The Handsome Family's Second Honeymoon

Here’s a profile of the wonderful alt-country duo The Handsome Family that I wrote for SEE Magazine. I spoke to Rennie Sparks, who was lovably unpretentious and full of laughter through our entire conversation; her personality seems like the perfect counterbalance to her husband Brett’s more solemn tendencies. Their chemistry is definitely something special, and they’re a band well worth delving into; my favourite is 2001’s Twilight, but on a recent episode of Sound Opinions, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot recommended 1998’s Through the Trees, which I haven’t heard, as their masterpiece.

Anyway, here’s the piece. Enjoy!

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Rennie Sparks doesn’t think the story of how she met her husband Brett is especially romantic. “He was waiting for another girl that he had a date with,” Rennie says with a laugh. “I’m not sure if he wasn’t sure what his real date looked like or what, but I saw him and sat down next to him and we started talking. By the time his real date showed up, it was too late! We never really spent much time apart after that. We’ve been together ever since.”

And what about the other girl? “Oh, the poor thing,” laughs Rennie. “We all went out to get a drink together, but it soon became clear that I wasn’t going anywhere. I offered to give her some of my tequila as a parting gift. I felt bad for her, but I wasn’t leaving!”

That was some 20 years ago, and no matter what Rennie says, it was the beginning of one of alt-country’s great romances. At the time, she was living in New York trying her hand writing fiction, and the idea of becoming a songwriter, much less being in a band, had never crossed her mind. But falling in love with a musician has a way of changing your career path: the couple married and began performing together and recording albums under the name The Handsome Family. Their first album, 1995’s Odessa, set the template: Rennie would write the lyrics, Brett would handle the music, with his distinctive baritone croon adding a mournful, out-of-the-past, Southern Gothic flavour to their alt-country arrangements.

“I’ve always loved the way bands like The Mills Brothers or The Ink Spots used to sing,” Rennie says. “It’s a very gentlemanly, polite way of singing about very emotional things. In rock music, people tend to think that to express emotion you have to go out of tune or say something crudely, but there are other ways to do it as well. If I sang some of these songs, they’d probably go over the line, but Brett has that deep voice that lends them some weird authority. It feels real. It’s hard to find that.”

Those influences have never been plainer than on the new Handsome Family album, Honey Moon. With their 20th wedding anniversary approaching, the Sparks decided to write an entire album’s worth of love songs, but with melodies that could have come from the pen of Stephen Foster or Hoagy Carmichael and the constant, rapturous images of plants, insects, trees, and animals (“I am the puddles in the street waiting for your falling leaves / Twine your vines around me, drop your branches in my path”), no one would ever mistake them for conventional Diane Warren-style power ballads.

“I live in a city,” Rennie says, “which is why I feel it’s important to write songs like this. It’s very easy to forget about the natural world when all you see are manmade things. Rocks, plants, sky — it’s a good feeling to be reminded of that stuff. But I didn’t want the album to be escapist; I wanted there to be a nod to the reality of parking lots and highways and garbage. That’s part of the landscape these days, no matter where you live. The song ‘A Thousand Diamond Rings’ [which describes smashed windshields and neon signs looking like jewels in the sunset] sort of sums up where we live. When the light hits it just right, even the ugliest parking lot looks interesting.”

In the hands of The Handsome Family, even the idea of a female insect devouring her mate can seem bottomlessly romantic: “Darling, My Darling,” Honey Moon’s strangest song, is sung from the point of view of a male praying mantis surrendering to his lover: “Darling, my darling,” Brett sings, his voice aching with sincerity, “your snapping fangs don’t scare me / I’ll leap on your spine and love you till you gnaw me down to my wings.”

“I was reading Darwin’s Origin of Species,” Rennie says, “and there’s a whole section in there about insects that’s really sexy. It was surprising to see the amazing lengths insects will go to in order to attract each other. It’s all they care about. Their whole lives, from the second they’re born, are devoted to these intricate mating rituals and dances and singing. They’re way more romantic than human beings, if you think about it. They will risk everything for that one little moment! In a lot of ways, I think it’s the most romantic song on the album.”

Paul Matwychuk
www.mgoer.blogspot.com