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Iris DeMent Sets Poetry To Melody

Photo provided / Iris DeMent

It was by 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, but a friend had loaned her the anthology, so she decided to at least skim through its pages.

As she read the poem, DeMent began playing a melody, and before she even fully understood it, she was already deep into writing what would become "The Trackless Woods," an album which sets 18 of Akhmatova's poems to music.

"It was one of those fall in your lap experiences," DeMent says by phone from her home in Iowa City, Iowa. "I had never heard of Anna Akhmatova prior to the day I started setting these to music, but my husband and I adopted our daughter from Russia about 10 years ago when she was almost 6 years old. By way of her I have an interest in that part of the world and a desire to help her understand a little bit about where she came from," DeMent says. "She was born in Russia, but she's American now so she's of two worlds. I think with this record part of what I was trying to do was merge those two worlds. I was trying to create a musical meeting for her and for myself, too."

DeMent says her sixth studio album is unlike anything else she's done in her career, which began with her 1992 debut "Infamous Angel."

"I've never set music to someone else's lyrics," she says. "I've never set music to my own lyrics, usually they both come to me at the same time. The thing I knew from the get-go was that I wasn't about to try to do this with my idea of what Russian-ness would sound like. That would have been a catastrophe. The poems to me just felt so open that I felt like you could take them in any direction."

Recorded live in DeMent's living room with producer Richard Bennett and a small backing band, the stark pairing of piano and voice drives all 18 tracks on an album whose melodies are rooted in the American South.

From An Airplane has a honky-tonk vibe; Not With Deserters is punctuated by a mournful slide guitar; and All Is Sold ebbs and flows over lush pedal steel.

The album opens with the sparse To My Poems, which features the lyric "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."

But it's the memory of writing the third song, And This You Call Work – one of the last poems she set to music from Babette Deutsch's translation – that still lingers when DeMent talks about the album.

"I had done about 10 songs with her translations, but I was really frustrated with this particular poem," DeMent says. "For reasons I can't explain, and don't understand now, I just couldn't connect to it. I felt I just didn't understand it, and yet, I kept coming back to it. One day, I just sat down at the piano and I was so angry at these ladies that I started laughing at myself. I closed my eyes and told myself to just trust these ladies. I sat there with my eyes closed and my hands on the piano and that melody came out. And, just like that, I instantly understood the poem. It really surprised me to see how the melody opened the door to the poem, but I think that's what music has always done for me since I was very little."

DeMent was born in Arkansas, the youngest of eight children to Pat DeMent and his second wife, Flora Mae, and grew up in Los Angeles. DeMent's mother had dreams of singing in Nashville, and although she put those dreams on hold to raise a family, music became a shared passion.

DeMent, who describes herself as "extremely shy," says she never wanted to be on a stage, but the music propelled her there.

"I don't know that I was ever drawn to perform, but I've always been drawn to the music and drawn to what happens to people in the music," she says. "I was always uneasy with performing. Part of it was shyness, but part of it was this protective instinct I had for the music. It felt very spiritual to me from a young age, and I really struggled for a lot of years with how to figure out how to get on stage and perform and somehow preserve that other layer with what felt home and natural for me. It took me a long time, but I feel at peace with that now."

DeMent wrote her first song, Our Town, when she was 25 after passing through a boarded-up Midwest town. She says the song came out exactly as it appears on "Infamous Angel."

"With most songwriters there are songs that feel like they write themselves, and this was one of those," she says. "I wrote two songs that same week that I can't remember, but when that one came out I was just lucky I guess. It came so easy I fooled myself into thinking that every time would be like that, and of course it wasn't."

That album also included the song Let The Mystery Be, which was famously covered by David Byrne and Natalie Merchant as a duet on MTV Unplugged, and is currently being used as the opening theme to the HBO show "The Leftovers."

DeMent's second album, "My Life," dedicated to her father who died two years earlier, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category. "The Way I Should" followed in 1996, and she sang four duets with John Prine on his 1999 album "In Spite of Ourselves," including the title track. She also collaborated with Steve Earle, Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris. DeMent returned in 2012 with "Sing The Delta," her first album of original songs in 16 years, but it's "The Trackless Woods" that has led her back to the stage.

"My only regret is that I stopped at 18 (songs)," DeMent says. "I could write an entire album on Anna Akhmatova's poems about nature alone. Naturally I've taken an interest in who she was and I found out that not only was I deeply drawn to her poetry but to her life. She had a deeply fascinating and difficult life. ... She was a poet and an artist who was so loved because she walked alongside the people. I feel that for her myself. She was an extraordinary poet."

A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper in St. Joseph, Michigan.