Interview with Iris DeMent (1999)

Early morning, Corvallis, Oregon; Iris DeMent hunkers down at an economy motel after an unexpected scheduling change in her West Coast tour itinerary. The press interrupts her lazy morning with a call from the East Coast, which could conceivably annoy the road-weary singer-songwriter, were that her style — but she’s in a good mood, instead, happy that her motel has windows that open.

“Opening windows is the first thing I do when I can,” she explains over the prominent sound of a weed-eater being operated by an up-and-at-’em motel employee. “I can’t stand feeling cooped up in rooms where they don’t let you open the windows to get some fresh air in.”

DeMent’s songs are sorta like that too: they tell you something personal about her while evoking fresh air, long horizons and big spaces, where regular folks do regular things on a regular basis. Which fits, since DeMent has spent most of her life that way, growing up the youngest of fourteen kids in a religious, blue-collar household, marrying a firefighter who turned in his boots to manage his bride’s career, working in the down-home spaces between the folk and country communities. Of course, growing up as a regular girl, DeMent never imagined that she’d be in a place where folks would have any reason to call her up from the Coast while she watched the weed whacker.

“Music for me growing up was always in the context of the church,” she recalls. “So whatever dreams I had about music were wrapped up in that-and I never really thought of clubs or radio or anything else. Everybody around me sang: my family was the musical family of the church, so my sister would direct the choir and some of my brothers and sisters wrote special songs and then performed them. And I grew up admiring so many people who could put words together that I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything as good or meaningful.”

Until desperation set in.

“I got really tired of doing things that I didn’t love and I realized that I was putting a lot of effort into things that didn’t matter to me,” DeMent continues. “I went to school, worked hard and got good grades for one semester, but that was not where my heart was. So I started thinking that if I put that energy into something I cared about, like music, then I could probably do well and have a little bit of happiness. And it all just opened up for me when I started thinking that way.”

But not immediately: it took three years worth of open mike shows before a Rounder Records representative spotted and signed DeMent, whose ear-opening 1992 Rounder debut, Infamous Angel, then won her a contract with Warner Bros. Her two major label releases, My Life (1994) and The Way I Should (1996), built on her reputation as one of the most important singers and songwriters to straddle the country-folk divide in this decade — and added to the anticipation for (and pressure associated with) her elusive next album.

“I’m not really trying to take my time with the next record,” DeMent concludes. “But that’s just how it is: I’m still looking for songs that say what I feel they need to say, songs that lift me up and say something to other people too. I’m trying to take a picture of my life experience and share it with other people . . . I feel a need to do that, although I don’t know why. Or, well, I guess I do: I just want to write songs and sing ’em for people ’cause that’s what makes me happy.”

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