Nada Mucho

Don’t Fear the Reaper: The Handsome Family Bring Life to Local Music Benefit

Posted by June 5th, 2007 No Comments »


handsomefamily_thumbQ & A with Rennie Sparks

The Handsome Family are responsible for some of the most compelling and memorable music in the last decade.

The Family, husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks, come across as storytellers in the tradition of Flannery O’Conner and P.T. Barnum; that is to say, quintessential Americana with a few freaks thrown in for good measure.

Handsome Family songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a Harry Smith Anthology; that’s how timeless they are.

Rennie, who writes the lyrics, is fascinated with death and dying. She’s particularly good at describing bizarre deaths, be they the tallest man in the history of Illinois’, Amelia Earhart’s or a man who falls into a bottomless hole.



handsomefamilyQ & A with Rennie Sparks

The Handsome Family are responsible for some of the most compelling and memorable music in the last decade.

The Family, husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks, come across as storytellers in the tradition of Flannery O’Conner and P.T. Barnum; that is to say, quintessential Americana with a few freaks thrown in for good measure.

Handsome Family songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a Harry Smith Anthology; that’s how timeless they are.

Rennie, who writes the lyrics, is fascinated with death and dying. She’s particularly good at describing bizarre deaths, be they the tallest man in the history of Illinois’, Amelia Earhart’s or a man who falls into a bottomless hole.

Brett delivers these musical novellas with a rich baritone that can sound like the Devil himself.

Fortunately for Seattle-area music fans, The Handsome Family makes a rare northwest appearance at this year’s Noise for the Needy kickoff, June 6 at the Tractor Tavern.

Nada Mucho recently spoke with Rennie Sparks about amphetamines, love and ghosts.

NM: I went to college with Noise for the Needy’s (NFTN) founder, Rich Green. How did you get involved in the event?
Rennie Sparks: NFTN contacted us and it seemed like a great cause. We’re excited to come back to the Tractor Tavern. It’s a special place.

NM: What’s the process for recording a Handsome Family album?
RS: I write the words, Brett writes the music. We argue a bunch, then we start recording.

NM: Is it still just the two of you?
RS: We have some guests help us here and there, but pretty much it’s just the two of us bickering.

NM: You’ve called your last album, Last Days of Wonder, an "album of love songs." Why did you decide to do an entire album of love songs?
RS: Maybe I’m just feeling happier lately. Maybe it’s the times. Everybody already knows about death. We need love songs right now.

handsomefamily2NM: Do you like having the ability to say, "Yeah, but we’re big in Europe" without any irony?
RS: I used to laugh when I heard that about other bands, but when it happens to you, it’s not as funny. In America, sometimes we play these little shows where people think they’re the only person who ever heard of us. Thank God for Europe, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to support ourselves. I don’t know what the cause of it is. I feel very American. I’m inspired by living here.

NM: Glad to hear you won’t be expatriating anytime soon. So what is it about – is it Santa Fe?
RS: I live in Albuquerque, it’s about an hour south of Santa Fe.

NM: Ah yes, the home of the Isotopes.
RS: (laughs) That’s right. It’s sad we couldn’t think of our own name, we had to steal it from a TV show.

NM: I actually drove through there a couple years ago.
RS: A lot of people drive through but rarely do they stop.

NM: I stopped because I saw a billboard with the Isotopes hat on it and I wanted to find one, but I couldn’t find one in Albuquerque proper. Anyway, what is it about New Mexico that speaks to you?
RS: My husband’s from out here, so for him, it’s moving home. But I’ve always liked it too. I like the feel of the desert and the landscape, and the light is very surreal. It’s nice being this high up in the air. The air’s thin and you’re prone to visions and seeing UFO’s.

NM: Fair enough. So I recently watched Walk the Line again and I couldn’t help noticing parallels between June and Johnny and you guys.
RS: The amphetamine addiction and the guns?

NM: I was thinking both men had very deep voices and both women play autoharp.
RS: Well, I do love the autoharp.

NM: What’s your favorite song you have written together, and I hope you’re not going to use that "they’re all like my children chestnut." 
RS: Probably the first one we wrote together, which was "Arlene." That was when we had our "Big Idea" to do this together, so it’s pretty special.

NM: When the inevitable story of your marriage is adapted to the silver screen, who will play the two of you?
RS: (laughs) I don’t know, that’s a good question. I like Gene Tierney, but I think she’s dead. Did you ever see that movie, Laura? It’ beautiful film noir. She’s only in it for a few minutes because she’s the mysterious Laura, but I just love her.

handsomefamily3NM: So you’d like the ghost of Gene Tierney to play you?
RS: I would, if science ever catches up with my dreams.

NM: I want "Drunk by Noon" to be played at my funeral. Is that okay with you, or are there some royalty considerations I need to take into account?
RS: No, that would be lovely. I hope you don’t have to use it anytime soon. We’ve actually had people use our songs at funerals and memorial services.

NM: What do you think about that?
RS: It’s really lovely that somebody cares so much about your song. We played a memorial service for someone who died in Winnipeg. He had "The Giant of Illinois" played at his funeral. I guess everyone called him The Giant because it was his favorite song. He had a brain tumor and died very young. We came up to play a year after he died and all his friends came. It was really meaningful but it was disturbing because everyone was crying the whole time we played it. I felt like I was actually hurting people, but afterward everyone was hugging us and kissing us and thanking us. It was a good kind of tears, but it was a hard one.

NM: Longtime rock scribe Greil Marcus has written very positively about the Handsome Family. You’ve contributed an essay for one of his books. So I just have to ask, is he as much of a pretentious prick as he comes across?
RS: He’s actually really nice and kind of shy. He was really nice to us in print but never spoke to us, which was mysterious, but we did finally meet him. He was really lovely and shy and not anything like what you’d think. He gets really star struck around bands and he’ a music geek too, like everybody else.

NM: A kindred spirit with everyone involved in NadaMucho then, glorious. What’s next for you two? Album plans? Aren’t you writing a book?
HF: We’re writing a lot of love songs right now for a new record. Been listening to a lot of Platters and Ink Spots. Sometimes a love song can bring you to almost a religious sense of beauty. I’m well into working on my novel now too. It’s a scary story that takes place in the 17th century. Full of witches and ghosts and dark forests.

NM: Finally, what’S the Handsome Family Message?
RS: Don’t fear the Reaper.

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The Handsome Family kick of the 2007 Noise for the Needy festival June 6 at the Tractor Tavern. Adam Lawrence will be the guy in the Isotopes cap. To read outtakes from Adam’s interview not published here, visit our myspace page (www.myspace.com/nadamucho).


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