Iris DeMent

On her transcendent new record, Workin’ On A World, Iris DeMent faces the modern world — as it is right now — with its climate catastrophe, pandemic illness, and epidemic of violence and social injustice — and not only asks us how we can keep working towards a better world, but implores us to love each other, despite our very different ways of seeing. Her songs are her way of healing our broken inner and outer spaces.

With an inimitable voice as John Prine described, “like you’ve heard, but not really,”  and unforgettable melodies rooted in hymns, gospel, and old country music, she’s simply one of the finest singer-songwriters in America as well as one of our fiercest advocates for human rights. Her debut record Infamous Angel, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary, was recently named one of the “greatest country albums of all time” by Rolling Stone, and the two albums that followed, My Life and The Way I Should, were both nominated for GRAMMYs. From there, DeMent released three records on her own label, Flariella Records, the most recent of which, The Trackless Woods(2015), was hailed as “a quietly powerful triumph” by The Guardian. DeMent’s songs have also been featured in film (True Grit) and television (The Leftovers)and recorded by numerous artists. Fittingly, she received the Americana Music Trailblazer Award in 2017.

Workin’ On A World, her seventh album, started with the worry that woke DeMent up after the 2016 elections: how can we survive this? “Every day some new trauma was being added to the old ones that kept repeating themselves, and like everybody else, I was just trying to bear up under it all,” she recalls. She returned to a truth she had known since childhood: music is medicine. “My mom always had a way of finding the song that would prove equal to whatever situation we were facing. Throughout my life, songs have been lending me a hand. Writing songs, singing songs, putting them on records, has been a way for me to extend that hand to others.”

With grace, courage, and soul, Iris shares 13 anthems — love songs, really — to and for our broken inner and outer worlds. DeMent sets the stage for the album with the title track in which she moves from a sense of despair towards a place of promise. “Now I’m workin’ on a world I may never see / Join in’ forces with the warriors of love / Who came before and will follow you and me.”

She summons various social justice warriors, both past and present, to deliver messages of optimism. “How Long” references Martin Luther King, while “Warriors of Love” includes John Lewis and Rachel Corrie. “Goin’ Down To Singin Texas” is an ode not only to gun control, but also to the brave folks who speak out against tyranny and endure the consequences in an unjust world. “I kept hearing a lot of talk about the arc of history that Dr. Kings famously said bends towards justice, ”she recalls. “I was having my doubts. But, then it dawned on me, he never said the arc would magically bend itself. Songs, over the course of history, have proven to be pretty good arc benders.”

Bending inward, DeMent reaches agilely under the slippery surface of politics. She grapples with loss on the deeply honest “I Won’t Ask You Why,” while encouraging compassion over hate in the awe-inspiring “Say A Good Word.”  Album closer“Waycross, Georgia,” encompasses the end of the journey, thanking those along the way. As she approaches subjects of aging, loss, suicide,and service, an arc of compassion elevated to something far beyond words is transmitted.  The delicate fierceness encompassed in the riveting power of her voice has somehow only grown over time.

Stalled partway through by the pandemic, the record took six years to make with the help of three friends and co-producers: Richard Bennett, Pieta Brown, and Jim Rooney. It was Pieta Brown who gave the record its final push. “Pieta asked me what had come of the recordings I’d done with Jim and Richard in 2019 and 2020. I told her I’d pretty much given up on trying to make a record. She asked would I mind if she had a listen. So, I had everything we’d done sent over to her, and not long after that I got a text, bouncing with exclamation marks: ‘You have a record and it’s called Workin’ On A World!’” With Bennett back in the studio with them, Brown and DeMent recorded several more songs and put the final touches on the record in Nashville in April of 2022.

The result is a hopeful album — shimmering with brilliant flashes of poignant humor and uplifting tenderness — that speaks the truth, “in the way that truth is always hopeful,” she explains.  Reflecting on the lyrics of the song “The Sacred Now” (“see these walls / let’s bring ‘em on down / it’s not a dream; it’s the sacred now”), DeMent is reminded of Jesus saying the Kingdom of God is within you and the Buddhist activist monk Thich Nhat Hanh saying the rose is in the compost; the compost is in the rose. On Workin’ On A World, Iris DeMent demonstrates that songs are the healing and the healing arises through song.

Iris DeMent

With an inimitable voice as John Prine described, “like you’ve heard, but not really,” and unforgettable melodies rooted in hymns, gospel, and old country music, Iris DeMent is simply one of the finest singer-songwriters in America today. Her debut record Infamous Angel, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary, was recently named one of the “greatest country albums of all time” by Rolling Stone, and her two albums that followed, My Life and The Way I Should, each garnered GRAMMY nominations in the Contemporary Folk category. Seeking more independence as an artist, DeMent went on to establish her own record label in 2004, and released a series of critically acclaimed albums beginning with 2004’s Lifeline, which she describes as “a bunch of old church songs I grew up singing and still love.” Her return in 2012 with Sing The Delta prompted NPR to call her “one of the great voices in popular contemporary music.” The Boston Globe hailed the collection as “a work of rare, unvarnished grace and power.” Taking a surprising detour in 2015 with The Trackless Woods, DeMent set poems by the late Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to music—a record described by The Guardian as “a quietly powerful triumph.”   With songs featured in film and television and recorded by numerous artists, there’s no getting around that the music is in DeMent, and thirty years after her debut, she’s still creating some of the most poignant music of her career, bridging seemingly disparate worlds with every note.

It was by pure chance that Iris DeMent opened the book of Russian poetry sitting on her piano bench to Anna Akhmatova’s “Like A White Stone.” She’d never heard of the poet before, and didn’t even consider herself much of a poetry buff, but a friend had leant her the anthology and it only seemed polite that she skim it enough to have something interesting to say when she returned it. As she read, though, a curious sensation swept over her.
“I didn’t feel like I was alone anymore,” remembers DeMent. “I felt as if somebody walked in the room and said to me, ‘Set that to music.'”So she did. The melody just poured out of her almost instantly. She turned the page and it happened again, and again after that, and before she even fully understood it, she was already deep into writing what would become ‘The Trackless Woods,’ an album which sets Akhmatova’s poetry to music for the first time ever. ‘The Trackless Woods,’ DeMent’s sixth studio album, is unlike anything else in her illustrious career. Beginning with her 1992 debut, ‘Infamous Angel,’ which was hailed as “an essential album of the 1990’s” by Rolling Stone, DeMent released a series of stellar records that established her as “one of the finest singer-songwriters in America” according to The Guardian. The music earned her multiple Grammy nominations, as well as the respect of peers like John Prine, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris, who all invited her to collaborate. Merle Haggard dubbed her “the best singer I’ve ever heard” and asked her to join his touring band, and David Byrne and Natalie Merchant famously covered her “Let The Mystery Be” as a duet on MTV Unplugged. DeMent returned in 2012 with her most recent album, ‘Sing The Delta,’ which prompted NPR to call her “one of the great voices in contemporary popular music” and The Boston Globe to hail the collection as “a work of rare, unvarnished grace and power.”
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, DeMent and her husband were raising their adopted Russian daughter in their Iowa City home. When she looked back on her own childhood, though, DeMent sometimes felt like there was some intangible element that hadn’t quite clicked yet.
“Growing up, a lot of what I understood about my parents—and many of the adults in my life that were nurturing me—I understood through music,” explains DeMent, who was born the youngest of 14 children in Arkansas and raised in southern California. “I remember noticing that people seem to be most their real selves when they were in the music. My dad would cry my mom would wave her arms around when they sang church music. So I figured out at some point that there was a breakdown there with my daughter. She was six when we adopted her, and there was a whole culture that had been translated to her in those critical years that I didn’t feel like I could get through to with the tools I had. So always in the back of my mind, I had this sense of wanting to figure out how to link her two worlds, Russian and American.”
Akhmatova’s poetry proved to be that link and more, as it drew DeMent into a remarkable journey through Russian political and artistic history.”Her whole adult working life was marked by this constant struggle to do her work in the face of the Bolshevik Revolution, World War I, World War II, and Stalin,” DeMent says of Akhmatova. “The estimates are that between 20-80 million people died during those 30 years he was in power. One of her husbands was executed, one died in the gulag, and her son was sent there twice just by virtue of being her son. She often lived in poverty and out of other people’s homes, never owned a place of her own. She wasn’t some elevated star figure exempted from suffering, she was right there in it. All of her poetry came out of that.”
Akhmatova’s struggles weren’t unique for her time in Russia, but her poetry still managed to find beauty in a world of pain and ugliness, which DeMent believes is what makes her so deeply loved by the Russian people. “I think if you listen to her poems, you can hear all that sorrow and that burden in them,” says DeMent, “but there’s always a lightness, a transcendence somehow, a sense of victory over all that inhumanity that she was living with every day of her life.”
It’s only fitting, then, that the album opens with, “To My Poems,” a short, four-line invocation recorded sparsely and simply with just DeMent’s voice and piano as she sings: “You led me into the trackless woods, / My falling stars, my dark endeavor. / You were bitterness, lies, a bill of goods. / You weren’t a consolation–ever.”
That stark pairing of piano and voice forms the heart and soul of all 18 tracks on the album, which were recorded live in DeMent’s living room under the guidance of producer Richard Bennett and with a small backing band that drifts in and out of the arrangements. The music is firmly rooted in the American South, with timeless melodies that could easily be mistaken for long-forgotten hymnal entries or classic country tunes. “From An Airplane” rollicks with a honky-tonk vibe, while “Not With Deserters” is punctuated by a mournful slide guitar and rich harmonies, and “All Is Sold” ebbs and flows over lush pedal steel. That DeMent can make the work of a 20​th century Russian poet sound like Sunday morning on a cotton plantation is a testament to her versatility and depth as an artist.
“I learned from this project that I don’t have just one voice, I have lots of voices, and they’re all connected somehow,” says DeMent. “Something happened on this record because the music wasn’t tied to a place from my past or my family history, but it was linked to my daughter by way of her cultural history. I realized writing these songs that I’m linked in some way to another world, as well, and I can hear it in the music, in the way I sang and the choices I made.”
DeMent is quick to credit Akhmatova (and the translators whose work formed the album’s lyrics, Babette Deutsch and Lyn Coffin) for the album’s beauty and magic. “All of the poems, particularly Babette’s translations, just felt like songs to me from the get go,” says DeMent. “The first four or five I did, the melodies came while I was reading them the first time. That still mystifies me. My gut sense is that they were songs, already. I think she wrote them that way, and Babette picked up on that. Theyflowed like that. I don’t think there’s any getting around that the music was already in the poems.”
There’s no getting around that the music is in DeMent, too. Twenty-three years after her debut, she’s creating some of the most poignant music of her career, bridging two seemingly disparate worlds with every note.

It was by pure chance that Iris DeMent opened the book of Russian poetry sitting on her piano bench to Anna Akhmatova’s “Like A White Stone.” She’d never heard of the poet before, and didn’t even consider herself much of a poetry buff, but a friend had leant her the anthology and it only seemed polite that she skim it enough to have something interesting to say when she returned it. As she read, though, a curious sensation swept over her.

“I didn’t feel like I was alone anymore,” remembers DeMent. “I felt as if somebody walked in the room and said to me, ‘Set that to music.'”

So she did. The melody just poured out of her almost instantly. She turned the page and it happened again, and again after that, and before she even fully understood it, she was already deep into writing what would become ‘The Trackless Woods,’ an album which sets Akhmatova’s poetry to music for the first time ever.

‘The Trackless Woods,’ DeMent’s sixth studio album, is unlike anything else in her illustrious career. Beginning with her 1992 debut, ‘Infamous Angel,’ which was hailed as “an essential album of the 1990’s” by Rolling Stone, DeMent released a series of stellar records that established her as “one of the finest singer-songwriters in America” according to The Guardian. The music earned her multiple Grammy nominations, as well as the respect of peers like John Prine, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris, who all invited her to collaborate. Merle Haggard dubbed her “the best singer I’ve ever heard” and asked her to join his touring band, and David Byrne and Natalie Merchant famously covered her “Let The Mystery Be” as a duet on MTV Unplugged. DeMent returned in 2012 with her most recent album, ‘Sing The Delta,’ which prompted NPR to call her “one of the great voices in contemporary popular music” and The Boston Globe to hail the collection as “a work of rare, unvarnished grace and power.”

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, DeMent and her husband were raising their adopted Russian daughter in their Iowa City home. When she looked back on her own childhood, though, DeMent sometimes felt like there was some intangible element that hadn’t quite clicked yet.

“Growing up, a lot of what I understood about my parents—and many of the adults in my life that were nurturing me—I understood through music,” explains DeMent, who was born the youngest of 14 children in Arkansas and raised in southern California. “I remember noticing that people seem to be most their real selves when they were in the music. My dad would cry my mom would wave her arms around when they sang church music. So I figured out at some point that there was a breakdown there with my daughter. She was six when we adopted her, and there was a whole culture that had been translated to her in those critical years that I didn’t feel like I could get through to with the tools I had. So always in the back of my mind, I had this sense of wanting to figure out how to link her two worlds, Russian and American.”

Akhmatova’s poetry proved to be that link and more, as it drew DeMent into a remarkable journey through Russian political and artistic history.

“Her whole adult working life was marked by this constant struggle to do her work in the face of the Bolshevik Revolution, World War I, World War II, and Stalin,” DeMent says of Akhmatova. “The estimates are that between 20-80 million people died during those 30 years he was in power. One of her husbands was executed, one died in the gulag, and her son was sent there twice just by virtue of being her son. She often lived in poverty and out of other people’s homes, never owned a place of her own. She wasn’t some elevated star figure exempted from suffering, she was right there in it. All of her poetry came out of that.”

Akhmatova’s struggles weren’t unique for her time in Russia, but her poetry still managed to find beauty in a world of pain and ugliness, which DeMent believes is what makes her so deeply loved by the Russian people.

“I think if you listen to her poems, you can hear all that sorrow and that burden in them,” says DeMent, “but there’s always a lightness, a transcendence somehow, a sense of victory over all that inhumanity that she was living with every day of her life.”

It’s only fitting, then, that the album opens with, “To My Poems,” a short, four-line invocation recorded sparsely and simply with just DeMent’s voice and piano as she sings: “You led me into the trackless woods, / My falling stars, my dark endeavor. / You were bitterness, lies, a bill of goods. / You weren’t a consolation–ever.”

That stark pairing of piano and voice forms the heart and soul of all 18 tracks on the album, which were recorded live in DeMent’s living room under the guidance of producer Richard Bennett and with a small backing band that drifts in and out of the arrangements. The music is firmly rooted in the American South, with timeless melodies that could easily be mistaken for long-forgotten hymnal entries or classic country tunes. “From An Airplane” rollicks with a honky-tonk vibe, while “Not With Deserters” is punctuated by a mournful slide guitar and rich harmonies, and “All Is Sold” ebbs and flows over lush pedal steel. That DeMent can make the work of a 20 th century Russian poet sound like Sunday morning on a cotton plantation is a testament to her versatility and depth as an artist.

“I learned from this project that I don’t have just one voice, I have lots of voices, and they’re all connected somehow,” says DeMent. “Something happened on this record because the music wasn’t tied to a place from my past or my family history, but it was linked to my daughter by way of her cultural history. I realized writing these songs that I’m linked in some way to another world, as well, and I can hear it in the music, in the way I sang and the choices I made.”

DeMent is quick to credit Akhmatova (and the translators whose work formed the album’s lyrics, Babette Deutsch and Lyn Coffin) for the album’s beauty and magic.

“All of the poems, particularly Babette’s translations, just felt like songs to me from the get go,” says DeMent. “The first four or five I did, the melodies came while I was reading them the first time. That still mystifies me. My gut sense is that they were songs, already. I think she wrote them that way, and Babette picked up on that. They

flowed like that. I don’t think there’s any getting around that the music was already in the poems.”

There’s no getting around that the music is in DeMent, too. Twenty-three years after her debut, she’s creating some of the most poignant music of her career, bridging two seemingly disparate worlds with every note.