True to form, The Handsome Family remain consistently inventive with current album ‘Wilderness’.
Listening to current album ‘Wilderness’ by longstanding creative team Rennie and Brett Sparks, otherwise known as The Handsome Family, is an education lesson in itself. Holding tales concerning a broad assortment of animals detailing their lesser known habits that only the likes of natural world connoisseur Sir David Attenborough knows about, the husband and wife duo of The Handsome Family combined their efforts over a number of years to bring to life such unfamiliar tales of the hidden language of crows, woodpecker tongues and octopuses who seem to have a penchant for the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, such is their love of dancing.
Such weird and wonderful tales, played out to the band’s unique take on traditional country music that fuses elements of psych-rock and Appalachian holler, are not only confined to nature’s wonders as the album ‘Wilderness’ also includes such fascinating insights into the life and times of one Mary Sweeney, who had a propensity to smash windows when under her radar circa 1890s and thus earning the title: The Wisconsin Window Smasher.
If that wasn’t enough to cause a level of intrigue among those less familiar with The Handsome Family’s more recent creative output and their history in general, then American TV network HBO decided to pluck the composition ‘Far From Any Road’ from Brett and Rennie’s ‘Singing Bones’ (2003) to serve as the theme tune to their successful crime drama True Detective, featuring two of Hollywood’s heavyweight actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
The decision by HBO to include a song from The Handsome Family’s back catalogue not only came as a surprise to the band but also it remains a baffling choice when considering the song’s contents as there is no criminological connection. If there is an association to be made between the two artistic mediums, then one surmises that it is a decision based on atmosphere as both take a walk on the darker side of life.
With music, however, being a stronger obsession for Famous Last Words (FLW), the HBO series True Detective is a somewhat lesser-known commodity, leaving it up to Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family to plug the gaps by providing the background details, but more importantly any explanation regarding HBO’s reason(s) for giving ‘Far From Any Road’ the green light of approval.
” [To explain] one day we received an email from people working with HBO the American cable network that the show is on, and they basically asked if they could use our song. I thought [at first] that it might be a reality show because it’s called True Detective and that there was a magazine from before about true crime in America called True Detective. So I thought that maybe Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson might be narrating it or something as I had no idea what it might be. I really couldn’t imagine how our song would fit in with a show about crime, but I was pleasantly surprised that it just seemed to fit so well. The writing for True Detective is really similar to our way of writing as both the TV show and our music live in the same emotional landscape, even if our song isn’t taking place necessarily in the same location as the storyline. I don’t really know how they found us or why they picked us, but I know that they didn’t do it lightly, as they probably tried quite a few other songs in that spot as I know that they looked at a lot of music because the whole series has had a lot of interesting musical choices. So I think it was a little luck that our song fits really well with the show.”
If there is any other further association between the crime series True Detective and The Handsome Family, then it is with the same precision to detail of a homicide detective that is also evident in the work that Brett and Rennie undertake when writing and recording. Considering this close-attention to detail therefore, does it ever become a frustrating process for Handsome Family if it takes a long time to write and record new material?
“It seems kinda crazy to rush things,” answers Rennie immediately. “I think that’s more of an industry scheduling thing where you’ve got to get another album out and make more product, but that’s not really the way art should be made, as we enjoy the process of working on records.”
How long did it take to write and record current album ‘Wilderness’?
“Brett used to work twelve-hour days once he got into it, and because he’s very slow and meticulous it takes him a while to finish recording things, which can be the same for me when I write the lyrics. So it was about three or four years on and off that we were working on the album just in the studio in our house when we were home from tours.”
Having spent many hours writing and recording ‘Wilderness’, is there anything that you would have produced differently if you could re-enter the home recording studio now?
“You’re making my stomach hurt just thinking about the whole recording again!” replies Rennie laughing. “We worked really hard on it; it’s not so much that you feel finished with the record, it’s that you have to give it up and give it away. There’s an Albert Camus book called The Plague and there’s this character who’s an author and his writing never gets past the first paragraph because he’s constantly re-editing that first paragraph. I think that’s really easy to do as an artist by keep focusing on minutiae and never finish, but at some point you just have to say fly and be free and we’ll see where you go. I often hate records by the time I have finished them because I’m so tired of working on them, but after a few years when I go back to them I start to like them in different ways. So my relationship to all my records seems to change as I get older.”
The working relationship between Rennie and Brett Sparks is a remarkable one as it is an affiliation that began twenty years ago but it actually took them five or six years before they agreed to collaborate on anything which Rennie suggests, “I think was funny looking back because it seemed like such an obvious thing to do”. Recognition of this working relationship also became apparent when both members of the band clearly defined their roles from the off with Brett as the songwriter and Rennie “always a storywriter” busily working in their own separate corners of their apartment during their initial years as a creative partnership.
With the years advancing “…time flies when you’re bickering!” jokes Rennie regarding her other half of this family duo, The Handsome Family has progressed to the point of nine albums in total and, in the process, gained much recognition from fellow artists including Ringo Starr, Jeff Tweedy, Christy Moore, Charlie Louvin, Jarvis Cocker and Nick Cave to name but a few. By achieving such a lengthy milestone in terms of their recorded output and acknowledgement for their work from other musicians is great testament to the creative credentials of The Handsome Family, but also the duo’s ability to work closely together considering their personal relationship as well.
“I think maybe it’s surprising to some people as [often] people are always worrying about working with people that they’re close to,” considers Rennie on the subject of being married and in a working relationship with her partner. “I think it’s exciting for both of us because we end up with work that’s never 100% his or 100% mine as it’s a little bit of both, which has kept us interested all these years.”
Have there been any difficulties when writing and recording together, considering that you have been producing music for twenty years?
“It’s been horrible!” Rennie replies humorously. “No, seriously it’s certainly not an easy way to make a living as it’s taken us a long time to be able to survive without other work. Every year it becomes more precarious with less and less people buying music, so I feel pretty fortunate that we’re able to survive and certainly the True Detective theme song has helped us quite a bit.”
As mentioned previously, the secret to such longevity The Handsome Family is experiencing is partly due to the predefined roles both Rennie and Brett outlined from the start: “We both pretty much have our jobs – I write words and he writes music – Brett does most of the recording and then I come in and criticise [laughing]! He’s got the patience to sit and listen to every note over and over again and edit on Pro Tools in very exact ways that I can’t stand doing. So luckily, he has the ability to do that, and enjoy doing that, as I really like poring over words that give our music stories. We collaborate a little bit, but on the whole we mostly don’t; I do my part and he does his part as we have distinct jobs”. The other reason why this partnership is lasting the distance is due to the authority both members possess academically when it comes to different subject matters, but also Rennie’s inventive mind, interwoven with genuine and unusual facts, when conjuring up a tale for latest album ‘Wilderness’ for example. The inspiration for the band’s music, however, is far more complicated when trying to explain where exactly this derives from as Rennie attempts to explain.
“I wish that I could read something or listen to something and write a song from that as that would be easy, but it’s really mysterious how songs get written and that’s probably what has intrigued me because it never gets any easier as there is no formula that really works. There is a lot of trying and a lot of failing, but every once in a while something mysteriously works, which is still a surprise to me every time. It’s probably a lot of things and sometimes I’m not consciously aware of the influences, which I think is probably what’s interesting about song writing is that I often don’t know what inspired me to write something, and I think it’s the not knowing that intrigues me. I think song writing comes from a part of your brain that you don’t really have conscious access to, so it feels almost like these little messages coming from outside, but I think they’re really coming from parts of my brain that I can’t actually visit consciously, apart from maybe when I’m asleep or when I’m deeply dreaming about things.”
What about any bands that’ve influenced your music?
“We really like old music,” considers Rennie after some initial thought. “My husband is especially obsessed with early medieval music and I do love old folk songs; anything that is a thousand years old is bound to be a good song considering it has survived that long. So we like old stories and old melodies. I think nowadays songs are about a vehicle for a personality; they’re about stars and somebody’s heightened reality, whereas old songs were about sharing stories between people and trying to tell a story that everybody could sing. We like the old idea of what songs were for.”
Is it a difficult process accessing old songs if Brett has a strong interest in early medieval music and with nothing physically recorded during this period in history?
“Well he [Brett] did study medieval music in school for a few years and therefore he knows how to read some of these old texts,” explains Rennie. “He’s kind of obsessed with the spiritual connection between music and the way music was really intertwined with peoples’ perceptions of God and reality at the time. I’m not an expert on this, but Brett has informed me how everything was explained using the number three during this particular period in European music and how every song was to be an expression of the music of the spheres and the universe as it was created. So, I think it’s a beautiful outlook on music and emanates from something that’s part of all reality, but maybe bigger than reality.”
By offering a refreshing insight into the reasons for Handsome Family’s inner workings, the songs on offer from the band’s current long player ‘Wilderness’ provides the very same unique perspectives as it is not often that a band sings about the intimate details and relationships of various types of wildlife. Therefore, further investigation is required to ascertain this particular fascination with the lesser known habits of the animal kingdom.
“I feel it’s really comforting to feel connected to things bigger than you,” begins Rennie. “It’s really comforting to remind myself that I’m a living creature on a planet of living creatures and that I belong here and that we all have a place within this biosphere. I think beyond that, there’s also this sense that we can never really know what it feels like to be an octopus, as we can only imagine what it would feel like to have a bunch of arms and swimming through the sea. Even though we are all connected as living creatures, there’s also this weird isolation because we can never know what it’s like to think without a human brain or with a different kind of brain and see with different kinds of eyes as the senses of other animals are completely unknowable. Even if I wanted to write a song from the point of view of an octopus, it would still have to be subjective no matter how scientific you want to be.”
Were there any particular reasons for the choice of animals for each song on ‘Wilderness’?
“I think a lot of them were just stories that I really wanted to tell and creatures that possibly remain unsung,” says Rennie. “For example, eels are not something that people think of as heroic as their lifecycles and way of existing is so huge. An eel’s natural order is this huge circle of destruction whereby being an eel is more about dying than about living because most eels are born to be eaten by something else as very few of them live that long and that’s exactly how it should be. Therefore, I’m drawn to those stories of failure in the natural world.”
It’s not all about wildlife though, as the fascinating tale of Mary ‘Window Smasher’ Sweeney reveals another focus to the narratives of ‘Wilderness’.
“Mary Sweeney was arrested hundreds of times in the late 1890s for attempting to smash windows and people were obsessed as to the reasons why this mild-mannered woman had such a break with reality,” explains Rennie regarding the band’s song ‘Woodpecker’ and its subject Mary Sweeney. “However, I think at the time there were a lot of people going crazy because that’s when the railroad was under construction and a lot of factories began to show up in little towns like Wisconsin, so it was the beginning of the Industrial Age. So maybe the perfection of machine-made windows might have been a little unnerving, when you think about it, as there’s no more human touch in anything. I wondered, however, what it was about windows that upset Sweeney so much. I was thinking about her two springs ago, as we had just opened the windows and I was listening to the sounds of birds in the yard when I heard this Woodpecker and it kind of unnerved me because suddenly the world sounds bigger straight after the quiet of winter. So in relation to Mary Sweeney, I think it may have upset her seeing these windows everywhere and the world got a little bit bigger too quickly for her.”
Was it true that she was a schoolteacher as well as a user of cocaine?
“Yes, that is true,” answers Rennie. “There was also talk of her having received a head injury, but she had some kind of mental illness. I also thought that maybe she saw more than other people. In terms of cocaine, everybody was doing it back then as even coal had cocaine in it. The things that they used to prescribe for women who had nervous conditions were really crazy, such as opium and heroin for women’s ailments. So the cures may have been more detrimental than they knew.”
With an European tour currently underway, The Handsome Family remain eternally grateful to their loyal supporters and for the increasing numbers of new fans joining their ranks partly due to the increased exposure by way of HBO’s True Detective. In fact, recognition of the benefits of having one of your songs aired as part of a primetime TV drama “…has really helped us in wonderful ways” and motivated Rennie to break with the tradition of driving themselves when on tour by hiring a chauffeur instead. Such decisions are deserved as is the continual recognition of The Handsome Family’s inventive and fascinating musical output. Long may this family reign as it is a family worth becoming a member.
I'm drawn to those stories of failure in the natural world."
Rennie Sparks, The Handsome Family
FLW - From the Tapes
After many years together as the creative duo The Handsome Family, Rennie Sparks naturally had an abundance of stories to tell FLW. The only obstacle in the way was the unfortunate lack of time. However, we are pleased to relay one incident when the band was recording their latest album ‘Wilderness’.
“When we recorded the song ‘Far From Any Road’, which became the theme song for True Detective, there were a lot of these Cicadas outside our house. Cicadas are like big locusts and make a huge noise in the spring calling out to each other. It’s kind of a weird arrhythmic noise because they’re just constantly screaming at each other. As a result of this noise, we could not record without them showing up on the recording. So my husband Brett used these castanets and made these tracks with the castanets playing, which are almost out of sync with each other. So slightly arrhythmic castanets exploding everywhere, and that’s the basis for the song on True Detective. We have to thank the Cicadas for helping us out on that one and giving us the inspiration!”