Songwriter Iris DeMent has a problem with the words “songwriter Iris DeMent.” “I don’t like calling what I do writing songs,” she says. “It really doesn’t have much to do with pen and paper. I tried that a time or two and it was terrifying.”
The Arkansas native sees herself more as a conduit than a creator, one without much in the way of a set process or regimen. “I just pray a lot that a song will come to me, and every now and then it does. A feeling will come along, and things just tumble out of me.”
The approach works for her. DeMent’s songs, with their evocative lyrics and hymnlike melodies, are simultaneously powerful and simple. Her 2012 album, “Sing the Delta,” mixes soul, country and gospel to paint an affectionate landscape of her Arkansas home and a tender portrait of DeMent’s mother, who taught her to find solace and insight in music.
The downside is that this approach can take a while. “Sing the Delta” was DeMent’s first collection of original material in 16 years. Her previous studio album, released in 2004, was a collection of old hymns titled “Lifeline.”
DeMent, 52, spent those many years between projects writing songs. “Sometimes a chorus might come to me, and I might forget about it for 10 years,” DeMent says. “I don’t worry about losing it anymore, because usually if it’s good, it’s in there and it’ll reappear later.”
That happened with the harrowing “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” which recounts a childhood tragedy and an ensuing crisis of faith. The song was based on the experiences of a friend, but DeMent sings it with such determination that it sounds like autobiography. It took her nearly a decade to piece the song together.
“It was an idea I had years ago, and it started with the chorus,” she says. “I forgot all about it, then revisited it later and it still had the power to stir me. The next thing you know a couple of verses had tumbled out. I’m very critical of myself, so by the time I get to where I’m willing to record something, I’m usually pretty sure that I’m going to be able to sing it until the day I die.”
Title track “Sing the Delta” is a bittersweet reminiscence of DeMent’s childhood home in the Arkansas Delta. “It’s the land where the cotton used to grow/that owns a piece of my heart and soul,” she sings in her gentle accent, as horns crest and fall away.Jammin’ Java, 227 Maple Ave. E, Vienna; Fri., 8 p.m., $45; 703-255-1566.