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Listening to Iris DeMent's music is an emotional experience. Whether her songs are about love, loss, memories or the hypocracies of our society, they are at their heart, the straightforwardly written feelings of a thoughtful, forthright person. Her strong, honest voice carries them past your defences to the place where truth and feeling are the same thing.
Interviewed by Michael Devlin
She performed recently, at The Inter-Media Art Center in Huntington, New York. She took the stage with a three piece band and sang for an adoring audience. We were treated to a relative rarity. Iris broke her high E string twice during the performance. She kept singing, handed off her guitar, started dancing and playing air guitar. After the string broke for a second time, she very seriously offered money back to anybody who wanted it. There were no takers, and there never will be for this performer who always gives us her very best-her songs!
I was able to speak with Iris by phone a week later, from her home in Gladstone, Missouri.
The Way I Should is your most political album so far. Did anything in particular bring this on?
I never set out in my mind to write songs about the world around me...so much as I did on this record. It just kind of came about as a result of paying more attention to things. I had about a year and a half off where I didn't do very many shows, and during that time I just started noticing some things that were bothering me alot. Things that I thought were wrong and hurtful to a lot of people in this country, and other places too. I've always written about things that cause me to feel something, so I wrote several songs on the subjects.
Was it fun to do the album?
Writing it wasn't, but actually writing, overall has never been what I'd call fun...it's fulfilling. It doesn't come real easy for me, but making the record was tons of fun, the most fun I've ever had making a record.
To quote Bob Dylan, "The naked truth is still taboo, wherever it is seen." Has being forthright caused you any grief?
I haven't gotten as much of it as I expected. Unlike the past I've gotten several pretty brutal reviews of my record. In fact I just read one today that was unbelievable, here in my home town as a matter of fact.
What could someone possibly have to say about this record?
I don't want to get into what this guy had to say, because I'd just as soon put it behind me.
I noticed at your concert that you broke some strings.
I've got my guitar in the shop right now and hopefully they fixed that. They were breaking at the bridge and in the past when that's happened it's usually meant that there's a sharp piece. Before I left Nashville, which was about a week before the show, I had taken it in to get it sanded down-I can't figure out why it was doing that. My guitar is really tempermental, it's just the newest problem. I had tons of old problems with it, but I don't give up on it though, I'm close to my guitar!
People can go through a lifetime without learning that their feelings and emotions are important. But those are the things your songs are about. Is that something that you have always known?
I don't know what other people are like, I haven't been able to crawl inside anybody else. But I've always been aware from the time that I was very little of having feelings inside of me that were pretty intense at times. I imagine that most people to some degree or other have had that, or they wouldn't be human. Maybe I spent more time dwelling on emotions than some people, and maybe that's why I ended up writing.
As far as emotion in music, I know I grew up hearing tons of gospel music, and not commercial gospel music like you hear today. They're basically folk songs about people struggling with life, and there's tons of emotion in those songs. And the singers I grew up hearing in church and the records that I was exposed to when I was young, were people who just sang very much from feeling and not from technique or doing what you needed to do to make a bunch of money. It was more from right down deep inside. To me, in my mind, that's just where music should come from, and if it doesn't come from there, then why make it. That's my point of view and that's the world that I came from musically and so that's where I am now.
Is keeping the big questions in focus something that is part of you?
I don't know. I guess, from the time I was little, if something bother's me, it bothers me for a long time until I find a way to work it out. Music came along and provided me with a means of working things out. Prior to that I would sometimes sit and write little stories, when I would feel like I was going nuts. And I'm still like that and if I get to this point emotionally, and if I don't sit down and write or do something, I feel like I'm going to just go crazy. So I guess the reason I write is something that has always been with me since I was a little kid. I think that to some degree or another, everybody has that feeling and gets to the brink sometimes. Some people just do it more than others.
People from many different backgrounds are profoundly moved by your songs. Are you ever surprised by how deeply your songs resonate in people of different backgrounds?
Yeah, I'm always surprised. But at the same time, when I stop and think about it I realize that I probably shouldn't be surprised, because the things that I am talking about in my songs are just everyday human things. The things that I experience, that I'm thinking about, aren't very different from what anybody else is experiencing. It doesn't have very much to do with where I grew up or where you grew up, or how many kids are in my family versus how many kids are in yours, or how rich or poor we were. I'm just talking about human experiences and feelings. So when I look at it like that, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
If you make someone cry when you sing a song, do you feel like you've done a good job?
Well, I'd hate to see myself in print saying that! But yeah, I know for me, when I'm sitting somewhere listening to something, I know if I've started crying, the thing has really gotten to me. It's gotten past all of the coverup that we have, and it's gotten into something inside of me that most things aren't able to touch, or often I'm not able to touch. And I know that if someone has effected me to the point where I'm crying, it feels good. To me I don't see it as a bad thing, it actually feels really good for me. So when I see people crying or they tell me they did, I take that as a compliment, and it makes me feel good. It means my music is helping them, and it's doing something for what's inside of them.
If you weren't making music, what would you be doing?
I'd probably be...wishing I was making music! Aside from wishing I was making music I think that I might be a social worker. For a long time I was interested in doing that. In alot of ways I feel that that's all my music is, trying to help people in another way.
It seems like a short trip from your heart to your voice. Did you ever work on your voice?
I learned from alot of people, but I do remember imitating my mother alot. I used to kind of play with her like that, I'd imitate her singing and drive her crazy-and I can do it pretty darn good! So I'm sure that alot of it came from my mother, and just tons of other singers that I listened to. I've imitated lots of people, in every other aspect of life I've done that too. You just do that and then find your own way when you get grown, if you want to. But as far as growing into my own voice, I did it by singing how I feel. I never sit down and pick myself apart, like "what kind of vocal trick do I want to learn today," or "how well did I do today." It was never like that. It was more like, I would make a sound, and if it felt good, then that's the sound I'd keep making. So as dumb as that sounds, that's how I grew as a singer. And that's how I still do it. It's all about feelings. If I can stir something inside of myself with what my ears are hearing, then that's the track I stay on. And I don't listen to myself much, so I don't really judge by recordings of me. In fact, I've never listened to a tape of one of my shows, I don't think I could do it if my life depended on it!
Oh gosh! I just think that it would interfere with what I'm doing. I'm afraid I would become very self conscious, and so critical I wouldn't be able to go out there and play. So I just go from my feelings.
What musicians are you listening to now?
I still go back and listen to Merle Haggard all the time. I listen to Johnny Cash alot, and for some reason, the music of those two people doesn't get old for me. I have a new Kris Kristofferson record I bought because I read a horrible review on it. I had never bought a Kris Kristofferson record, but the guy just tore him to shreds and I said, "I've got to get that record," and I love it, I've been listening to it all the time since I bought it. I like Son Volt. I heard The Wallflowers today on the radio and I said "I'm going to have to get that record," I liked that alot. I like Tom Petty...but I honestly don't listen to alot of music-I spend so much time working at my own music.
When you write music do you set aside a particular time each day to work?
I don't have a certain schedule or anything like that. Pretty much when I'm home for any chunk of time, and I know that I'm wanting to get some songs, I have a room where I write, and I'll just go back and forth throughout the day. I may go down to the room for ten minutes and then I may come do the dishes, and then I'll go back for another five minutes. Then I'll come out and do something else. Then I might go back for an hour. I don't really have a set time that I make myself sit in a chair, but I go back there alot and just fool with stuff. It's just really the way I did music growing up, come to think of it. Not writing, but that's how I learned to do the piano. We never had lessons or anything so the piano was kind of like a toy. We would run down the hall, bang on it for a while, go outside catch a ball, come inside, bang on the piano, go play, and it was just sort of part of the routine, just like anything else was. And it's interesting that I was thinking about that, because that's really how I write now, it's just part of my day. I just flow with it, put it aside and go back to it.
Do you work on more than one song at once?
Yeah, actually I usually have quite a few things going at once. And then sometimes, they'll merge together and I'll get one song out of all of them. Sometimes they'll each end up getting finished.
Now I'll have to go back to your albums and see if I can tell which ones started out as two songs!
You'll never be able to guess, I don't think so!
Your songs have so much to say about many different things. If you could get the attention of everyone in the world, and say just one thing, what would it be?
Oh God! Well, I don't know... I guess right now I'd tell people to speak their mind. Because I feel like there's been a big loss of that. I think that's a dangerous thing, for people to stop talking. I happen to think that alot of the problems we have in the country today stem from that. People aren't talking to each other about how they think and feel about things. So, probably, that's what I'd say, "Speak your mind."
When you speak your mind, do you ever feel misunderstood?
I don't know that I've had that experience, because I usually don't leave much to be confused about when I do say what I'm thinking!
Many of your songs have religious themes. Is it hard sometimes to "let the mystery be."
Sure. Well, I guess I'm like anyone else. You just go crazy wondering where they went, and what the heck happens there. When somebody around dies that I'm close to, I don't have my mind on that song. I'm writing other tunes, "I'll see you in heaven," cause I like those better. But I've never met anybody that went to the other side, so I just don't know what's there.
Have you taken some criticism from the religious right?
No, and I've been surprised that I haven't yet.
Is The Way I Should going to be promoted to the country music stations?
No, as a matter of fact they have never sent my records to country stations, so this one is no different in that sense. They have in the past and they did with this record, send a single, the song "I'll Take My Sorrow Straight" they put it on a CDX, with fifteen different singers and songs, and they send that out to what they call some of the non-reporting country stations, in other words, the smaller ones. I don't know that anything big has happened yet, but maybe somebody from those stations has played it.
In "My Life" you sing, "My life, it's half the way travelled." When I hear that I think, "Iris, you're too young to sing stuff like that!"
I'm close enough to the halfway! It wouldn't have sounded good to say "One quarter of the way travelled," though.
Did you ever get to watch the show Northern Exposure, before your song ended the last episode?
No, I never did. But I watched it for that episode and I thought it was a really good show. I was really happy with the way they treated my song.
Can you ever write a song when you don't have something weighing on you?
I think that the answer is "No," pretty much. It has to have some kind of pressure on me. I don't know why that is. In other words, writing isn't like a sport, it's not like a goof around thing for me. It's something that when I do it I have to do it, it's not even like I want to do it, it's like I have to do this. It's like there is somebody out there saying, "You have to get back there and write, Iris, 'cause you're supposed to do it and you don't have a choice." And that's how it feels to me. I just know that that's where I've got to be whether it's easy or hard, or whether I get a reward or I don't. I just know in my mind that that's what I'm supposed to do and that's what I've got to do. There ain't no getting out of it.
Over the past several years, small books filled with thoughts and ideas on how to live your life have become quite popular. There are times when your songs are like "Iris's Little Instruction Book" for me, especially with songs like "The Way I Should." Do your songs ever serve that purpose for you?
It's experiences in life that turn into my songs. Oh, I don't know, I can't remember right now but I'm sure I've had that experience
When you start with a certain feeling, do you sometimes find that the process of writing a song makes things clearer to you?
Yeah, ideas that are kind of jumbled in my head, sort themselves out by the time I am done with a song.
I counted the people in the picture in My Life. How many brothers and sisters do you have?
There were eight in that picture [a family grouping around a stove] and six are in the oven! That's the stove that my family tracked around.
So there were fourteen of you! That must have been exciting.
Well, yeah, any way you want to take the word exciting!
I heard a song that was written by Kate Jacobs about you and Elmer.
I thought it's pretty cool and Elmer really liked it an aweful lot.
Didn't it say something about Elmer being older?
Yeah, but he doen't mind that. It honestly didn't bother him at all.
Does it ever feel strange when you meet people and they feel like they know you really well because of what you put into your songs?
Sometimes. It take it that they are saying to me that the songs I've written have found a place inside of them. So, in other words they are saying, things that I have thought and experienced, they have felt and experienced the same thing. If they feel like they know me it's that the music found a place in them, the same way it did in me, and we have that link between us.
Is there anything you would like people to know about that I have not thought to ask you about?
Nothing that matters. To me, all that matters is the music, and everything I have to say, that I want people to know, I put it in my songs.