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The Handsome Family

The Handsome Family

Interviewed by
Natalie Finnigan
Friday 18th October, 2013 8:03AM

The Handsome Family are a husband and wife duo hailing from Alberqueque - New Mexico, about to bring their unique brand of Americana to New Zealand for the fourth time. Natalie Finnigan caught up with one half of the family, Rennie Sparks, and found out all about what it's like to make music with your life-long partner, painting dead pets and keeping bees...

Hi Rennie, not long now until you head to New Zealand to play a few shows for us!?

Yeah, we’ve got a show in Masterton at the arts festival there, and then we’re playing two shows in Napier, one in Wellington, and then two shows in Auckland.

Oh wow I didn’t know about the Masterton shows, you’ll love that.

Yeah well I’ve been to Masterton before actually. I did the drive there from Wellington and it’s just one the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken.

How many times have you been to New Zealand?

This will be the fourth time – it’s been about three or four years since the last time so I’m sure everything has changed.

You’ve been playing a long, long time right?

Yeah sure, we’re very old!

No I didn’t mean that – but you started in 1993 right – did you play much before that period?

Well my husband's always been a musician and I’ve always been a writer and he said I can't find anyone to play bass the way I want and I’ll teach you, and I said okay I’ll write you some lyrics too. We found that we liked working together and here we are.

How long have you been in New Mexico?

It's been about 12 years now – my husband’s from there so it was normal for him, but for me it was love at first sight – when I saw the desert I knew I wanted to stay.

You’re from Long Island originally right?

Yeah, I’m from New York and it’s a crowded place where you can’t see much of the horizon, so for me it was wonderful to move to a place where you can see for hundreds of miles in all directions.

Did you always have an affinity with American folklore?

I’ve always loved stories, and those kind of ballads are just like really really good short stories for me.

When did you first start to take an interest in that stuff?

When I heard some old folk ballads which had trickled through America from the British Isles and Ireland, and they’re such beautiful stories, and songs that change with the people who sing them. Some of them have been alive for 5-600 years and they’re inspiring.

I’ve only relatively recently taken an interest in the old murder ballads after seeing a group of Celtic musicians perform some songs that had come out of the Apalachians…

Well those songs are predominantly celtic, so it’s not surprising. Songs like Barbara Allen – you’d find them throughout America, probably most of the British Isles and Europe and beyond. These are just stories that human beings have been telling one another for who knows how long.

They’re the most heart breaking and beautiful I think.

Yeah that’s one of the problems I think with America - we’re frightened of feeling sad, as if it’s a bad thing, and what those songs teach you is that sadness is a part of life and to deny yourself those feelings is to shut yourself off from a huge part of the human experience.

For you, is writing about embracing your own feelings?

Yeah, art is about experiencing big emotions – you can feel like you’ve jumped off a cliff without actually doing it.

In terms of the live experience, does that translate to playing to crowds?

Yeah we’re pretty vulnerable, but we’re just ourselves. We want to get to know the people we play for and we want them to know a part of us. We just are who we are – if we’re having an argument off-stage it will carry though on to the stage. I think it’s important that people get a sense of where the songs they’re hearing come from. People aren’t the songs they sing – songs are things that come from within people.

When you’re writing, do you start the process or does Brett?

I start with the lyrics, and then I give them to Brett, and often he doesn’t say anything to me about them for a long time. But then I’ll see him sitting in a corner and he’ll be trying out different melodies with the lyrics and then eventually he presents them back to me with this beautiful melody that I never could have imagined would go with the words, so it’s exciting for both of us and we end up with a song that’s neither mine nor his.

So you don’t have any pre-conceived ideas when you’re writing about the way it will sound?

I do but he just ignores me.

Does that translate into everything else in life?

Well, I think it’s kind of nice to still be surprised by someone you’ve spent your whole life with. I’m glad that I don’t know everything about him.

For sure, a little bit of mystery goes a long way. How long are you typically on the road for?

A little less than half the year. It’s the only way we can make any money because nobody buys CD’s anymore ,so we have to tour if we want to pay our bills, but it’s not a bad way to make our money. We tour a lot of places. We don’t do so well with places that don’t speak English because our songs have so many words in them, but everywhere else where they speak English, we go there. Which means we tour the UK and US a lot, and we usually play arts centres.

That would give you an interesting crowd...

Yeah usually we get people who are there to really listen, and particularly in Ireland, by the time you get to the second chorus they’re ready to join in.

You’ve gotta love the Irish aye? There’s no one else like them on the planet… but I say that with some bias.

Yeah they know their music…

So – you live in Alberqueque – where?

In the middle of town – it’s pretty quiet and there’s not a lot going on which is they way we like it. We have a little adobe house which looks Moorish because it was influenced by the Spanish conquistadores. Beautiful rounded doors and ceilings. The walls are about two feet thick so it’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

What do you do at home?

I do a lot of painting – portraits by commission - in particular, pets. I do a lot of dogs, cats, rabbits and horses and birds – whatever animals people love.

What kind of style do you paint in?

My husband calls me a ‘pet expressionist’ because I like to paint portraits for people that depict what heaven would look like for their beloved animal. I draw on stories about the pets – most of whom have died.

I did one recently for a man who lost his dog who was a real trouble maker, and used to tip over liquor bottles and drink up all the whiskey, so I painted him on a beach that full of broken whiskey bottles and he’s running around having the time of his life.

Do you get commissions from all around the place?

Yeah that one’s from the UK, some come from Australia, everywhere really!

So is the painting a hobby or a job?

Yeah my problem is that once I’ve started something as a hobby I can usually figure out how to make money out of it, and then it stops being something that I do primarily to relax...but I also keep bees which I love. I have a hive and it’s wonderful to get to know the world inside. They say bees don’t like fabric and stuff in the hive, and so it’s best to put your bare hand in, which is quite a bizarre experience. They also say bees can tell whether you have good intentions and wont sting you.

Well I guess there’s only one way to test that theory…

I haven’t been stung yet.

My last question is what are you listening to at the moment.

Mostly I listen to classical and opera – I love Bach.

Well, thanks for your time, and I can’t wait to see you play here in NZ.

Yeah we’re really looking forward to it too!


Handsome Family New Zealand Tour

Saturday 19th October, King Street Live, Masterton
Tuesday 22nd October, Bodega, Wellington
Wednesday 23rd October, Naval Point Yacht Club, Lyttelton
Thursday 24th October, Leigh Sawmill Cafe, Leigh
Friday 25th October, Galatos, Auckland

Click here for tickets.


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