It’s common practice for champion songwriters to detour slightly from their own work on occasion to cover the music of other favored artists. Similarly, it has become a favorite workman’s holiday activity for songsmiths to fashion new compositions out of unpublished song lyrics from such pioneers as Woody Guthrieand Bob Dylan.
Iris DeMent traveled another route altogether in constructing her sublime new album The Trackless Woods. A vocalist of regal Americana beauty and a writer of brilliantly reflective songs steeped in often heartbreaking detail (the rural eulogy Our Town, one of her first compositions, remains a prime example), DeMent looked to another shore and a different time for the source material behind her newest songs. Specifically, she became engrossed in the works of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose early 20th century writings served as lyrics for DeMent’s newly composed melodies.
DeMent downplays the feat, though, saying the music and poetry for The Trackless Woods were a natural and almost effortless fit.
“For reasons I can’t explain, it felt very familiar to me, really from the first poem I read,” DeMent said by phone last week. “I instantly heard melodies with her poems. So it was not a struggle. By my standards, it was surprisingly easy. There were just a lot of pieces that went together that made this feel very natural. It was a joy to set these poems to music.”
In some ways, the seemingly novel practice of weaving ages-old poetry together with freshly composed music was a proven strategy to DeMent. Her husband, veteran folk stylst Greg Brown, set the poetry of William Blake to original music on his 1986 album, Songs of Innocence and Experience. But DeMent noted there was a significant difference between the inspirations for that album and The Trackless Woods.
“Greg had grown up with Blake,” she said. “I wasn’t familiar with Anna Akhmatova’s poetry or her name for that matter until the very first poem I read, which was Like a White Stone. I read it and a minute later I read it again and set it to music. So my introduction to her happened right along with the introduction of the poems to the melodies. These were not poems that I carried around with me. I was meeting them for the first time. I would say at least half of these poems I had only read once or twice when I set them to music.”
So what drew one the most cherished American songwriters of her generation to the works of a poet who, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, lost family and friends to the gulags, creating poems of lightness and being in the wake of human atrocities?
“I feel I should be able to answer that. I’ve drummed up a few things that would sound good in print. But the truth is, I don’t know. It was just an instantaneous connection that I felt. To be perfectly honest, I read one poem and it was like somebody walked in the room and told me to set it to music. That all happened before I had any emotional sense of connection to this writing. I felt directed to do it. It was after reading those first poems that I started to do some research. I went to find out who this lady was and certainly developed a great interest in her life and her personality and her story. But I can’t put my finger on it. I just can’t.
“I grew up with a lot of hymns and old church music. Some of those hymns have been around a hundred years, the ones that rose to the surface and lasted. I know that when I read Anna’s poems, I had that same sort of experience that I’ve had singing those timeless hymns. I know that I experience them that way. I don’t know if she was writing them that way, but I know the words and the sounds and the melodies I heard with them all seemed so tied up with that hymn structure and style and emotional quality.
“I suppose you say the same thing about many poets. But one thing I really like about Anna is you can really hear in her poetry that it’s very personal, but she also has this quality that ties her into this big world, to nature and place. She has this sense of where she is at in history and her connection to the things, the people and the land around her. It’s broad in that way. They say that some of the things that are most personal can be the most universal. Anna has that quality for me in her writing.”
The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour featuring Iris DeMent and Leyla McCalla performs at 6:45 p.m. tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets are $20. Cal (859) 280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.