INTERVIEW: The Handsome Family | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The Handsome Family – husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks – are more than two decades in to a career which has seen them release some of the loveliest, darkest, most essential albums in the whole  country/ Americana/ folk canon. They came to a lot of UK music fans’ attention when Uncut Magazine included the heartbreaking and utterly original Weightless Again on its Sounds Of The New West CD back in 1998. Last year saw an even bigger leap into the public consciousness for the duo  when their song Far From Any Road was used as the theme for the southern gothic crime drama True Detective. The impact was remarkable: most of the venues on their UK tour immediately got upgraded as shows started selling out.

As Brett grumbled and clattered round the kitchen in background making coffee, I asked Rennie Sparks how she felt about it all. “It was really, really lovely, it was just a great gift. In the US, the UK, over the world. Kazakhstan, we can’t stop charting there! You never know what to expect from something like this. You don’t even know if it’s going to be a good show but it was such a nice setting of our song, the people who chose it obviously really thought carefully about it so it felt like we really belonged at the beginning of that show. It was wonderful, the opening sequence was gorgeous.”

I wondered what she thought of the show.  “For what it was supposed to be it was way more thought provoking and challenging than any show I’d seen like that before, it brought up a lot of things I hadn’t seen brought up in mainstream tv… it was exciting, I loved it!” And what about the controversial ending which some people (ahem) thought was something of a cop-out? “Brett thinks that it was a cop-out too, but I liked it – it seemed like what we were all looking for was some sort of ritual blood murder, we wanted it to end with death but that seemed like the more surprising ending.”

When I saw them play in Hebden Bridge last year, one of Rennie’s typically pitch black anecdotes ran something like “last year I was researching Victorian suicide techniques and it seems that drowning yourself in a bucket was very popular… So there I was, about to put my head in a bucket when Brett shouted, “hey, honey, it’s HBO on the phone…” Whilst obviously a funny story, I wondered if there was some truth, whether there had been times that they’d be close to giving up on music, waiting for a call from HBO that never came. Rennie’s response was unequivocal. “Oh my god, yes – every day for the last twenty years has been a crisis of faith. It’s been one long dark night of the soul. Yes, it’s been very hard, we’ve been lucky to survive – and we have survived, and before this we were making a living and paying our bills as musicians, which is great, but it’s a completely ridiculous idea to survive this way and every year there’s less of a music market. A CD now is worth less than nothing, people don’t want CDs – they’d pay you to take them away. It’s really difficult.”

handsome family

“every day for the last twenty years has been a crisis of faith. It’s been one long dark night of the soul”

And the lasting impact of the True Detective break? “There’s never any certainty, I can think of all the great theme songs – the guy who wrote the Mad Men theme, I don’t know how he’s doing, the band who wrote the Friends theme, Alabama 3. I don’t know… It doesn’t guarantee necessarily that life will be wonderful for ever and ever. The other thing is that money isn’t the answer to everything. I mean, it does narrow your worries a little bit and it would be nice to not worry but I’m always gonna worry. And we want to write good songs – to me the scary thing would to not be able to write anything that I feel is beautiful, it’s always really scary to sit down and work on something.”

Speaking of which, how is the new album coming? Is it coming? “Yeh, we’ve got most of the songs written now, which is good, so we still can write songs! It’s hard, 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?’ Luckily I found some things I hadn’t said yet that I wanted to say. But it’s difficult, there is no formula for it, but maybe that’s also what’s exciting about it. It’s something we both really want to do because we never know where we’re going to end up and when a song is good we’re both astonished. Anyway, Brett has already started recording. I don’t know about a release yet, these things just have to go as they go. We’re on the path towards a new record anyway. We’ll probably play one or two songs from it on the tour.”

The Handsome Family’s set-up always seemed a little unusual, with Rennie writing the lyrics – full of dark forests, ghosts, murder and drinking – for Brett to sing in his astonishing, sonorous voice. I wondered if Brett had ever baulked at something she’d presented him with. “Oh, all the time! Most of them end up that way. They’re mostly failures, or he says ‘it’s great’ but then the song just gather dust. There are a lot more failures than successes.  But that’s okay, I don’t want him to blindly sing everything I give him, I want it to feel right for him too, so that’s part of the process – some things work and some things don’t.” As for the unusual set-up? “I always think the one that’s most like us really is Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits.. but nobody thinks about them like that. He embodies the music and the lyrics so well Or Elton John and Bernie Taupin.. so there’s precedent for it!”

One of the many joys of a Handsome Family show is the onstage repartee between Brett and Rennie, with Rennie often chastising or mocking her husband. I wondered if Rennie had ever gone back to the dressing room and been confronted by Brett – eyes full of sadness – saying, “Rennie, honey, you’ve gone too far this time”. Rennie laughs but seems a little horrified at the idea. “I think it’s completely the opposite actually. I don’t think it’s one-sided! I always say ‘you were playing guitar over my voice again’. I’d say he’s more passive aggressive and I’m just more aggressive. Who’s gonna win? I dunno. And he drinks and I don’t so I do have that advantage.”

Since the Handsome Family  have been relatively regular visitors to Newcastle, I finish by asking Rennie how it feels, repeatedly touring the same cities and perhaps never getting to really experience them. “Sometimes we do get to spend more time than others, but every show’s different. Even when you get to play two nights at the same venue, it’s always completely different. So it really is very risky to get on stage, I find I’m terrified because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s out of your hands and that’s part of the excitement of live music, the people that are there in that moment will steer the ship towards the rocks or out to sea. You never know what’s going to happen. “

The Handsome Family play Gateshead Town Hall on Sunday 15th March, supported by Daniel Knox.


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