The singer-songwriter visits Columbus this month as part of the Six String Concerts series.
Singer-songwriter and frequent "Prairie Home Companion" guest Iris DeMent-whose voice you might recognize from her rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," played during the closing credits of the Coen brothers' film "True Grit"-visits Columbus on Jan. 16. Her performance is the latest in the Six String Concerts series. Founded in 1988 by a group of friends, the series is a home in Columbus for intimate acoustic performances and remains a volunteer-run organization. We caught up with the charmingly self-effacing DeMent on an afternoon in early December. sixstring.org
Your most recent album, Sing the Delta (2012), was your first album in several years. It's time to get rolling on something else. It was an album that took me a long time to get to. It's a lot of songs that I had around for a long time and a handful that I wrote more recently. Somehow they all came together. That I could wind up with the best songs that I'd written in a decade and a half and they all lined up and they fit, that's a mysterious thing to me.
You've lived all over the country. How does exposure to different cities and even climates inspire and inform your music? That's kind of a fun thing to think about. Climate and setting are hugely important, at least for me, for my writing. I moved back to the Midwest when I was 23-I followed a boyfriend back to Indiana. I started in Arkansas and grew up in California, and I followed him back to the Midwest. It was the dead of summer, 100-some-odd degrees, with major humidity. I breathed the air, and I remember saying to myself I will never leave the middle of the country. I can't even explain it to you. There was something in the air and the atmosphere that was home to me. Setting for me has been really important, and I think distance, too. In terms of geography, I was a long way from my family when I started writing. Having a little remove helped me see things; that translates to art better.
Have you found your voice has changed over the years? And have you embraced it or rebelled against it? I totally embrace that. I'm much older, and my voice reflects it-it would be kind of creepy if it didn't. That's one of the advantages of not being a big famous singer; I can sing however I want to. I love that. If you live a while, life kind of forces you to become more flexible, and I think that reflects in the voice. It's a combination of your emotional and psychological state impacting your vocal cords.
You sing duets sometimes, but most frequently you're a solo voice. Which do you prefer? When I grew up, I did a lot of harmony singing in church. But I've just noticed that, when I started writing, it hasn't really lent itself to a lot of harmony singing or even background singing. I'm very open to that, but when we try it, it often doesn't work. It kind of bugs me. The producers kind of look at each other and say, why doesn't that feel right? I guess I'm just not a blender.
Six String Concerts have a reputation for being good "listening room" shows. Are most of your performances like that? Pretty much all my audiences are listening audiences, and it doesn't matter whether I'm in a listening room or a bar. They're listening so carefully, which is probably why it takes so long to get a song out. But I've never really let myself call what I do "performing." If I did, I'd probably have a panic attack and get out of it immediately. Writing and singing is something I can do that enriches my life and seems to do the same for other people, so why wouldn't you go out and do that? I think of it more as a relationship when I'm out there. I'm relating, I'm giving and they're giving something back, and hopefully we all leave the better for it. There was a stretch in my life when I started thinking about myself as an entertainer, and I became paralyzed. I almost quit. I've had to accept my limitations there and do what I can. I can be entertaining, but it's an accidental thing.