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Iris DeMent to play sold-out show in Homer Sunday night

Iris DeMent
Dasha Brown
Iris DeMent

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Iris DeMent returns to Central New York on Sunday night to play a sold-out show at the Center for the Arts in Homer.

In 1992, DeMent emerged on the scene with the release of her debut album, “Infamous Angel,” which contained classic originals such as “Our Town” and “Let the Mystery Be” while showcasing her twangy voice and heartfelt lyrics. She followed with 1993’s “My Life” and 1996’s “The Way I Should,” both of which cemented her reputation as one of America’s finest singer-songwriters. Since then, she has released four more albums, including her latest, “Workin’ on a World,” which came out in February and was co-produced by DeMent along with Richard Bennett, Pieta Brown, and Jim Rooney.

In a recent phone interview from her home in Iowa, DeMent talked about the new album, finding inspiration in Russian literature, and returning to the road after a pandemic-induced hiatus.

Q: I like the new album a lot, but I heard that you had to work around the pandemic to get it completed, with your step-daughter Pieta Brown (daughter of singer-songwriter Greg Brown, who’s married to DeMent) pushing you across the finish line.

Iris DeMent: I got a big boost from Pieta Brown, that’s for sure. Yes, she's the one who kind of nudged me along and helped me see that through. You know, I had something there that I needed to keep working with. I started recording with Richard Bennett, and Jim Rooney co-produced it with us. And Richard Bennett is amazing – he played on just about everything, and was very involved in the arrangements – and that record definitely would not have happened without him. He's brilliant. And my old friend, Jim Rooney, came on and did his thing and encouraged me. Yeah, it was a team effort for sure.

Iris DeMent
Iris DeMent
Iris DeMent

Q: The last time you played in Ithaca was seven or eight years ago when you were touring to promote “The Trackless Woods,” which you based on the writings of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The new album has “The Cherry Orchard,” a song inspired by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's 1903 play of the same name. How did you get into Russian literature?

ID: Well, you know, my husband and I adopted our daughter from Russia. She was almost six – she's 24 – so we had this little Russian-speaking human in our world. There were qualities about her that were totally unique, you know, to her culture. And so yeah, I just naturally wanted to have a better understanding of the world that produced this beautiful, complicated human that we were raising. to the best literature in the world. “The Cherry Orchard” I wrote after reading the play and was greatly moved by it.

Q: On the new album, “Mahalia” is one of the standout songs on the new album. Was Mahalia Jackson a big influence on you at some point when you were younger?

ID: Well, she still is. I mean, she's one of the greatest singers of all time. And then when you add to that the role she played in the civil rights movement, advancing the cause of people of color and taking some very, very bold stances. It was hard enough for white women during that time to take that political stance and be that involved. And she was a black woman doing that. She was amazing and an inspiration to me on all levels for her musical ability, and the righteous actions she took.

Q: It was interesting hearing some of your new songs with horns and different musical textures, especially when compared to your first album.

ID: There were actually some horns on (2012’s) “Sing the Delta.” And I love that sound, but I hadn't really been around horn players or had occasion to work with them. So it really surprised me how much I loved about them when they came to the room – I wanted them on everything. So yeah, that horn section brought so much to three or four songs.

Q: I really like the title track, “Workin’ on a World.” What inspired that song?

ID: Well, that one came about just after the 2016 election. And about half came about a few weeks after that, and then took me a little while to finish it. But yeah, that was very much in direct response to that. I never expected democracy to crumble in my country, and have to call this common thug my president. It was pretty mind-bending and still continues to be with everything that's going on. It helped me get some clarity about what my role was, and it still helps me and I hope it helps other people, too.

Q: I was very intrigued by the last song on the album, “Waycross, Georgia.” I know you didn't write that one, but I hadn't heard of the Reverend Samuel Mann, but then I Googled him and found out he's really an interesting person. And Greg Brown did a nice job arranging the music.

ID: Well, Sam is a really good friend and he always likes to say we're cousins. A few years back it turned out that he just might be right – some family did some DNA work and discovered that my dad's DNA didn't actually link to the DeMents; it links to another family, the Manns. And we look a lot alike, so I may have performed a song with my actual cousin. But anyway, his writing just felt right at home with me, and I think Greg came up with a beautiful melody. I'm glad that we could get that on the record.

Q: The new album came out earlier this year, and you've had a chance to tour around; how’s it been playing these songs live since then?

ID: Oh, it's been great. I mean, it took me a good few months to get used to being on stage again, because I really was one of those folks that was just kind of out of commission for about three years. That's a long time to not go out and play, and then when you do go you’re playing in a world that has dramatically changed. So there were a few rough months that were for me, as I just struggled with getting my bearings. But I have again, and I've been really enjoying it.

And I have a couple of musicians with me who I love: Liz Draper, an amazing bass player. and then another wonderful friend and guitar player, Myra Burnett. So we'll have a little trio that’s cool. It is cool. I really enjoyed being out with the ladies and making music.

Q: When I saw you last time in Ithaca you played a lot more piano than guitar. But I didn't realize that piano was probably your best instrument or your most comfortable instrument until I saw you play like that.

ID: Well, that's what I started out on. That actually is my best instrument but I started playing guitar when I started going out to play live because you lug a piano around. I'm most comfortable for sure at the piano, but I go back and forth on stage.

A selfie by Iris DeMent appears inside the cover of her latest album, "Workin' on a World."
Iris DeMent
A selfie by Iris DeMent appears inside the cover of her latest album, "Workin' on a World."

Q: When I opened the new CD, I saw this picture of you on the inside. It’s basically a selfie, but the expression on your face seems to sum up a lot – maybe how you felt over the last few years since you started working on the songs?

ID: I felt that it did. On one hand, I'm wide-eyed and have no illusions. On the other, my hand is up over the other eye like, “Oh, my God,” and I protect myself in some way. I mean, I didn't plan that photograph that way. But when I thought afterward, I could see both of those impulses. And that kind of yin and yang thing of being in the world, and being clear about what you deal with. And at the same time, making that there's a place that you have to preserve and protect if you're going to deal with all this flying around. Especially now, that's for sure.

If You Go

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10

Where: Center for the Arts of Homer


Event Info

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, and its affiliates.