Iris DeMent set poems by the late Russian writer Anna Akhmatova to music on her new album “The Trackless Woods.” (Courtesy Pieta Brown)

Iris DeMent finds inspiration in Russian poetry

In 2012, an artistic collaboration was the last thing on Iowa-based folksinger Iris DeMent’s mind. She was busily recording, then touring behind, “Sing the Delta,” her first album of originals in 16 years.

“I had my mind, and my plate, full at that time,” she recalls. But that was when she stumbled upon the stark, plainspoken poetry of late Russian writer Anna Akhmatova, a salon-society aristocrat in the early 1900s who wound up chronicling, in her later work, Stalinist-regime terror, which she barely survived.

Soon, DeMent had quietly set an entire album’s-worth of the modernist’s verse to music — “The Trackless Woods,” just issued on her own Flariella imprint.

When did the concept occur? “I guess it hit me the first day, when I read the first poem,” says DeMent, who will debut gorgeous new tracks like “Not With Deserters,” “From an Airplane” and “Like a White Stone” in the Bay Area this week.

“I just sat down at my piano one day and was flipping through a book of poetry, and there she was, so I set four of her poems to music at the same time. It just started happening – it was never an intended thing.” Soon, she had a dozen. “And I came up in a music world where, if you have 10 songs, you’ve got a record,” she adds.

It’s difficult to explain, the singer says, the visceral impact had on her by lengthy Akhmatova classics like 1935’s “Requiem.”

She was most impressed by her tenacity — in the face of tragedy, repression, even government condemnation, the poet never left her native Russia. “Anna had this quality, these two things together — this great suffering and yet this light, this hope through it all,” says DeMent. “Her poems just go beyond time and place, and meet you in that place that’s in all of us, that’s always been there and always will be.”

Akhmatova never owned a home of her own, and was often relegated to writing from small rooms, until her death in 1966. To capture that intimacy, DeMent decided to record the entire album live in her living room, with her keyboards moved to its center and accompanists crowding in around her. “I didn’t want to go into the studio and get all bogged down with options,” she says.

DeMent and her fellow-folkie husband Greg Brown had visited Siberia, twice, a decade ago, to adopt their Russian daughter Dasha, now 16.

Did “Woods” bring the family closer? “Well, she’s a teenager and she doesn’t have her mind on the past — she’s looking ahead to where she’s going,” mom says. “But my guess is that this is something that might reveal itself to her more later in life.”

IF YOU GO
Iris DeMent
Where: Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 22
Tickets: $42 to $44
Contact: (415) 388-3850, www.ticketfly.com
Note: DeMent also appears at 8 p.m. Oct. 23 at Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West., Oakland.

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