by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
Some 23 years ago, Iris DeMent appeared on the singer/songwriter scene with her ‘Infamous Angel’ debut. With that set, she set her own artistic bar remarkably high, particularly with the folk perfection that is “Our Town.” Since then, DeMent has built an impressive catalog of albums and collaborations, all filled with her personal blend of charm and melancholy. Her newest project, ‘The Trackless Woods,’ finds DeMent setting the words of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to music. It’s a somber, yet serene collection inspired by DeMent’s personal exploration of her adopted daughter’s native culture.
Kelly McCartney: Being one of 14(!) children, you’ve said that you understood your parents best through music. What do you hope to convey to your daughter through your work… this new album, in particular?
Iris DeMent: My daughter spent the first six years of her life in Russia. Anna is one of Russia’s most beloved poets. It was a combination of my love for her work and a desire to, in some small way, bridge the gap between my daughter’s two worlds that led to the making of this record. I hope to help reconnect her to her heritage… OR, at least open the door to it.
Music is such a mysterious force. You’ve said that you felt like the music was already in these poems when you found them. That must mean you didn’t find many that weren’t singing dirges to you because, save a couple that have some pep, this is a solemn affair. Talk to me about translating and honoring someone else’s work in that way.
Anna’s poetry is filled with hope, forgiveness, and love, even though she was living in times that spoke to none of those qualities. Her entire adult life was one revolution or war after another, loved ones being executed or dying in prison camps and her work being banned and her character being brought into question. She not only survived all these things but thrived, somehow, as an artist. By way of her poetry, she brought comfort and encouragement to countless others who were enduring the same suffering. I didn’t concern myself with trying to entertain anyone with this record. There’s no shortage of that out there already. I concerned myself with honoring her life, her work, and the victorious human spirit that sings in all of these poems and can sing in each of us.
Akhmatova lived and wrote during such a tumultuous time in Russian history. Were there certain poems or themes that you shied away from? Or were you able to find little threads of hope pretty consistently?
Some of her poems have very Russian-specific themes and, for obvious reasons, I chose not to take those on. But, basically, if a poem spoke to me and I felt it lent itself to music, or at least the music that runs through me, I went to work on it.
Do you agree with Akhmatova’s summation in “To My Poems,” in regard to your songs? Because it’s a fairly dark take on creativity as a pursuit or an outlet.
Anna devoted her life to this work and the work nearly cost her her life! It’s pretty safe to say she believed in the value of what she was doing. I don’t think of this particular poem, or any creative work, for that matter, as something to agree or disagree with. I look for the integrity of it, the spirit of it, and take it or leave it on its own terms. “To My Poems” feels to me like the expression of someone’s truth, a truth that may have lasted five minutes or a lifetime — I don’t know or care. Truth is inherently beautiful and valuable, no matter its lifespan.
One of the things that’s so striking about you is that you come off as just an everyday Jane. Then you sing and that’s out the window. Do you feel like Iowa allows you that space or would you have maintained a sense of normalcy in, say, L.A. or Nashville?
I don’t relate to the idea of an everyday anything. I’ve never met an everyday “Jane” or “Joe”! All of life… the fact that we are here… that there is an Iowa, a Mars, a California… that Anna lived and poured her heart into these poems and lifted the hearts of others by doing that, mine included… that I’m raising this child from Russia, a place that sounded like another universe to me not all that long ago… there is no such thing as ordinary. All of it is “out the window.” No exceptions!