Brother Randy only went and interviewed Rennie Sparks from The Handsome Family. Oh yes he did.
Press release descriptions tend to be simultaneously florid and content-free, but I’ll make an exception for the press sheet accompanying the new Handsome Family album, which describes “a world where David Attenborough meets David Lynch in a Honky-Tonk bar at midnight”. That does a fair job of summoning up the weird and fecund mood of Wilderness, the husband and wife duo’s ninth album, on which the magical realism of previous albums (full of lonely magnets and poodles who want to be cowboys and ghosts trapped in airports) goes a stage further by adding a visual element – a book, also called Wilderness, which features Rennie Sparks’ gorgeous artwork alongside essays, writings and ephemera.
Rennie has long had a parallel ‘career’ as an artist and writer (check their website to see more) and this seems a logical step. To call Rennie’s work ‘outsider art’ might not do it justice, but there is something luminous and strange, perhaps a little mid-period Louis Wain, about how she captures the essence of animals. I asked how the book related to the album.
“Wilderness, the book, contains some of the same themes as Wilderness the CD, but discusses them in much greater detail and also expands into other chapters about other wild creatures. Whenever I am writing the lyrics for a record there is always so much information swirling around in my head that never gets used for songs, so I decided to put them all down separately. There are inklings in the book about how a song lyric could have gone in a different direction, but also whole chapters on subjects that never made it into song like Jellyfish, Wolves, Prairie Dogs.”
When I suggest that many of the songs seemed to be about how the natural world existed before us and will exist after us and is indifferent to our problems, Rennie was quick to turn this on its head, insisting instead it’s “perhaps the indifference of humans to the problems of nature! We continually insist that willows are weeping for us when they are more likely suffering from a fungus.”
If you hadn’t picked up on it yet, Rennie Sparks is a very funny lady, with a dark, gothic imagination and a writing style that’s been described as “(William) Burroughs meets (Carson) McCullers”. I wondered if Edward Gorey’s faux-Victorian sense of the macabre was an influence. “Edward Gorey is not an influence, but I sure would have liked to have had tea with him. My major influences are just the little facts that I read about the natural world. Everything around us is far more mysterious than we can fathom. Thankfully.”
One of the most intriguing songs on the album, Wildebeest, is about Stephen Foster, the ‘father of American music’. A quick wiki reveals he wrote a host of American standards like Camptown Races and My Old Kentucky Home before dying in penury in New York in 1864. I asked Rennie what drew her to him, and why ‘wildebeest’.
“He was the most wildebeest-like of musicians that I know of. Totally unable to enjoy how far and wide his songs spread yet unable to stop writing them, until he was felled by that crocodile in the Bowery flop-house. Everything in the song is true.” (Since the Wikipedia entry makes no mention of the crocodile we’ll have to take Rennie’s word for that bit).
Handsome Family albums aren’t known for their sonic innovation, thankfully, more for slow incremental shifts in emphasis, with simple, country-folk arrangements and Brett’s astonishing, sonorous voice at the centre. And while this remains true for Wilderness, there are some small changes, with a fuller sound in places, like the almost Crazy Horse feel to Frogs, the work of guitarist David Gutierrez. Some of the drum tracks were recorded at Jeff Tweedy’s loft studio in Chicago, and Rennie is full of praise for the Wilco frontman, explaining that the loft is “… another way in which Jeff Tweedy is constantly trying to help his fellow musicians. He’s a big-hearted, generous person with time and energy and has encouraged us at many steps in our career.” As for her husband’s voice, which can travel from a deep, deep rumble to a soaring falsetto, often in the same song, it seems nobody has measured its range. “I know he can sing much higher and much lower than me. He likes to make the world rumble.”
I finished by asking Rennie how The Handsome Family are perceived in the UK compared with the US. “I often find that people in the UK seem to see us as very American while your average American thinks we’re pretty strange. Alas, alack such is life.”
(Narc Magazine / KYEO 2013)