No one has a voice quite like Iris DeMent — an aching, soulful twang reminiscent of a bygone era. “She’s the best singer I’ve ever heard,” Merle Haggard has said of the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter. DeMent has done timeless duets with John Prine and Emmylou Harris, and her songs have graced both the silver and small screens (2010’s True Grit and Northern Exposure). Via email, EW caught up with DeMent, who plays March 29 at Cozmic, to chat about music collaborations, her music roots and her latest project.
Your career is marked by collaborations such as the famous “In Spite of Ourselves” duet with John Prine. Is collaboration important to you as a musician?
I’ve collaborated here and there along the way, but it’s nothing I’ve ever sought out. John Prine and I, by the time we did those duets together, had already been knowing each other a long time and the singing grew out of the friendship. We just fit together naturally in that way and it was, and still is, pure joy singing with him. We’ve done it so long it feels like going home now.
In a recent interview, you said: “There was a stretch in my life when I started thinking about myself as an entertainer, and I became paralyzed.” What did you mean by that?
I’m not an entertainer by nature. If there’s something entertaining about me it’s purely accidental. When I’ve tried to be “entertaining,” I’ve gotten myself into a lot of trouble, as in it made me lose the connection to the music, the loveline got cut. So, now I don’t even think about it. I think about relationship when I go out there. I think about, firstly, where I am with myself and then how to bring that to the room and accept what the room is giving to me and go with it.
Your voice is very specific. Did you cultivate it or is it more organic?
The earliest singers I heard, the ones who made those strong, first emotional impressions on me, came out of the country and gospel tradition. When I started writing and trying to express the music as I felt it and understood it, it came out in a similar style, which was more rural, or country — as we used to know country, not what you call “country” today. So I went with that. But I can feel that world opening up and taking on new expressions now that I’m older, and I feel open and interested in finding new ways of doing this. Maybe that has to do with having now lost both my parents as well as many of my older siblings. There’s a sadness in that but a lot of possibility that I can’t say I felt before or even felt a need to feel.
Are you working on any new music?
I recorded a record here in my living room last summer that ought to be out in the next few months. I’m working on the artwork even as we speak. It’ll be called “The Trackless Woods” and is 18 poems by the well-known and greatly revered Russian poet Anna Akhmatova that I set to music. Something I’ve never done before or thought about doing and I’d never even heard of her before, but the first poem of hers I read, it was like somebody walked in the room and said “set that to music,” so I did, and the “somebody” said “keep going,” so I did. It was one of the most joyous musical experiences I’ve ever had. I feel honored to have the opportunity to introduce her to so many, people like myself, who’d never heard of her before.
Folk singer-songwriter Pieta Brown joins Iris DeMent 8 pm Sunday, March 29, at Cozmic. Q&A edited for length and clarity.