“I’m intrigued by the birds behind you” laughed Rennie Sparks, at the garden birds poster she could see on the wall, facing her, as we Skyped this interview.
My garden birds in Ireland of course, are a whole hemisphere away from those creatures that she and her husband Brett Sparks – aka The Handsome Family – would see bouncing around their garden in Albuquerque.
The Handsome Family are limited edition. They are off-centre, bottomless, on the surface, and skewed. They create music that has been described as country-noir, bluegrass, Americana, gothic, murder ballad, alt-country… the list goes on, but you get the picture. She, as a fiction writer, provides the words. He, as someone who has studied the art, provides the music. If you don’t know them, the most recognised example would be the track “Far From Any Road,” which was the theme tune for last year’s HBO crime drama, True Detective.
When I asked about songs they like performing, Rennie didn’t have to think about it. “I guess lately we like to play “Far From Any Road” because everyone seems to know that one. That’s the one that everyone gets their cellphones out to record.” The couple are still getting a buzz from it too. “It’s all good; it’s been a really nice thing. It’s amazing for a band that’s been around for 20 years to have something new and exciting happen.”
The band formed in 1993, and in 1995 their album Odessa was the first of a steady sequence of releases over the intervening years. They’ve played in Belfast maybe half a dozen times over those years. Last year, as she stood on the stage of the Cathedral Quarter Art’s Festival sparkly tent, Rennie told a story about the couple wanting to swallow a load of pills just to see where the journey would take them. But she decided to check her emails first, and there she found an email from HBO, about using their song for that show, True Detective. I remember Brett butted in “so check your fuckin emails, every 5 minutes folks, check your emails.” This was just one, in an ongoing litany of inter-song discourses, which come from that hard to reach part of the brain that a regular sized feather duster wouldn’t reach. Where do these stories come from? Are they spontaneous?
Rennie responded very matter of factly. “I have an active imagination, for better or worse, there are a lot of things that come out of my mouth that I regret saying, but I get nervous and things happen. I think that’s ok you know, I just couldn’t stand the thought of being somebody different on stage than I really am. I just want people to get to know me. They are there to meet me, and I’m there to meet them. So I just try to be natural.”
Does she get nervous on stage? She answers with a small laugh “I get nervous leaving the house to go to the grocery store. In a way being on stage is easier because at least we get a set list. I don’t have a set list for the day.”
She lives, and works, with her husband, Brett. How’s that? ““HELL!” But it’s not so bad. It’s good to work with somebody that I care about. It would be awful if I had this writing partner that I just didn’t have that much in common with. We have our life together as well, and one probably draws on the other, but they’re separate. So if we’re arguing about a song it doesn’t mean that we’re angry with each other; we’re just frustrated about the work.”
“I do get angry that he can sing our vocal harmonies so easily, and it takes me forever to learn them. But I think we just have different skillsets. Sometimes we get frustrated with each other because our talents are so different. He’s so musical and I’m so word based that we kind of come at things from way different angles. But I think that’s what makes it interesting for us. Because I don’t want to do what he’s doing, and I don’t think he wants to do what I’m doing.”
How else do they differ? “He’s a man. I’m a woman. There are a lot of differences. From top to bottom there are very few things that are similar. People do ask us if we’re husband and wife or brother and sister, which I find very disturbing. I don’t think we look alike, but I don’t know, maybe we’re like an owner and her dog, and we’re starting to look alike. But I’ve never wanted to marry myself. I was always looking for someone else. I always say if I could have married a grizzly bear I would have, but it’s not legal so …”
What does she think of Belfast? “Our image of what Belfast is – well, you know Americans know nothing about anything. When we came in the 90s all we thought we were going to see was barbed wire, and we’re going to see security, and things like that. And there certainly was that, but every time we come back it’s a more and more lovely city. We’ve just never had anything but great shows there. People are just so appreciative of music. They listen in a way that is very exciting to me. It makes me kind of enjoy my music more being there. I’ve done shows in Belfast that have made me cry, people have been so lovely to us. I’m not joking. It’s really been such an emotional, lovely time when we’ve been there.”
I might have mentioned something about the audiences in Belfast not always being good listeners at gigs, and she had a good story for me in response. “Back in Albuquerque last year there was a women’s group doing a bunch of Lou Reed covers when he died. So I wanted to do a Lou Reed song. I actually met Lou Reed and I have some stories about meeting him, and I thought these people would love to hear that. I had really beautiful things to talk about. I was trying to play this song, and I never play by myself, but people just talked right over me.” She slightly lengthened the “talked” to make sure I got the picture.
She continued “at one point I was thinking “but I KNEW Lou Reed”. But nobody wanted to hear, nobody was interested. It just never occurred to anybody to actually listen to anything I was saying on stage. It was just background music to drinking.”
So for people who haven’t had the chance to see them live yet, what should they expect? “I think people expect us to be very dark, which is strange. It’s like if you think of dark things, then you can’t think of light things. But to me they go hand in hand, and I’m always thinking about both at once. Life always seems to me to be completely scary and completely lovely at the same time. So I think that people expect us to be very depressed and very quiet up on stage. But I don’t think that’s usually the way we are. We’re usually pretty happy to be there.”
Their songs have often been covered by Andrew Bird, the hugely talented musician, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. Last year he released an album of Handsome Family songs called Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
So what does Rennie think of his covers? “Oh I think he’s amazing. I wouldn’t really call them covers; they’re more like reimaginings because he teaches us things about the songs that are really surprising. He kind of finds new ways into them. It’s been a really lovely gift; it’s like someone came and redecorated my house in a beautiful way while I was out shopping.”
Have The Handsome Family ever covered any of Andrew Bird’s songs? “No, because I don’t think we’re that kind of musician, I feel like really what we do best is write songs. I don’t know if we’ve ever done anybody’s songs better than they could do them. I don’t know, I’ve never thought of attempting any of Andrew’s songs. I think they seem so kind of essentially Andrew that I’m content to hear them from him. It’s a one-way street. He seems like such a musical genius to me I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
“It’s not like I love everybody, but with Andrew, from the first second we saw him play we had to know; we had to get to the bottom of it. But there is no getting to the bottom of it. I’ve known Andrew for probably 20 years, but I still can’t explain how he came to exist. He just has a unique brain that I’m glad to witness in action.”
The Handsome Family are masters of the murder ballad. Indeed the first song they wrote together, “Arlene,” is a case in point. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “The Body Electric” questions the long history of the murder ballad, and looks at the unfolding story from the other side; from the angle of the murdered woman. Has Rennie ever written a murder ballad from the other side? “I’m sure I have. I’ve written lots from the view of people who are dead or dying for sure. I would say our point of view is from the murdered, not the murderer. I also don’t think that there’s some voice that needs to be heard necessarily, because I think the point of murder ballads is not so much some patriarchal triumph. I think it’s always about beauty, and the loss of beauty, and how all things that are perfect will be destroyed.”
Would she consider any of their songs to be protest songs? Her response is beautifully deadpan. “I think my songs are all about shopping. “ I laugh, she doesn’t really laugh, and then she continues. “I think in America especially, that’s the thing that’s destroying us, that we can’t stop thinking about shopping. It’s become this drug that’s distracted everybody from everything.” (Her voice gets higher on “everything”).
“You know everything is crumbling around, and you know our eco-systems are falling apart, but we’re all just thinking about another pair of sneakers. It’s unbelievably distracting to people, and it works because everyone just thinks “hey we’ll just go back to Walmart and we’ll be fine.” But it’s a weird dream-world that we inhabit when we’re wasting what we need, and thinking how these new products are going to change everything. We never quite touch down on reality then. New things wrapped in plastic are incredibly distracting.”
So the irony in her songs is a protest? I’m met with more deadpan. “I suppose so, I don’t know. I’ve never been one to say things literally. I think I show things, and try to make people feel things, but for me, yeah, any other pursuit besides thinking about more stuff is a good way to keep going. Hopefully our songs could lead people back to remembering that they are animals on the planet full of living things.”
Did these things always matter to her? What was she like as a child? “I was a very depressing child. I always noticed the spiders in the room and the snakes crawling in the grass. I always had an eye for detail that was disturbing to other people. I was always freaked by everything. I was really obsessed by the end of the world, and I was surprised that nobody else seemed to be acknowledging the fact that the earth was in trouble and that building more and more missiles was a bad idea. But I’ve been proved wrong so far.”
“When I was younger I had to come to terms with the fact that no one seemed to be acknowledging that we are mortal. Children and adults as well, no one wants to talk about this. It’s like ‘yes we’re all gonna die’, but that just ruins everything if you’re going to keep bringing up death. But for me that’s the only way to enjoy life – to understand that it’s going to end. And given this finite time – what are you going to spend your seconds on? You’ve been given this brief ability to be here, and how important it is to find something meaningful for you to spend that time on. Just spending the whole time saying the end isn’t coming, is really counter-productive.”
It sounds like she stresses a lot, like she always has. What sort of dreams does she have, and does she ever use them in her writing or art? “I have the usual anxiety dreams, like I’m on tour and I only have one sock. When I remember a dream and I try to analyse it, it just can’t be encompassed; and that’s kind of the way I feel that art is drawn from dreams. It’s some kind of distillation of it. Dreams themselves are so infinite in every angle when you look at them, and when you’re in them. That’s kind of the pleasure of them I guess – they don’t have walls around them. They can go in any direction. But art is just like a little spoonful of a dream.”
The conversation continues on the theme of sleep. “I have a lot of problems with sleeping. Occasionally I just forget how. Right now I’m obsessed with Theta wave music. It’s supposed to encourage your brain to get to the state you’re in right before you fall asleep. So I’m listening to very ambient, trancey, slow changing music. Actually last night I downloaded some and they sounded just like engines rumbling.” Brett must have been in the background, making a cup of tea of something, because his deep voice interjects at this point – “they were really beautiful.”
Rennie agrees with him. “Yes, they sounded like eerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgghhhhhhhhhhh (engine noises), and each one goes off for about an hour, but it put me right off to sleep so … I was finding some kind of vibrations that seemed to be helpful to my brain. The theta waves are teaching me how to sleep again.” At this point I have to ask how you spell this wavy phenomenon. She spells it out for me, with Brett helping with the spelling in the background. “There are all these waves that the brain emits in different states of wakefulness,” Rennie continues to explain to someone who is obviously clueless on these matters. “I think I’ve reduced my need for music to very primitive levels at this point. Sleep!” (I’ve googled this. Those engine noises might be ‘Pure Theta Frequency Wave | Binaural Isochronic Tone,’ for anyone interested…see below!)
As a writer, Rennie is of course, also a reader. “I read a lot, but it definitely keeps me awake. So I’m trying to stop doing that at night. Even in my free time though, that’s what I like to do, read a story. I like to read history mostly. I love first person narratives of terrible things, calamities. It always makes me feel better about my life. At the minute I’m re-reading ‘The Account,’ written by a conquistador called Cabeza de Vaca in the 1600s.
“He wrote his amazing story about how these conquistadors landed in Florida and got lost, often in swamps, and were wandering the Americas for the next 5 years. It was tough going. They made a raft and they had to use their clothes for sails, so they were naked, and then after that they didn’t even know how to hunt. So when the raft finally washed ashore, and they still hadn’t made it to the city of gold, they were basically stuck with a few glass beads to trade with. Calamity ensued. It was lots of fun. But interesting and fascinating for me to get a glimpse of what North America was like before it was largely known to Europeans. “
“There was this constant barrage of different cultures that they were running into. All these different native cultures that were so diverse. We don’t have a sense of just how diverse North America was before the Europeans came. They were all very different cultures, very different beliefs that developed in isolation from each other. It’s amazing to me, the different kinds of beliefs we can all have; but at the same time all these Spanish conquistadors had to find ways to communicate with these different peoples. “
“The most fascinating guy that I’m obsessed with was a slave named Esteban who was a Moor. He was captured by the Spanish somewhere in North Africa. Then he was taken to Spain, and then taken with a Spanish conquistador to the new world, where then he was lost, marching around with these soldiers. He was the first African-American to walk round North America. What a fascinating journey this poor guy went on. He’d seen everything. He knew too much.”
With that, it was over. The phone rang, Brett answered, and we couldn’t really hear each other anymore. She had to go and talk to somebody else, and apologised for cutting the interview short. But it’s not short; and despite how quirky it all may come across, it’s not light. From the loss of beauty, to slavery, to theta waves, and an imploding-stuff-obsessed planet – this conversation really was a bottomless hole. I just didn’t realise it at the time. Cara Gibney, GiggingNI.com