Iris DeMent Talks about Her Cathartic New Album, Workin’ on a WorldPhoto by Dasha Brown Music Features Iris DeMent
Folk-country singer/songwriter Iris Dement was sure she had put most of her projects on perpetual pause when the pandemic hit in March of 2020. But a funny thing happened while navigating lockdown—somehow, she wound up with an entire new album, Workin’ On a World, her seventh—out Feb. 24—that bristles with cathartic socio-political anger and yet comforts and rallies a listener’s flagging spirit, as well. She never realized she’d made so many classic protest songs over several sessions that began back in 2019 until she finally added them all up in early 2022.
“When I started making this, it wasn’t even a record,” swears the two-time Grammy nominee at 62. With her producer pal Jim Rooney, she initially just planned to cut a one-off Nanci Griffith cover, “The Banks of Pontchartrain,” for a tribute album he was putting together for the now-late artist, nothing more. Then she was heading home to her musician husband Greg Brown and disappearing from radar screens in their rustic Iowa retreat. But the lure of the studio proved too tempting. “The song took only a day or two, but the band was there, and they were all people that I’d worked with, toured with, and was friends with, so we just continued,” she recalls. “I had some songs laying around, and some of them were covers that I’d done for years, that a lot of people liked. And the next thing I knew, I had 10 or 12 songs. And then Covid hit, and we all know how that went.”
Nevertheless, several months later, DeMent ventured gamely into the studio a second time, with ex-Steve Earle/Neil Diamond guitarist Richard Bennett producing. She had some new tracks, and re-cut some from the earlier Rooney tapes, but she still didn’t classify it as anything serious. As she puts it,“I was just fishing around, trying to see if anything would click, in that way that you want it to if you’re going to call something a record, you know?” “I just didn’t have the body of songs that I would call an album, so I set it on the shelf again for maybe another year.” And besides, she had a milestone to celebrate in November of 2022—the 30th anniversary reissue of her classic Infamous Angel, which first introduced her crystalline, chandelier-tinkling trill to the alt-country world. There was nothing like it, and DeMent was a true original, having grown up in a Pentecostal household as the youngest of 14 siblings. Over the years, she would accumulate many honors—sing duets with the late John Prine, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, and Steve Earle himself, and even assembled her own Gospel set, Lifeline, back in 2004.
But it wasn’t until last year that she finally got green-light confirmation on her latest material from a third producer, Peta Brown (daughter of Greg from a previous marriage), who listened carefully to DeMent’s hodgepodge of ditties and assured her that there was serious rhyme and reason to them all. With Bennett back on board, the trio re-entered the studio to put the finishing touches on Workin’ On a World which opens on the bouncy, piano-powered title track and confessional lines like “I got so down and troubled I nearly lost my head.” Then the roadhouse shuffle “Going Down to Sing in Texas” (which name-checks The Chicks and posits a sad fate for a returning Jesus with “The church today wouldn’t even let Him in the door”); a gentle ballad, “Say a Good Word” (which relies lyrically on “Words of wisdom from another time”); a jangly “The Sacred Now”; and the mortality musing “I Won’t Ask You Why,” which really showcases the singer’s delicate vibrato, still as strong and virtuous as it was on Infamous Angel—no mean feat. There is also a Chekhov-inspired “The Cherry Orchard,” a Mahalia Jackson-honoring piano stroll dubbed simply “Mahalia,” and the universal plea for justice and human empathy, “How Long,” wherein DeMent laments that “You feel like a silenced voice/ in a wilderness alone.” Yes, it’s definitely a fully visualized concept piece, however haphazard or accidental its origins.
“And now I really want to do my part to get these songs out to people, and let them do their job in the world,” DeMent says. “That’s how I think of songs—they’re workers, and they need to get out of the house and go do their job.”
Paste: You just had a birthday. Did you go out and actually celebrate in your hometown?
Iris DeMent: January 5, yep! I turned 62 on January 5. And I live in Iowa City. People sometimes call it Central Iowa, but it’s not, really—it’s kind of more towards the East side of the state. But what did I do on my birthday? I can’t remember! And I’ve actually gotten over the whole birthday thing a long time ago, so I think maybe Greg and I went and got some dinner, but I really can’t remember. I don’t have big breakdowns over birthdays anymore, and I haven’t for 15 years or so. And in fact, I ask to not get any presents.
Paste: You kind of switched off during the pandemic, you said. When did your switch get flipped to “On” again with the completed Workin’ on a World?
DeMent: Well, I would say that if there was a switch that got flipped, it was when Pieta (Brown) listened to everything I’d done, and that was in February of 2022. And she said I had an album, and she even had a title. She said, “You have an album, and it’s called Workin’ On a World!” And I think I’d been so focused on the pieces, it’s like when you’re putting a jigsaw puzzle together/ Sometimes, it doesn’t occur to you to step back and look at what the picture is of the thing, because you’re so focused on these little pieces you’re trying to lock in. So that’s when it began to click for me, and I began to see that there was something of value here. But even then, I knew I wasn’t done yet. I wrote “Say a Good Word” and “Warriors of Love,” and there’s another one there—I set my husband’s lyrics to “Let Me Be Your Jesus” to music. And Jim (Rooney) and I had recorded another song called “Mahalia” that I’d had for a number of years, but even when we recorded it, I just felt like it wasn’t done. So that was another thing that came up—I found a new bridge to that song, and immediately I knew the song was finished. Which is a wonderful feeling, especially if it’s a song you’ve been working on for years. So we went in and re-recorded that one. So it was that, that Pieta element that helped me get out of it.
Paste: Which begs the question, Did you get into jigsaw puzzles like a lot of folks did during lockdown?
DeMent: It’s funny. I did one jigsaw puzzle, and I did it fairly recently, actually. We had a really long cold snap, and I borrowed a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle from a friend of mine. And they start out as your friend, those jigsaw puzzles, and then they become your enemy, and frankly, the reward at the end is a little anticlimactic. My puzzle was astrological, and it had all the signs of the zodiac. And it was an appealing puzzle, but it just didn’t have any spirit.
Paste: Did you pick up any new hobbies, then?
DeMent: You know, I live a lot in my head, so I’ve never been one of those folks who could say, “Here’s my hobby.” I just kind of wander around in my headspace and stare at walls a lot. And somehow, something always comes of that, I’ve noticed. So I’ve stopped treating that as a negative. And the process itself? I don’t even know that I can describe that. I won’t say ‘deep thinking,’ and my activities just aren’t so much obvious activities. So I’m not sitting here crocheting. I have some books by people that I think are really wise, or are great spiritual leaders, and I check in with those folks on a regular basis. And I might sit with some passage and really let it sink in, and all of a sudden, I might see that there’s a way I can work something like that into a song. And if I come across something that’s really helped me a lot, I’ll think, “Well, how can I bring this out to the handful of folks that listen to me? How can I spread the good news?”
Paste: What specific books or authors would you recommend?
DeMent: Well, I always like to read things Dr. [Martin Luther] King has said. And a friend of mine has given me a couple of Howard Thurman’s books, and I like Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist activist who’s passed away now. And I just like various passages—I don’t read books, per se, like I don’t devour them, front to back. I grew up with folks that…how do I describe this? I grew up with adults around me, and I grew up with the Bible and the Christian faith and all that. But my parents didn’t have a lot of books, so the Bible was the thing that they read. And I remember learning that the way to approach the Bible was, you kind of held it in your hand and asked for something that you needed. You weren’t supposed to just randomly start reading at the first page—you were supposed to go into a prayerful space, and then ask that material what the Word had for you. And I’ve noticed that I’ve continued that with books—I do that now with books, and I tend to lean towards the kind of writers that offer up their word in such a way that it can be received on any page. Am I making any sense? So every sentence has to count, I guess, is what I’m saying. When you have writers that aren’t about plot, every sentence can be a really meaningful gem. So anyhow, I do a lot of that when I’m trying to take care of myself, and when I’m trying to write songs. That’s one of my techniques.
And I do that myself in my lyrics. I try to plant seeds, to the best of my ability. So things that have strength, and have nurtured and fed me? I try to carry that out into the world and plant it in my songs, as best as I can.
Paste: In “Going Down to Sing in Texas” you get a lot out of your system. Combined withe the cathartic title track, it reads like a litany of today’s societal ills.
DeMent: Yeah, that’s one way to view it. But the backstory to that is, I had gone down to play in Texas, at the Cactus Cafe, a year before lockdown. And I’d been playing there since 1992, and it’s a little listening room on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, a really sweet little room. And it had always been a place that I looked forward to playing, but when I walked in, there was a framed piece of paper on the wall with guidelines about how to handle your gun while you were at the club. And I thought it was a joke—I thought it was some memento that they’d picked up in an antique store, so I just went on out and started sound-checking. But in the middle of my soundcheck, I suddenly remembered the big uproar a couple of years earlier about the open-carry movement to carry on campus in Texas. And of course, nobody at the university was in favor of it, none of the students. But the Republican legislature and the governor there, they put that through. And I realized it wasn’t a joke—it was the real thing. At this tiny little club, with people just under your nose while you’re performing. And it was very rattling. It rattled my nerves, and I hadn’t dreamed that I would ever be expected to deal with that. I mean, I didn’t actually see people with guns. But it was allowed. And that’s all over the place now, but at the time, it was shocking and unbelievable. But that’s the world we have created for ourselves. Whether you’re a little child going to elementary school, or somebody standing up to sing your song, everybody is vulnerable now.
So it was a really sobering moment for me, and I actually remember thinking, “I’m going to have to quit my job!” I was just physically shaking, it so upset me, and I thought about just pulling the show. But instead, I went home and wrote that song. I just realized that I had to draw my line in the sand and not allow myself to be intimidated, and not allow fear to take me over. Because when you’re singing a song, you might be singing about things that you really believe in and feel passionate about. And then you’re thinking that someone’s sitting there in front of you, with a gun? That puts a whole different spin on it. And me? I knew that I couldn’t just go home and hide. So I did the next-best thing—I wrote that song, and it helped. It helped me get clear in my mind about what we’re up against, and what I needed to stay in touch with, like my own inner strength, speaking up for the good, and not allowing my voice to be silenced, whatever the risk.
Paste: In “Mahalia,” there’s another “hard rain” falling. If you add them all up over the years, the folk community has dealt with a virtual deluge.
DeMent: That may be. But one thing I decided a long time ago is, I know a lot of writers, and everyone’s got their own view on these things. But I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m not trying to impress anybody with my new, clever metaphor. I’m trying to speak to people emotionally and spiritually, and if something that’s been used before works? I’m not going to let my ego get in the way of letting it work again, if it says what I needed it to say.
Paste: Your adopted daughter is of Russian descent. How have you discussed this perpetual war on Ukraine? And it’s sad that no one will never again get to visit places over there like The Hermitage again, post Putin and pandemic.
DeMent: Well, she’s an adult now, so I would never discuss anything she and I would discuss—I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. But certainly, it’s a very sad, troubling, alarming situation that’s going on in Russia right now. Uhh, as there is in our country. It just seems like chaos and really dark elements, everywhere you turn. And yeah, I did visit there twice when we adopted her, and it’s really sad to think that the possibility of returning—if it ever does come back—will not be for quite some time. I follow, and pay a lot of attention to Alexei Navalny, Putin’s nemesis, who he’s actively trying to kill in isolation right now. And I find people like that quite inspiring—they’re really great reminders of what’s at stake, and the level that we need to rise to.
Paste: We’ve had two, three years to realign, reset as a humane species and get back to what’s of utmost importance, like climate change and the pending doom of our shortsighted species. But we’ve learned nothing.
DeMent: And it’s just been all of the above, you know? Fascism taking over, insanity prevailing, it was just a lot. And as a person of my age—i have children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren now—I feel a duty to try to do something. It’s just not an option to throw your hands up. And things can turn around in history, and we have to keep holding on and fighting for the good. That’s what at least a good percentage of the population has always done, and it’s on us now.
Paste: Do you still believe in the intrinsic power of a song? That a song can actually make a difference?
DeMent: Sure, I do! Songs can do a range of things, from things that are relatively minor to things that are really…not minor. But yeah, absolutely. And that’s the only reason I write. I don’t write for fun. Although I’ve had fun writing—don’t get me wrong. And there’s a satisfaction and a pleasure in that, certainly. But I write because I think my songs can help, that they can improve things. To cut to the chase, that’s what I believe, that they improve things for me. And I check in with myself, first of all. We were talking about “Mahalia,” and how do I know when a song is done? And that’s one of the ways I know—if there’s something that moves in me that feels…corrected. It feels a little righter than it was, you know? Then I’m like, “Now that makes sense!” And I have enough in common with my fellow humans that I have every reason to believe that if it helped me, it’s going to help somebody else.
Listen to an exclusive performance from Iris DeMent at Tramps on Nov. 7, 1996.