Sixteen calendar years don't always add up to 16 years in real life. For Iris DeMent, the Iowa City-based country/folk singer-songwriter who issued her third album of originals in 1996 with The Way I Should and then her fourth last October with Sing the Delta, that span could feel much more overwhelming. “Some days, it felt like a century,” the 52-year-old says, laughing genially in response to a question about the gap. “I mean, I got on with my life. It's not like I was sitting around thinking of when are the songs going to come along every minute of the day. I lived and then I let the music come out of that, which is really what I've always done.” Some of her activities in the interim included having a daughter, performing prolifically and recording a gospel cover album with 2004's Lifeline. Sixteen years is a long period between records for someone who speaks about music in such high esteem as DeMent, but the figure also clicks with her perfectionist sensibility and how seriously and soberly she takes songwriting.
DeMent was born and grew up in the Arkansas delta (thus the new record's title) as the youngest of 14 children in a large Pentecostal family. Music enveloped the DeMents, and they were avid churchgoers who shared Sunday hymnals and recited gospel songs in four-part harmony. Her mother Flora Mae sang frequently, regarding the act as equivalent to praying, and lived with unfulfilled dreams of going professional — an angle DeMent illuminated in her gorgeous and depressing number “Mama's Opry.” Meanwhile, her father Patric was a fiddler. Iris has one memory of being around 4 and stationed in a pew between her parents singing when she looked over and saw her father — an ordinarily stoic fellow — with tears streaming down his face. “I knew it was the music. I put it together. There's something that goes on with music that can even get inside your dad [and] his big calloused hands,” she says. “My parents didn't have a lot of luxuries in life. They didn't have money. They didn't have places they could go to escape or to make life more tolerable, and music was where they could go. I saw that with both of them, and I wanted to do that for people from a young age.”
Still, it took DeMent a while to get going with originals. She remembers writing one tune when very young and feeling a light bulb go off, but for whatever reason, she ignored the epiphany and moved on. At 25, she was still trying to figure out her life when she penned “Our Town” for her 1992 debut Infamous Angel. She compares the act of writing it to “the voice from Heaven that I'd been waiting for my whole life.”
To DeMent, feeling the “spirit” while creating a song is crucial. While this idea traces back to her religious upbringing, it's not something related to Christ, the Devil and the Church, she says, but rather “some connection to the not-so visible world that we all sense whether you believe in God or don't believe in God.” She wrote Sing the Delta's elegiac title track when her 93-year-old mother was in declining health, and that thread brought the album together.
She sees authenticity as a key tenet — one crucial enough to explain why she sits on her compositions for so long and why she's put together so few records. In a 2012 American Songwriter interview, she recalled being offered a music publishing deal when she was “starving to death” and not taking it because she feared it would suck the love of songwriting from her.
Her affection for concepts like authenticity and spirit dovetails handsomely with the palpable sense of longing often on display in her work. In songs, DeMent really comes across as someone who is on the verge of getting somewhere or something she wants, but as much as she pours her strength out, she can never quite make it. She disagrees with this premise — “Even when [the songs] sound sad and they may sound longing, I'm in that place,” she contends — but she also quickly brings up how her process is one of trying to find something that currently evades her. “For me [when] writing, I don't feel so much that I'm creating something as [much] as I'm revealing something,” DeMent says. “My sense has always said, 'These songs are just out there somewhere.' My job is to find them.”
Iris DeMent. $30-$45. 7:30 p.m., May 12. Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, Route 44, 20 Greenwoods Rd, Norfolk, infinityhall.com