August 9th, 2012 | Interviews

Iris DeMent is up there between Roky Erickson and Terry Allen for righteous tell-it-like-it-is songs about life and love and loss—she predicted every horrible thing about 2012 in 1996’s ‘Wasteland of the Free,’ probably one of the heaviest songs on a major label that year, and she predicted every possible beautiful thing about infinity in ‘Let The Mystery Be.’ Her newest Sing The Delta is out on her own Flariella label next month and she speaks now from someplace between her garden and her writing cabin. She plays tonight at the Grammy Museum downtown. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

Your father was the janitor at the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park—is it true he used to bring their Rolls Royce home to your house in Buena Park on weekends to wash it?
It sure is—the first place we moved to when my parents left Arkansas was actually Long Beach, though. A big white Southern family plunked down in the African-American neighborhood in Long Beach. People coming together! I don’t remember Long Beach because I was too young, but when we moved to Buena Park we were surrounded by strawberry fields. My dad and I would walk up the road and get big crates of strawberries. Orange groves, too. All that’s gone now. It was still pretty well-developed then, but the boulevard had lots of farming going on. It was kind of a beautiful place, come to think of it. The trip from our house to the beach went through all the strawberry fields and orange groves. And now that’s all gone.
How did you convince your family to spend your childhood vacation looking for Merle Haggard?
My brother had just come back from his second term in Vietnam, and he’d moved up to Redding, and my parents decided to take us on vacation. That was something in itself—we’d never gone on vacation. All ten of us got in the Oldsmobile and hauled up to Redding. Somewhere on the way, I got word Merle Haggard was up there. I was ten at the time and already a giant Merle fan, and we did other things besides look for Merle Haggard. But every street corner I’d think, ‘Merle Haggard might be driving by RIGHT NOW!’ It was pretty amazing for me when back in ’94 or ’95 I was doing dishes in my kitchen in Kansas City and the phone rang and it was Merle, and he said, ‘I been looking for you all over the place!’ He’d been looking in phone books on the road thinking he might find me.
Did he sound like Merle Haggard on the phone?
He sounded like Merle Haggard—yes, indeed! And he invited me out to his place out there to record one of my songs. To go from being ten years old looking for thim to getting that phone call …
People always say talk about how it’s so rare someone is actually from California, since there are so many transplants. Do you feel like you’re from here?
Clearly a big part of me is California. That’s where I went to school, where most of my growing-up experiences took place. I was the last child of a very huge family and my parents were in their fifties when we went out to California, and the impact of Southern culture on me was really intense. My parents went into it full force because they were so threatened by a lot of what was out there in California. I got a double dose of religion and Southern culture in my house. I don’t know—well, I do know, honestly, so I’ll tell you the truth. I feel like I’m from the South. When I go back to the South, I feel … I don’t live there but it’s very familiar to me. We always had family there and my parents moved back there. That feels like home in a deep kind of way.
That feel-it-in-your-bones kind of home?
That’s something I took for granted my whole life, and now that a lot of my family is gone—my mom is gone, my dad is gone—at this point in my life, I’m very conscious of what they gave to me. And that was it. Wherever they were, they created that. They brought all that with them. So when I go back to Arkansas, the whole picture kinda comes together for me. I was very fortunate in that way.
So many of your songs are about loss—of loved ones, of history … even ‘Wasteland Of The Free’ is about things we as a society have lost—
That’s true.
What brings you back to loss? It reminds me of Ernest Tubb when he said all he wanted to do was sing for the boys back on the farm, but one day there wasn’t even a farm there anymore.
I don’t know if I can answer that, but as far as loss … you don’t have to live too many years to figure out that life is just loaded with it. If something hurts, you write about it. I’ve never really said it before, but I think some of the losses I write about, I do probably in an attempt to keep them—to get them back, to keep them with me. You put something in a song or a poem, and you give it new form and it’s there inside of you. So when I sing about somebody or something I lost, they’re not lost anymore. They’re there with me, and I go back to that time and place. I think actually it’s even bigger—I don’t just go back, I bring that to where I am now. It’s not a dwelling on some painful thing. It’s … what would the word be? It’s more of a sweet kind of thing that we do.
Hunx said writing a song for someone is the best gift you can give them.
Yeah, it’s a pretty good one! It’s a way to honor somebody that’s not a statue or a monument. I don’t know about you, but those things don’t really do a lot for me. It’s my version of that. And songs are very much that in general for me. That’s not all they are, but I didn’t fall out of the sky and I feel like when I write and sing, a lot of it is a way to honor how I got here—and the people who kept their hand on the plow all these years. It makes me feel connected.
You said in one interview you want to be aware of your ancestors—is that what this is? Do you find it hard to connect with the past because of the character of the present we live in?
I do—I feel that raising my own child. Things have changed so dramatically. It’s not all bad by any means, but it’s different. One thing I feel up against is … my parents, I don’t know how to put it in words, but a lot of what we’ve talked about they instilled in us with ease. It came naturally. The world supported them and the community supported them. They weren’t sitting around thinking how to raise their kids. They came from a world where you grew up, saw how it was done—your life was just cluttered with elders—and you popped out kids at a pretty young age and there was a continuity no one questioned. I waited a lot of years to have a child, but it was a different culture—I had to think through those things, and I don’t think my parents had to. There are so many influences coming in that you have to let in and yet counter, sometimes at the same time. I don’t know. If my mom and dad were here, they might say, ‘Hey, man—we had the same challenges!’ And I was just a kid who was oblivious!
What’s something you love about 2012? Twitter?
I’ve never tweetered or twittered—I swear to God I don’t even know what that is. I do like my cellphone. It’s hard to say that out loud, but I do. I like texting. I think it’s fun. Things like that are pretty cool. And then there’s things you lose with it. But that’s that.
You wrote ‘Wasteland’ in 1996, and everything you talked about then—in great detail—is on the news in 2012. The CEO pay, the outsourcing, the poor being the enemy. How does it feel to be right about something so wrong?
Things are still pretty shitty, to tell you the truth. But the things I feel hopeful about … I feel more and more a big shift to the local. The monster’s so dang big. I think a lot of people are seeing a way to address these problems at home in our backyard and our community, and we can grow that way. Which makes a lot of sense to me. It’s also something I can do to prevent me from going berserk. I get so angry when I look at the big picture—and sad—and I feel paralyzed. For me, it’s working on my community—instead of complaining that my apple comes from Argentina, which totally pisses me off. I garden in my backyard and try and get my neighbors to garden. I go to the farmer’s market and actually buy the food instead of just going, ‘Oh, how nice it is that you’re making cheese! I hope somebody buys it!’ I see that more and more with people in my world—a big movement towards that. Personally, I think that’s the way for people to get their power back, in their homes and backyards and neighborhoods. And then kick the asses of these sons of bitches who don’t give a shit about us.
I try to put it back into the community, too.
Wherever you can. It’s getting more and more difficult. But yeah, I think there’s hope.
So gardening keeps you from going berserk?
That, and I write and sing. I go berserk a lot, which means I should be writing and singing more often. That’s what helps me. That’s why I wrote ‘Wasteland.’ That’s why I write what I write. There’s berserk on different levels. Like being angry and thinking the world is unfair and immoral. And then the strings inside of you spiritually that you can’t name or understand—that makes you berserk, too. Music for me has a way of answering all these things, and that’s another gift I got from my mom and dad. How can I keep talking about them? I think, ‘Sheesh—they’re dead! You’re 51. Stop talking about it already!’ But every day I’m reminded of something I got. A survival mechanism that came from them.
How much of what you learned about right and wrong came from music? What kind of moral person are you because of what you listen to?
Probably tons of it! What moved me and made me wanna live and get up in the morning and keep going came largely from music. Music I heard my mom and dad sing, music at church or on the radio—whatever. There’s so much bullshit in the world, but there’s something by and large about music … I know there’s a lot of music geared strictly toward making money, but there’s still a lot of music that’s coming out of a person’s deepest most honest truest virtuous place. I really believe that. And I think when that gets delivered and put out in the world, it does good things. It’s necessary. As necessary as a tomato. You just gotta have it! That steers us all along.
Lester Bangs said bands couldn’t lead, but they could model—be examples, or just prove that something could be done.
That kind of music becomes someone you walk with. Music takes a form—are we making any sense? When I go back in my life, I walk with the music. Songs I heard that impacted me—not only are they tangled up in relationships I had with the people who sang them, they become almost like beings that walk me through life. That might be more literal than we think. When I write, I put all I have into it. I put everything that got given to me and everything I picked up along the way. I put it all in there. I think songs are beings.
Does it ever get scary?
What scares me is I have so much respect for what music’s purpose is in the world that it can actually hold me back. I think, ‘Holy crap, who do I think I am to be thinking I can do this?’ I truly feel that way and I say this because of what music has done for me. It’s right up there at the top of the heap. There’s lots of things at the top of heap—well, let’s not say top of the heap. There are lots of courses in life that can impact people and help them. For me, music has been right up there—always. I still can’t believe I’m a maker of music and I make records and people buy them and come to see my play. I never walk around on stage without feeling like I can’t believe I’m the person up there. It doesn’t make any sense to me! I feel so honored to be there—how could this happen to me? I’m not a big star. I’m talking playing for like fifty or a hundred people. It doesn’t matter—I have that feeling. This handful of people are there because they’re getting something out of this music. How did I wind up in this picture? I know it’s a hokey word, but really it’s a blessed kind of experience.
I saw you play and you told the venue to turn the lights down. ‘I’m happy you’re out there—I just don’t wanna see ya.’
I kinda got over that. But it changes night to night.
Merle Haggard was talking about that song you wrote for him and said something like, ‘Iris, it doesn’t matter if people don’t get this—if it goes over their head or between their legs. It’s just good.’ Where do you aim your songs when you write?
I don’t aim songs. I know it sounds really simplistic but when I’m writing and singing, I just listen for that thing that makes my heart … I just trust my heart. If something sounds funny or weird, I’m better at ignoring that feeling—if my heart leaps and there’s that trueness in my heart about it, I go with it. My heart is my target. There’s a whole lot of other folks out there with one, so maybe they get something out of it, too. I’ve gone out and sang songs for years that hit me in my heart and the audiences don’t respond, but I’ll keep singing ‘em. I got that faith that once I have that internal experience, I gotta keep singing ‘em.
What songs?
I’d never name one! I knew you were gonna ask!
How did you know the songs on this record were finally ready to be on this record?
A number of songs I had for a long time, and a handful I just couldn’t finish. I couldn’t figure out why. I had confidence in ‘em, but I couldn’t finish. And then they just kinda wrapped up for reasons I could never explain. What this record taught me is a long time coming. It’s not the kind of time frame that works well for a career. I’m not gonna pay off the house at the rate I do things. But it sure works well for life and for me. I learned to be grateful and just trust that there’s a natural rhythm to what I’m trying to do, and trust I’m hooked up to something, and let the rhythm be what the rhythm wants to be. If that means fifteen years or just one year, just let it be. Looking back at this record, I see that all these songs—even the one I had fifteen years ago—they all connect. It’s uncanny to me.
What do they fit together into?
I could not tell you that! I have no idea. For me, just if you’re lucky enough to be able to recognize it, I’d say leave it at that. Why do I love my husband? I don’t know. It’s something that happned. Enjoy it!
This is the second album on your own label Flariella. Are you done with majors? Especially after ‘Wasteland of the Free’?
When I put the last record out—Lifeline, a bunch of gospel—I thought about going with a label and I had some interest, but man … when I thought about just how much freedom I’d have doing it myself, nothing else was quite as enticing to me as that. And I had no regrets about that. It was just a simple production. I put it out and I didn’t sell a heck of a whole lot but I also didn’t go around and promote. I think I did one interview for the whole record! But it felt so good! It felt so linear. Wow, this is what music is about. You throw it out there and if someone wants to listen, they listen and kick it down the road a little further. For this one, a lot of people told me I should do with a label and maybe they were right, but I just loved the way I felt the other way. I have no regrets.
What’s it like to go to work for a big record company?
I didn’t realize how it affected me til twenty years later. I didn’t have anyone telling me, ‘Iris, you have to do this. Iris, you have to do that.’ But to have a team of people around you with these expectations … it’s hard not to be affected. Forturnately for me, I had producers and musicians and friends who were close to me to help so the music got preserved. But the psychological toll is there. I cannot tell you how good it felt when I relieved myself of those relationships. It’s just a weird feeling to feel like twenty people hovering and wanting you to quote-unquote succeed. That’s not what I got into this for. So yeah, they way I do it now feels very natural. It feels like music felt when I was a kid. You do it for the joy of it. You make the music you can and go out and sing, and if people want it, so be it. If you’re willing to talk to me, I’ll talk back. But I don’t have anybody other than my friends and people who care about me and the music giving me their input. It feels really good! A lot more musicians are doing that now. It’s kind of hard to know what record labels are even for anymore!
I wanted to ask about ‘The Night I Learned How Not To Pray.’ The kind of other side of your songs about loss are your songs about self-reliance—about learning to trust yourself and finding strength in those you love.
I wrote that about a dear friend—an experience he had when he was a child. I had to change a few details but it really stuck with me. Just the other day, one of my closes friends—a retired preacher in Kansas City, Missouri—he called and he’d just heard the song and he had an interesting twist on it. ‘The Night I Learned How NOT To Pray.’ He heard it almost as ‘The Night I Learned How TO Pray.’ Like maybe you were praying wrong, and I’d never thought of it that way until he said that. It really got my brain going. At the time when you’re a child or any time in life, a maturity comes when maybe like praying isn’t about your wish list or changing the nature of life—life and death is the nature of the thing—but learning how to enter into a spiritual or meditation with whatever … nature and the universe of God or whatever you choose to name it … maybe it’s more about just taking strength from being part of the whole thing, rather than trying to change the whole thing. I really enjoyed his take on that. Learning how NOT to pray might be learning how to pray. I wish you could talk to him. He’s a pretty fascinating dude!