It's Always Darkest Before Dawn
What the hell ever happened to Iris DeMent?
Back in the early '90s, the Paragould, Arkansas, native released two strikingly intimate albums, stark meditations on life and (mostly) death in small-town America. DeMent's Appalachian croon was somehow both timorous and bold.
I remember going to see her at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, around that time. She looked so terrified on stage that you wanted to wrap her up in your arms and shepherd her home. But after a glass of whiskey and a few false starts, she was belting out tunes like she was born on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium.
Then something happened. DeMent's third album was a mess, saddled with dull political treatises. After that: nothing. It's been eight years since she released an album. Her recent marriage to Greg Brown is about the only sign that she's not currently taking a first-hand look at the mysteries of the afterlife that she once so eloquently contemplated.
DeMent's disappearance from the cultural landscape crosses my mind every time I listen to Dana Thompson sing. I first heard the 33-year-old Sandstone native at Gluek's a year or so ago, and even on that notoriously crappy PA system she sounded sublime. Like DeMent, Thompson has a voice that is at once heartbreakingly fragile and startlingly robust. Every note she sings is somehow imbued with a sense that this whole damn world could collapse at any moment.
Thompson has been a fixture of the Twin Cities music scene for a decade. After playing in several local bands, most notably Hot Head Fiasco and the Minor Planets, she is self-releasing her first solo album, Ox, this month. "I decided I was kind of chickening out," says Thompson, seated on a couch in the Lyndale-neighborhood home that she shares with her six-year-old daughter. "I felt like I should just make my own record. I'm so scared about it though. I don't have anyone to blame but me if it sucks."
One thing I can say for certain about Ox: It doesn't suck. The album was produced by Robert Skoro, and a bevy of fine local musicians pitched in. The omnipresent Jessy Greene pops up with her fiddle to drive home the bridge on "Straight Lines," the best song Rosanne Cash never wrote. Dave Boquist, of Son Volt renown, plucks out some lovely banjo melodies, most notably on "More and More." The country harmonies, sung by Skoro, Boquist, drummer Mick Wirtz, and Kristin Mooney are exquisite throughout.
But the dominant musical mood on Ox can be found in Jimmy Johnson's pedal-steel guitar. Almost every track on the album is steeped in his mournful, molasses-paced note bending. "I write songs with his playing in mind," says Thompson. "I just can't get enough of it."
Thompson's lyrics amplify this somber tone. The album is shot through with tales of train-wreck relationships, of people too psychologically disoriented to take another chance on intimacy. "Night falls hard on the ones ignoring the dark," Thompson notes warily on "Fall"--and it could serve as a thesis for the whole album.
Even on the seemingly hopeful songs, like the opening track "Stars at Night," you get a strong sense that the dream boy that Thompson keeps harping on might be a figment of her imagination. She proclaims that she's going to "dive right in" to the relationship, but there's an agonizing pause before the final word, as if she's already having second thoughts. At times her dour emotional postmortems are reminiscent of Mike Ireland. Both write songs that are like raw, bloody chunks of their hearts.
Thompson's somewhat grim outlook probably comes in part from her childhood. She grew up in Hibbing, on the Iron Range, but set out on her own when she was just 16. With her mom's blessing, Thompson moved into an apartment in Duluth, graduating from high school two years later.
"Hibbing is the quintessential small town, where if you're at all different, then you're not accepted," says Thompson. "And I just could tell that the light inside of me was going to go out if I stayed there any longer. It was a bad scene."
She pulls out a photo album with pictures of her as a kid: apple cheeks, blue-jean eyes, sun-bleached hair. (A framed portrait of her daughter on an end table displays these same physical traits.) One striking picture shows Thompson standing in the dirt smoking a cigarette. She can't be more than seven. The aesthetic is very Dorothea Lange. "My dad thought it was funny," she says. "He's insane."
With a few decades of hindsight, Thompson looks back on these memories with a kind of stoic affection. "I'm proud to have survived growing up there," she says, laughing. "It's a really interesting area, topographically even, with all the wild mines and huge manmade mountains. I had experiences when I was a child that were really unusual. I would go into the iron mines and climb. I couldn't see where I was going. I'd just go and go, and I'd find really weird things. I'd come home and I'd be covered in iron ore, just red."
Perhaps it's Thompson's familiarity with geographic isolation that keeps reminding me of Iris DeMent. Although she spent most of her childhood in southern California, her family's roots are in DeMent Island, a slice of land in the St. Francis River, and it's that remote Arkansas locale that seems to come through in her voice. Both Thompson and DeMent convey a fragile intimacy that's unnerving--as if they don't expect anyone else to be listening.
There were certainly moments during the year that it took Thompson to complete Ox when she wondered if anyone would ever hear her album. "We did the basic tracks and then we started dubbing, and I almost found myself homeless," she recalls. Thompson was forced to defer recording and take care of more mundane matters. "I had to move," she says. "My daughter and I had moved like four times since she was born. She was in kindergarten and she couldn't memorize her address because we were always moving."
In June, Thompson, who works in merchandising at Target Corporation, bought the Lyndale house, a cozy two-story green home on a woebegone block just south of Lake Street. "It's perfect for me and my girl," she says. But after Thompson had settled into her new place, she had to delay the recording process again to have neurological surgery on her foot (which had been a chronic bother).
"I could still be working on it if I wanted to because I'm not 100 percent happy with it," Thompson says of the album. "But I decided at some point to just abandon it and be done. Call it finished."
The next album shouldn't take so long. In Thompson's side yard, where a garage would normally stand, is the plywood frame of a recording studio. She hopes to have it built by June, but given the competing interests for her time, the end of summer seems like a safer bet. "I'm just gonna start cranking out records as soon as that thing gets done," she promises.
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