FEATURE IRIS DEMENT
The sweet ache of success
American country singer IRIS DEMENT is forging a clear, simple path from cult acclaim to the verge of megastardom. She speaks to an emotional Sue Wilson.
I can make it seem better I can make it seem better I can make it seem better For a while.
he sure can, though it’s an odd kind of better, as those poignantly qualified. ambivalent lyrics (sung with aching, weary sweetness), might suggest; the paradoxical comfort of songs that make you weep.
I’m a sucker for a well-written sad song. but very few actually make me weep, unless I’m feeling unusually susceptible. But Iris DeMent’s ‘My Life’ (the title track of her second album. containing the lines above) and, even more so, ‘No Time To Cry’ (about her bottled-up grief for her father’s death). had the tears falling freely
when I first heard them during DeMent’s unforgettable Scottish debut during this year’s Mayfest. And I wasn’t the only one greeting. by any means.
In the increasingly crowded US field of female country-folk singer-songwriters. DeMent has forged a clear, uniquely distinctive path since the release of her debut album Infamous Angel in 1992. Combining the giddy. inspirational fervour of the gospel songs she grew up singing in church. with the lush. drawn-out emotiveness of the Loretta Lynn, Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers records she grew up listening to, her unmistakable vocals bring to life songs of exquisite craft. songs of break-ups and broken hearts, songs celebrating the love of parents and siblings, songs of a careworn adult looking longingly back at the sunny world of a vanished cthhood.
Though DeMent is only 33. her childhood reads like something from a bygone era. albeit with telling touches of the modern. Born in Paragould,
Arkansas, she was the youngest of
fourteen children who crowded into
the family farmstead of which she
remembers nothing — economic hardship forced her parents to sell up and move their brood to southern California when she was three. In many respects. their way of life ’- changed little. still revolving around the Pentecostal church where Iris ’ sang in the choir with her brothers and sisters.
At seventeen, she left the church — ‘I didn’t want to rebel. but I had so many questions I had to quit.’ So began several years’ wandering (between jobs in Indiana. Nevada and Kansas, a spell at college, latterly starting to perform at open-mic club spots) in search of another kind of voice. She eventually found it at 25, ,when the sight of a 'desertcd town beside the road she was driving along
one day ‘started me wondering what had
happened to all these people’. Her wonderings turned into her first song, -the lovely, valedictory ‘Our Town’. and Iris had found her path. Not long after this, ‘Let the Mystery Be’, the upbeat, contentedly que-sera-sera opener on "Infamous Angel, materialised unexpectedly in her head. ‘That song really came to me out of the
blue,’ she says. ‘I was working on another song one day and it wasn’t going anywhere. I was getting very frustrated with it. so I took a break — and ‘Mystery’ just popped into my mind. But I think there were a lot of things I went through from the time I left the church, a process of coming to think about religion and my own point of view on these things. that found their way out through that song — in that sense it wasn’t a surprise.’
Around this time she moved to Nashville and worked in an office for two years, performing at night around the talent scouts’ hangouts and eventually landing a deal with producer Jim Rooney, resulting in Infamous Angel. With her
mother Flora Mae and Emmylou Harris guesting on backing vocals, the album
characteristically looks at once to past and present. soaked with influences from before her time. yet with its perspective rooted firmly, if sometimes wistfully. in the here and now.
‘I don’t remember ever thinking: “I want to do music that sounds like such-and-such”,’ she says of her songs twangy. old-time simplicity. ‘I grew up listening to a lot of that old-style country music, a lot of old gospel music. My mother sang those songs around the house. But when I started writing, I never thought ofit like, “I want to do this particular thing”, and then instrumentally. . . I never thought a lot about that either. That had pretty much to do with Jim Rooney and his feeling about the songs. It all just fell together — I can’t really take credit for much.’
Much of the power of DeMent’s songs, in both content and delivery, comes from her skill at steering a delicate course along the fine line dividing the poignant from the over-sentimental. ‘I do think about that when I write,’ she acknowledges, ‘though sometimes it’s hard to tell when you’ve gone off the other side. That’s partly a personal judgement kind of thing — what to me might be going too far might not be to somebody else. But I am always trying to stay on that line and not tip over, but to push right up against it. because that way you’re being as honest and as straightforward as you can.’
This honesty and directness. confidently to the fore on Infamous Angel and channelled to express a seemingly much older. sadder sensibility on the even more affecting My Life, have ensured DeMent’s fast-track progress through the ranks, so that within six months of her first Scottish show, on the Ferry in Glasgow, she’s back to play the main stage ofthe Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Does she worry about the pressures of a big-time career interfering with her ability to hold on to her own songwriting voice. grounded as it is in the tough poetry of everyday life'.’
‘I worry about a lot of things.’ she confesses wryly. ‘but though my life has changed a lot, it’s still pretty ordinary. I worry more that I’m going to wake up one day with nothing left to say — that’s totally separate from making records and all of that. Just on a personal level I get such a thrill from writing, and I’m afraid that will end someday. But then things change — seven years ago I didn’t write songs and I got along okay, my life was full of other things. I look at life that way — you go through phases, and there are reasons for that, and you find the good things in them.’ L]
Iris DeMent plays that Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on November I2. Infamous Angel and My Life are available on Warner Bros records.
15 The List 4—!7 November 199-1