’t new songs, that it sustained me. I think, for me, it helped me dig more into the singing, and I think I became a better singer as a result of not writing for a while, to be honest.
I’m glad to hear you’ve made peace with your songwriting rhythm. It seems like that looks pretty different for you than what people expect it to look like for someone who’s a professional songwriter.
Yeah, that really shook me up for a long time. I went through a phase of feeling really guilty about that. I felt a lot of stuff that I didn’t enjoy. I felt like I’d let a lot of people down. Then at one point I just let go of that: “That’s made-up stuff. That’s stuff that I’m putting on myself or that maybe some people are putting on me, but I don’t need that. What’s the rule here? If you write a song you should write a song everyday? You should write a song once a year? Once every two years? Who’s writing the rules here?” And I just kind of freed myself from that. I think I started treating it more the way I would treat anything else in my life that I would tend to or care for. I don’t necessarily do it every day. It’s more like a part of my life. That’s not to say I don’t love it and feel very passionate and want to have the music happening more often. It isn’t that. I’ve just accepted the natural rhythm that seems to be mine, that comes with what I’m doing.
You sort of articulate that in songs like “The Way I Should” and one of the new ones, “Making My Way Back Home.”
When I feel the music coming, I can get pretty committed to what I’m doing and spend days and days trying to get a line or two. I don’t feel like I have to do that every day of my life. I’m a pretty good pie-maker. [laughs]
I’ve seen people really struggle with the expectations placed on them by things like commercial publishing deals. Did you consciously choose a different route than that?
I made my choice not to allow that to happen to me. In fact, I was offered a publishing deal when I first moved here, and I had a number of people tell me I was crazy to not take it. I was starving to death and they were gonna pay me to write songs. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t get me wrong. But when I looked at what I was aiming to do, my feeling for music, I was afraid that very thing would just sap it out of me. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m trying to please somebody when I’m writing, you know? I think of it as a spiritual endeavor. When I go out and sing, I feel like it’s a ministry. I don’t think of it as a career. Although, thank heaven, I’ve been able to live off of it. My whole mental approach to it doesn’t fall into that realm. So I think I’ve made decisions along the way to protect that. And maybe it’s cost me some things. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I feel like I’ve preserved my connection to the music and that spiritual kind of realm that matters to me, and I’ve maintained a sense of peace within myself. And I’ve been fortunate enough to continue to live.
It seems like it would be difficult to do the kind of songwriting you do on schedule.
Right. Apparently so. [laughs]
Is it therapeutic for you to write, but harder to share the songs and explain them to people? Or is it all therapeutic, or all hard?
Well, I don’t really know how to answer that. Probably all of the above. I mean, it’s the whole process. I’ve wondered sometimes would I write if I didn’t have an audience, if I didn’t know that there were a handful of people that I was going to reach with a song. Because I don’t know about other people, but for me writing can be really hard work. I mean, there’s a song on this record, I literally spent three days on the floor trying to get two lines. It was a lot of work.
Which song was that?
A couple lines in “Out of the Fire.” And I was so happy when I did, because once I heard ‘em I just knew, “Yeah.” They were at home inside me. So it can be a lot of work. If I didn’t know that they would have a job to do, if I didn’t feel confident that they had work to be done in the world, I couldn’t do it. Then that hurdle of actually going out and singing, the first few times that’s always hard. When you feel that close to something, it’s still scary to go do something. It was scary to me today. It’s always scary. But I think that’s just ‘cause I care about it so much. Maybe I’m foolish, but I really feel that it matters, what I’m doing. I feel like what I allow to come through me and what I’m passing on, it matters.
My parents leaned on music to survive, literally. I’m not stretching the truth there, and I saw that. I saw evidence of that; my parents crying when they were singing in church. I mean, they leaned on music. So I have to feel that in me anytime I try to write or go sing. That’s my job. I’m throwing out a lifeline. And whether somebody else out there listening perceives it that way or not, that’s for them. But there are people who come through that it is a lifeline, and music has been a lifeline for me. It might just be one person out there, but that’s how I feel about it. That might be one reason I didn’t write for a long time, because I think I have the work on such a high pedestal that it sometimes scares me. [chuckles].
Which of these songs or parts of songs came easy and what were some you really had to wrestle with?
“Sing the Delta” came pretty quick. “How Not To Pray” was one I did over a long period of time. I always get the melody, and usually the title, like the hook or line or whatever you want to call it. I’m pretty locked in that country tradition, I guess. [chuckles]
I read that “Sing the Delta” was inspired by your stepdaughter.
Yeah, actually my mom was pretty sick at the time, and Pieta [Brown] had called me. [ed. note: DeMent is married to veteran singer-songwriter Greg Brown] I can’t remember if I was going over to see my mom or something, but I was out on some gravel road out in southeast Iowa and I had a message or something from Pieta and she was saying she was coming down to Nashville—no, Memphis, I think it was—to make her record. Just that whole connection, you know. There was my mom in a hospital bed, and [the Arkansas Delta] was home to her. Emotionally it’s always been home to me. And I just thought, “Oh, I just want to turn this car around and head south.” I just started singing that song. It came to me instantly, singing the delta love song for me.
Speaking of love songs, there aren’t really any love songs, in terms of romance, on this album.
I don’t have many of those. I never have. Here and there, but that’s just never really been my thing. Another worry I’ve had. [laughs]
Because that’s a lot of writers’ bread and butter?
That’s what most people write about. And there’s a lot to say about it. Maybe I just sorta have my own area. [chuckling] Maybe that’s yet to come. But I think of all of them as love songs. Maybe that’s the deal with me. I feel like anytime you care about something enough to write about it, whatever it is, there’s a love relationship that’s going on there. I think in a funny way any song is a love song, the best of them.
But, yeah, the whole romantic thing. I don’t know. That side of life is really interesting to me. I guess I can express that in other ways. I’ve never really felt a great need to go to music for that.
When you first came to Nashville, what did you think your career was going to be like?
You know, I realize looking back I thought it would be like this. I mean, I got the call to write and sing. I knew that. I didn’t get the call to sell millions of records. The voice didn’t say, “Hey Iris, you’re gonna go be a star.” I didn’t hear that voice. … All I knew was I was told to do music, to write and sing for people. If fifteen people hear it, if five hundred thousand people hear it, that’s really not my concern. Never was. It still isn’t. I feel like when I make a record, I love it and I care about it. I want people to hear it. But if I do my job and nobody does, I will sleep fine with that.