Recently, we had the opportunity to listen in on Part 1 of this interview as host Jason Wilber sat down with his good friend, singer/songwriter Iris Dement, to discuss her life and music. In a short recap, we would learn that she was the youngest of 14 in her family, a Pentecostal upbringing played a significant role in their lives, she learned to project her voice singing gospel/hymnal songs at a very young age, and she went through a very dark period, until the age of 25, feeling ‘disillusioned and spiritually let down’. Eventually, during a trip to visit her brother, she had the inspiration to pen the song, ‘Our Town’, which had tremendous success and landed her instant notice as a serious songwriter. Subsequently. in part one of the interview she reveals (humbly) how the almost effortless appearance of the song to her mind became a divine revelation for her to become a singer/songwriter. She had finally recognized her ‘calling’, and that moment would change her life forever.
Iris Dement experienced a significant spiritual shift at the age of 16, renouncing some of the more divisive ‘fire and brimstone’ Pentecostal teachings of her upbringing, to speak and live by her own ‘internal truths’, something her mother had sang and preached about with vigor since her childhood. She candidly describes this period as being a “very depressing time” in her life because she “loved the church and everything about it.” It’s easy to empathize with what she may have experienced while liberating herself, moving from an isolated world to one more socialized, and leaving behind the only spiritual family she had known, even if dysfunctional. It’s somewhat likened to the phoenix rising from the ashes, and being reborn. For this songstress, shedding the mental chains was a simple as turning off a switch. She “could no longer pretend to believe” that a God would be so harsh to condemn any human, including herself, to the “fiery furnace” or “to burn in hell” for not accepting religious dogma in a strictly fundamentalist and literal fashion.
There’s a reason why the topic of Iris Dement’s religious upbringing permeates most of her interviews. Its significance is paramount, a necessary biographical lesson if you will, to understanding her journey as an artist, and we can be thankful that she shares it with us. Her life story, as we’re led to hear, gets downright deep and personal with an occasional humorous twist added in, making it all that more engaging. In the end we’ll learn that she overcame many challenges becoming a singer/songwriter, the love of gospel music is dear to her heart, her strong intuitive sense guides her through the songwriting process, simplicity and intensity are the emotional ingredients behind some of her finest moments of inspiration, and that her roots in the Arkansas Delta have never been forgotten. It’s an hour reflective of Dement’s broader spiritual beliefs, maintaining faith, ‘on her own terms’, how her childhood memories and life experiences continue to colour her songwriting, her acceptance of “just letting things be” enabling her to live life from a more peaceful yet nonjudgmental place while trusting the natural universal process, whatever that may be.
I’ve spent a great deal of time listening to Iris Dement’s music over the last couple of weeks, from her earliest releases to her most recent album, ‘Sing The Delta’. I sense that music for her is used as a personal conduit to lifelong healing, but not negatively, because it’s heartfelt, and sincere self-expression – a periodic timeline about embracing and releasing, full of mystery and metaphors. This is her gift to the world, packed with a punch. Her vocals on the current album are richer, more powerful, and supported by the limited use of instrumentation, other than piano. It’s hard to pick a favorite song from the show but ‘Sing The Delta’ and ‘Morning Glory’ grab my attention the most because of sentimental significance, and simplicity turned glorious. She may ruffle the feathers of Fundamentalists with her lyrics in, ‘The Night I Learned How Not To Pray’, while the Utopians applaud, ‘Let the Mystery Be’.
Some may compare her to a Sarah Carter or a contemporary Dolly Parton. I like to think of her as being Iris Dement-there is only one. Executive Producer, Rich Reardin quoted recently that, “she should go down in American history as being one of the most inspirational and influential singer/songwriters of all time.” It’s been a real joy listening to Jason Wilber, as he sets aside his role as journeyman, interviewing Dement on such a personal level. This two part interview went beyond the boundaries of the usual format but you can’t cover everything, and what a challenge it has been trying to summarize the information from these two shows. People need to listen for themselves, to understand the complexity of this beautiful soul, and take from it what they will. There’s a mystery surrounding Iris Dement that piques my interest to no end, if only to read between the shades of grey. Maybe I just need to embrace the bliss of having discovered her music through ISOAS, enjoy the ride, listen intently, and ‘let the mystery be’.
Just some added entertainment for all the John Prine and Iris Dement fans out there. Let John Prine tell you the great story behind, ‘In Spite of Ourselves’.