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The Handsome Family

The Handsome Family

Monday 9th August, 2010 12:39PM

Husband and wife duo The Handsome Family have been matching Rennie Sparks’ mordant storytelling with Brett Sparks’ eclectic music since their formation in 1993. Mostly self-recorded, and utilising genres like bluegrass, murder ballads and rock, the Handsome Family have picked up a particularly big following outside of the United States for their macabre stories, and personal songwriting. The latest album, Honey Moon, is full of love songs and marks a bit of a departure for the band. Their live shows are hilarious too, the banter between the two almost acting in complete contrast to their songs’ murderous characters and flawed historical figures.

How do you find writing for each other - does having such delineated roles add its own tension into the music? Is there much discussed between you guys about your individual roles when it comes to writing a song?

It's a mysterious thing to write a song with someone you love. We end up with something that is not totally his or mine, more like an unseen third person. We do talk/bicker/hit each other with frying pans on occasion, but mostly it's the same inexplicable magic as singing harmony with another person.

How do you control the self-recording process? Is it true that all of the albums have been recorded in your living room? Has the recording process changed much from Odessa [their first album, released in 1995]?

There is no control. Brett sits in his garage/studio listening to snare drum cracks for hours and then I start whining about wanting a steel drum instead. Yes, it's changed. For Odessa and Milk and Scissors [their second album from 1996], home-recording was not really feasible. Once we were able to buy the equipment to record at home it's been a lot more fun for us. We can take our time and try things out without anyone around. Of course sometimes it would be nice to have someone around to give their opinion, but we probably wouldn't listen anyway.

You guys have so many macabre, dark songs about love and its failings and assorted villainy - was writing love songs/being optimistic for Honey Moon a difficult process? Is darkness something that's easier to write?

Yes, it's always easiest for me as a writer to have an axe swing down until there's a river of blood. It's much harder to speak of mortal life with all its painful horrors and chaos and then try and speak of the things that make it worth experiencing. Living is a lot harder than dying I think, but both have their magical allure. Still, I don't think this record is all that different from the others. My primary obsessions are always nature and emotion.

There are fewer narratives in the new album, and it seems to more impressions/imagery based - did this change how the music was conceived and written? Or did it just happen this way?

Guess it just happened that way. I don't really have a big diagram to plan it all out. Just happy whenever we somehow manage to finish a song.

The lyrics have often picked the beautiful out of the mundane - is it a frustrating or gratifying process finding beauty in what many others tend to discard or ignore?

Very gratifying. If I couldn't see the hidden beautiful secrets in parking lots and shopping malls I would have thrown myself in front of a train years ago. I hope I can help other people spot the sparrows singing in the airport or the stray dogs running under the bridge.

[Acclaimed music writer] Greil Marcus has raved about you guys - how did you guys find his pronouncements on your work? Is it gratifying having someone who had written a whole book about one song [Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’], take the time to dissect you guys? (accurately or not?)

We (Brett and I) were at a seminar where Greil read his essay about Harry Smith that mentions us and both of us, literally, began to weep. It's beyond gratifying to feel understood and included. We have spent so long feeling other, outside, ignored.

You guys have done pretty well outside of the States - why do you think European/Australian/NZ audiences have responded to the Southern Gothic lyrics, American imagery and setting, and the American folk traditions that you guys utilise? Did you expect to reach an audience outside of the States?

No idea. I'm so happy though to have found good friends, kindred spirits in far flung places. Sometimes I think people far away understand us better. Maybe it's hard for Americans, in general, to look in the mirror and see clearly. I do want to stress though that I'm not from the South and don't consider myself that kind of writer. There are twisting vines and whispering winds at the edge of parking lots worldwide.

There's such great banter betweeen you guys live (I saw you guys play here last time you were in Wellington) - is this what you guys are like normally?. How do you approach playing live - the thing I remembered was how genuine you guys seemed when you were performing. Do you think this warmth confuses people who expect you to be as dark as your characters?

We always feel like we're among friends when we play before an audience. It seems ridiculous to try and be someone I'm not. I like kittens dressed in baby clothes, but I also like white linen winding sheets and cobwebbed crypts. Sometimes people get confused, but I always tell them that life is confusing. Think of the maniacal giggle of catastrophe or the tears that always come with joy.

What’s next?

More songs about animals.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

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