The Handsome Family
Blood, Beauty and Aliens
“I wanted to make a record that was entirely about UFO abductions”, says Rennie Sparks, the female half of married doomsday couple the Handsome Family. “But I never get my wish. Nothing ever goes according to plan.”
Following five years in relative obscurity, Chicago duo the Handsome Family earned their big breakthrough with 2001’s Twilight, an album that’s already regarded as something of a classic among the notoriously overcritical alt-country crowd. Rennie and Brett Sparks thrilled fans and critics alike with their combination of bizarre storytelling and updated folk rock, and the duo’s stylish gothic image didn’t hurt either. Now that their new album, Singing Bones, is released, one would think the pair felt the pressure to follow up on the previous album’s success. But the Handsome Family insist they do things in their own rhythm.
“I was mostly focused on writing all those songs about alien abduction”, Rennie claims. “It’s nice if people end up liking your music, but it isn’t part of the process of writing songs.”
Genre conventions are also disregarded. The Handsome Family certainly admits their music’s debt to early American folk music, but Rennie isn’t too comfortable being identified with the somewhat watered-out alt-country scene.
“We don’t think about tags too much”, she says. “We don’t listen to much alt-country ourselves, so we wouldn’t really be experts on what that’s supposed to sound like. I actually don’t listen to music at all. For fun I read books. The preoccupation that comes with writing songs is to write something beautiful and mysterious.”
“I hate for anything to feel one-dimensional,” Rennie continues. “I think songs that are just happy or just sad are pretty boring and false. Nothing in life feels that way, so I always try to make things feel happy and sad. Bittersweet. Can’t understand happiness if you’ve never been sad.”
That same duality is reflected in the band’s American Gothic image. Photos of the couple accentuate the doomsday aspects of the music, while also demonstrating the band’s twisted sense of humor.
“I hate taking photos”, Rennie states. “I always blink. But, I like photos that feel a little mysterious. I certainly like the gothic in literature for its mix of horror and mystery and beauty. I love stylish horror movies because they manage to use blood and death to remind us of beauty and grace.”
And with the Handsome Family’s new album Singing Bones just out, Rennie is already pondering her next move. Already a published author, with a collection of short stories under her belt, she’s not hanging up her pen just yet.
“I’m working on a novel about a haunted Wal-Mart, and also a chapter of a book about American Ballads, in which I’m writing about the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly.’ I believe that these old folk songs are similar to the vision quest of Native Americans. They can make dead hearts awaken.”
The Handsome Family: http://www.handsomefamily.com/