Through the woods4/20/2016
Last August, Iris DeMent released “The Trackless Woods.” A unique project, the album features lyrics pulled from poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova that were set to DeMent’s compositions. Before that came 2012’s brilliant “Sing the Delta,” and before that were 16 long years of nothing, with only a collection of gospel songs called “Lifeline” to break the silence.
DeMent was active as a performer during that time, but her original output was spare.
During those years, she dealt with so much difficulty and strain in her life, there were times when she genuinely questioned if she’d ever write another album at all.
“I thought that, straight up until I was in the studio recording ‘Sing the Delta’,” she admitted in a phone interview. “I felt this little voice in the back of my mind saying, ‘Really what you should do is just go away.’ ”
Music helped her get through those darkest times of her life — specifically, the music she grew up on. The youngest of 14 children, DeMent’s mother took the entire family to church regularly. Growing up, hymns and inspirationals surrounded her. As she aged, she continued to find comfort in those songs.
“They shaped my life,” she says of those trusted hymns. “They’re extraordinary songs. I don’t care what your religion or lack of religion is, a good song is a good song. They’ve got all the elements.
“They start from a place that is a desire to serve the greater good, which is why I think that people who aren’t religious can listen to them and be moved; it comes from where I think music should come from. I think there has to be that quality to it that has that ‘greater good’ theme.”
But it would be another eight years between “Lifeline” and “Sing the Delta,” and eight more years of that little voice nagging at her from the recesses of her head. What eventually put her back in the studio — the thing that got her writing and composing and recording again — was the same thing those long-remembered hymns were meant to represent: faith.
“I believed in those songs,” she said. “And if I have that, I’ll walk through a brick wall. If there’s a song I believe in, I’ll do anything to get it out there.”
Once “Sing the Delta” was released, DeMent did not need another eight years before getting back into the studio. Inspiration struck her quickly, and “The Trackless Woods” was brought to life. But the way DeMent views music — and the way she views her relationship to it — has changed, quite possibly for good.
She is noticing that she is less interested in story, in term of words, and more interested in that unnamable kind of thing that’s floating around that often doesn’t require a verse and chorus, she said.
“I was very struck by how not stressed I was. Often I would sit there for hours and hours working on the melody, but that experience was so totally different from writing lyrics for me. I think that, with words, you’re taking these invisible things and trying to jam them into syllables that rhyme in tidy lines. And to do that and make it work, it seems like an impossibility. Writing, to me, is a little bit like running. You run those first 45 minutes for that five minutes of euphoria. That’s kind of how I write. Melody feels like it rides that wave with more ease.” CV