Interview: Musician Iris Dement Talks About Her New Album Based on Russian Poetry 

The Tin Pan, June 12

click to enlarge art23_music_iris_dement.jpg

Steve Earle sang her praises, David Byrne and Natalie Merchant covered her music, and Merle Haggard famously said she was the best singer he’d ever heard.

Her 1992 debut album, “Infamous Angel,” wasted no time establishing the Arkansas Delta native as an important singer and songwriter with a country and folk bent.

For her latest album, “The Trackless Woods,” Dement turns Russian poetry, specifically that of Anna Akhmatova, into song lyrics, a project she undertook as a bridge between herself and her adopted Russian daughter.

Style: How was the process of writing this album different for you?

Dement: I always write lyrics and melody at the same time, so I’d never set anything to music. I usually feel very on-edge when doing both because I never really know how it will work out. But this was very calm and relaxing.

So, no lyric writing?

Maybe that’s the secret [laughs] — cut my workload in half. It was like child’s play for me, so it was a hard project to allow to end because I wanted to keep working on it and I was already up to 18 songs.

Did you find challenges to being a woman in the music business?

From the get-go when you know this is the work you’re supposed to be doing, you don’t consider the obstacles. I feel this is the path I’m supposed to be on, so I just put my feet on the path and go. Can’t say I ever contemplated my path as that of a woman but now with distance, I can see how my experiences differed from men’s. I’ve moved around in a man’s world for a long time but I’m not sure it’s had any effect. I was determined to do what I wanted to do on my own terms.

It must have meant a lot for Merle Haggard to praise your voice.

It was very generous of him and it helped me immensely with confidence that I might not otherwise have had. He was my hero. I’d looked up to him since I was a kid. The thing about Merle is his life and sense of responsibility. It wasn’t just his music — not that you can ever say music is “just” — it was how he chose to speak out on political causes. There’s big risks and burdens that go with that and he assumed that on behalf of people who couldn’t speak for themselves. That level of character takes guts.

Your music is known for its sense of place, so how did that translate to the blank canvas of Russian poetry?

I don’t have any choice but to go to my roots when making music. Before I came across the poems, I’d been wanting for years to find a way for myself and my daughter to put a tangible link to our cultures. She’s aware of herself as a Russian — I adopted her when she was 6 — but she’s also very American. I wanted to find a way to do that artistically for her because her world was becoming my world. I didn’t think to try to set it in Russian style, I set out to be fully present in it with who I am and let the poems breathe in this world.

How has your voice changed with age?

The way I sing now expresses who I am now spiritually and creatively. I don’t feel compelled to look like I’m 30 and I don’t feel compelled to sound like I’m 30. One of the joys of getting older is the constant changing. Being allowed to be a different person again and again is an incredible gift. I feel that musically in my voice and it’s what I touch on in songs.

How so?

Early on, I felt that the experience of singing took me places I wanted to visit often and stay. Singing took me to a scared place so I take very good care of and preserve that place.

I dig deeper now to discover things I wouldn’t otherwise. I’m a determined miner. I’m also a bit of an outlaw about aging. Fuck that, I’m going to own it. S

Iris Dement performs Sunday, June 12 at 7 p.m. at the Tin Pan, 8982 Quioccasin Road. For information call 447-8189 or visit tinpanrva.com.

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