When I last spoke to Rennie Sparks, one half of husband / wife duo the Handsome Family, work had just begun on what would become last’s year’s Unseen album and she seemed a little anxious about the process. “Every time I start to write another song I think, ‘maybe we’re done’… It does get harder every time you write a song because you’re narrowing your pool of ideas a little bit more each time, like ‘I’ve already written that song, and I’ve already written that song, so what song haven’t I written?’”. In the end, Unseen proved to be one of the best albums of their career, and the songs are among their very strongest. So I kicked off by asking Rennie whether she expected Unseen to turn out so well and whether she had to dig deeper – or search more broadly – for inspiration.
“No, it’s always a minor miracle when we finish a song and it gets harder as you finish more and more of them. We never take it for granted that anyone else will like what we do and are always so happy to hear that our music has meant something to someone else. That’s the best feeling a songwriter can have. My bucket is going down and down into that well these days. I can’t believe there’s still water in there. It may be a bottomless hole, but there’s only one way to find out and I’m not ready to take the plunge yet. Luckily each stage of my life brings new ways of seeing and feeling. I’m not the same person I was when we wrote the first songs.”
Unseen was written and recorded during the period when the Handsome Family were basking in the afterglow of the ‘True Detective effect’, a flurry of interest following their song being used for the title music of the southern gothic cop show, and this did have an impact on how they approached Unseen.
“We were aware that we had twenty million new people aware of our music. That was slightly daunting. Very easy to just try and re-write Far From Any Road again and again. Hopefully we didn’t do that. There’s really no reason to, save fear.” That aside, Rennie is still grateful for the opportunity. “It continues to help us. We are ever grateful for our newer fans, but awed more by those who have stuck with us for twenty years and are now bringing their kids to see us. Amazing.”
I want us all to feel more connected to the world we are born into
Rennie’s lyrics inhabit a glorious underworld of ghosts and animals and Victorian inventors and the like, the lyrical themes often gothic in the true sense of the word, but I wondered if there was an overarching narrative or subtle message? Rennie demurs.
“I try to write about what I want to know more about, the world I’d like to live in. I just hope others feel the same. I want science and the occult to hold hands again. I want hikers to start sketching leaves and bugs. I want us all to feel more connected to the world we are born into. We are part of this thing. Let’s not be blind to it.”
Last year, Brett and Rennie appeared on the BBC’s Song of the South documentary, talking about everything from country music to minstrelsy (and previously had appeared in the marvellous film Searching For The Wrong Eyed Jesu, also a BBC production), and I wondered if such appearances were a chore? “It’s always a little terrifying, but we are always happy to talk about music and songs. These are the things that are most important to us. I can talk a long while about insects too though.”
It also led me to wonder to what extent Rennie considered the Handsome Family a country band, the genre tag most often applied to them. “We just like country songs because they’re songs. We like songs. We like the art of telling a story with words and music. It’s ancient, primordial, powerful magic. I have no connection to rural life save that I am interested in flora and fauna and I am married to a Texan who has vocal powers wrought from singing in church. I actually feel much more akin to the grand melodrama of tragic operas and black metal. I don’t like the growling stuff though. I love the rare, soaring vocals of Bruce Dickinson. I love the romance of great violent art. I love the old stories. Some of all that crosses over into country music, but not all of it. Hank Williams was inspired by comic books and church, but we managed to find common ground.”
Given that the Handsome Family are pretty unique, in so many ways, does she see any kindred spirits out there? The answer is, in the modern idiom, classic Rennie. “Well we have human brains and DNA, so I assume we are the same as all humans. That being said, I feel a great connection to small, frightened animals and find trees to be alien and condescending. Those Giant Redwood trees in California just snicker when I walk beneath them flitting through my little life seconds.”
The Handsome Family are currently on a tour promoting Unseen that will bring them to the Sage Gateshead on Saturday 25th February, but I inevitably wondered what the duo had planned next. “We’re always working on new things. Tentatively, this new record is an alchemical formula for fire. We’ll see if we survive its forging or die in a fiery attempt to conjure demons. Wish us luck.”