KANSAS CITY, Mo. — “My least favorite thing is talking about myself,” says Iris Dement.
She is on the phone from her home in southeast Iowa, where she lives in a tiny rural town with her 12-year-old daughter and her husband, fellow songwriter Greg Brown. “There are only about 150 people in town, none of them within shouting distance of each other.”
She’s not inclined to reveal a lot, but DeMent has some big things to talk about. She is about to start work on a new album, her first since “Lifeline,” a collection of traditional gospel tunes released in 2004, and her first album of original material since the very political “The Way I Should,” released 15 years ago.
“I’ll be going to Nashville in December to begin work on it,” she said. “Finally. I’m excited about it. I feel ready.”
Despite the long expanse of time between albums, DeMent said not once did she doubt that she would one day release another album of her own songs.
“Never, I never thought that,” she said. “I could go another 20 years without writing a song and never think that it’d be something I’d never do again, and I can’t really tell you why I feel that way. But I’ve never had that feeling, not for five minutes. I’ve worried about it and I’ve felt anxious and I’ve felt sad about it, but I never doubted I’d be able to do it again someday.”
That “some day” came early this year, she said. That’s when she felt the remergence of what she called the “want-to,” that instinct that she taps into when she creates.
“It has showed up periodically,” she said. “It always does. But as far as staying there for consistent periods of time and feeling like I’ve been able to relax into the music again long enough to really produce much, it has only been within the last six to eight months. It’s not something I can really explain. It’s a feeling I get inside, something that feels very alive. It’s not something I can put a finger on.
“Why has it come back? I have no idea. I could talk for hours guessing about it.”
DeMent started her music career in Kansas City, where she lived for roughly 20 years.
“I was on my way to Nashville from Topeka when I was 25 and I decided to take a little stop in Kansas City,” she said. “I ended up staying for two years. I eventually went to Nashville for a couple of years, but I ended up back in Kansas City.
“I have a lot of good memories of Kansas City. It’s where I started writing and performing live, at Harling’s Upstairs, when Norton Canfield was doing the open-mic nights. I was living in Kansas City when I made all my records. I’d go to Nashville to record, but I was living in Kansas City. It was a smart move, living there. Nashville is a beautiful town with lots of great people, but for me it was a little suffocating to be immersed nonstop in music and the music business.”
She released two records before “Lifeline” and “The Way I Should”: “Infamous Angel” in 1993, and “My Life” in 1994. Both were critically acclaimed, and “My Life” was nominated for a Grammy. The British music magazine Q said of “Angel”: “Her songs ... display an emotional charge and simplicity of touch that can prove joyful and touching by turns.”
The All-Music Guide on “My Life”: “DeMent’s songcraft remains exceptional but, as before, the true magic is in her voice, which imbues even the simplest songs with perfect, pure emotion.”
In 1999, she was one of several guest vocals on John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves,” singing with Prine on three songs, including the George Jones/Tammy Wynette duet “(We’re Not) The Jet Set.”
DeMent and Brown were married in 2002. They resided in Kansas City until 2007, when they moved to Iowa, onto property that belonged to Brown’s family. Brown recently released “Freak Flag” on Yep Roc Records, his first studio album in five years. DeMent said she and Brown are longtime fans of each other’s work, but they do not collaborate when it comes to songwriting.
“It’s really more my doing than his,” she said. “I’ve always been private about that. I just about have to lock myself away in a soundproof space to get myself to be where I need to be so I can write.
“I run out and play things for him when I’m done, and he does the same thing. But neither asks the other what we think should be done. We’re both pretty instinctual. I think I fear losing those instincts, so I’m not inclined to ask someone what they think. To me, that’s part of the big joy of creating something. It’s going out on that limb, out into the unknown and trusting your gut. I think Greg and I have that in common.”
Her live shows these days are typically solo affairs; she performs mostly at the piano, not on guitar.
“About six or seven years ago, I made the switch,” she said. “By and large, I’m on the piano.”
That’s primarily how she’ll record the album she doesn’t want to say too much about, except that she isn’t sure whether she’ll self-release it or take up an “option” she is considering. She will only say about the new songs that their inspirations come “from all kinds of places.”
“I don’t know how particular any inspiration is,” she said. “I think to a certain extent I write about people I know and love. I tend to migrate toward that. Writing for me is a lot of work. I usually have to have a strong emotional cord between me and whatever it is I’m writing about to keep me in that seat, writing.”
Beyond that, DeMent won’t say much else about her first album of new songs in more than 15 years. She is most inclined to wait until the album is released and let the music do the talking for her.
// Notes from the Road
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