If you’re wondering when Iris DeMent’s next album is coming out — well, so is DeMent.
It’s been a little over 13 years since the folk and country singer released an album of original material, 1996’s “The Way I Should.” In 2004, she released “Lifeline,” an album of old gospel favorites that included one new song from DeMent. But other than this, she’s remained silent on the recording front, and has slowed down her live performances as well since the birth of her first child five years ago.
But she continues to work at her own pace, writing songs when she’s inspired and performing on the weekends. The next round of shows will take her to the Northeast, including a solo performance at The Egg on Saturday night with opener Bruce Robison. She knows that another album will come, but when it comes doesn’t worry her.
Work goes on
“I believe life’s going as it’s meant to, and work has been done even if there’s not songs to prove it,” DeMent said from her home in southeast Iowa. “I’m loving singing more than I ever have, and I do still write sometimes, so there’s enough there to keep me going and feeling like I’m still contributing something to the world in that way. When they [songs] start rolling in in batches, everybody will know about it — or everybody who wants to.”
For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney's review of this show, click here.
She may perform some new material at The Egg, where she’ll be playing with just her guitar.
“[I’ll play it] if I feel like it’s any good, or if something that moves me a few days after I’ve written it,” she said. “It’s pretty common when you write something that in the moment, it feels great. But generally if something holds up for a few days after, yeah, I’ll go out and play it for people.”
Clearly, the songs are still there for her. The real reason she hasn’t been recording goes a little deeper.
“I haven’t figured out what to say and how to say it, is the best thing I can tell you,” she said. “When that happens, I’ll put a record out.”
Throughout her career, DeMent has always carried a strong message with her songs, whether it was tackling personal or religious demons on her debut “Infamous Angel” (1992), dealing with her father’s death on “My Life” (1994) or taking on political issues with “The Way I Should.” Her song “Let the Mystery Be” has been covered by 10,000 Maniacs, most famously during that band’s “MTV Unplugged” performance with David Byrne.
Her mix of gospel fervor with earnest folk and twanging country has been with her since childhood. She was born in Paragould, Ark., the youngest of 14 children in a Pentecostal household, but grew up in Cypress, Calif., where she was exposed to the gospel and country music her parents listened to.
“Those were pretty much side by side for me,” she said. “My parents — whenever one of the pop country singers like Loretta Lynn or Johnny Cash would put out a gospel record, they would pick it up, so I also heard country through my folks, through singing gospel. So naturally, it’s all intertwined for me.”
She’s always sung gospel songs live, including at least one on each of her studio albums. However, “Lifeline” is her first to focus solely on the genre, featuring her versions of songs such as “I’ve Got That Old Time Religion in My Heart” and “The Old Gospel Ship.”
“I’d grown up with those songs, which, I wouldn’t say that’s in and of itself what inspired me,” she said.
“The songs that I chose for that record were songs that have — the strength of them had lasted for me, from my childhood up until, well, still. I felt those were songs that I could sing with, oh, what could I say? With the heart that those songs deserved. I did the best that I could with them, and hope they go out in the world and feed people the way they fed me.”
For DeMent, who in the past has called herself agnostic, the songs have a down-to-earth quality about them that takes them beyond their religious meanings.
Shaped by old songs
“My whole musical life has been shaped by the church and those old songs — there’s no getting around it for me,” she said. “I think the biggest thing that I carried over with me is, I don’t know what to call it. Those songs have just a deep-reaching — it’s so noncommercial, just so about the need to survive and figuring out a way to do it.”
It’s this honesty and survival element that she feels has carried over to her own songwriting.
“That’s what I get from the songs more than any religion or anything else,” she said. “I listen to them and I can just hear people crawling along, trying their best to make it through, and what they grab a hold of, they grab hold for dear life. That’s the quality I’ve brought with me in my music making.”