The Handsome Family … On woodpeckers, crows, darkness, philosophy and Leonard Cohen
The Handsome Family talk to Alan J Taylor in steel town (Sheffield, UK.)
After over twenty years together, husband and wife duo, Brett and Rennie Sparks are still bouncing off each other like a pin ball game. I caught up with ‘The Handsome Family’ on a dark rainy night in Sheffield, just prior to their gig at the Greystones.
Brett was relaxing in a leather chair and Rennie was attending to her make up…Dark hair framing her pale face as she applied deep red lipstick.
I asked about the new album Wilderness which was issued via Loose Music and Carrot Top Records (their own back garden label)… The CD is a collection of tunes about animal, fish and insects and comes with art work and essays (by Rennie) as a companion to the music. She is quick to explain, “The animals are just a jumping off point … there are lots of facts and figures about animals, but there’s also my dreams and visions of what they mean to me. More than anything … the songs are about human behaviour”
I enquired specifically about the song Woodpecker, a beautiful tune about Mary Sweeney the infamous window smasher. Brett took up the story in relaxed style, “Oh… Mary Sweeney she was this crazy woman, who was arrested thousands of times for trying to smash the windows in lots of little towns all over Wisconsin. No one really knew why… and she couldn’t really explain it herself. Obviously you could say it was because she feared her own reflection in the windows, but no one really ever got to the bottom of it…” He said, pausing… “The idea came from ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ … a book by Michael Lesy, which chronicled the diphtheria epidemic that happened up in that area … It emphasised the harsh aspects of Midwestern rural life under the pressures of crime, disease, mental illness. It seems during that period, everyone went ‘ape-shit’ and she was one of the characters in this book and she just went around smashing windows… They put her into an ice cold bath, then into a straight jacket, but Rennie had her morphing into a Woodpecker and escaping into the trees… it’s a great song.”
I wondered whether Folklore was something they regularly incorporated into their songs? “Yeah,” said Brett, … “we tend to incorporate whatever comes into our field of vision, and I guess we like to tell stories and that can be folk-lore or our own stories. Rennie reads a lots and tends to absorb a lot …and it seems that anything can become a song”
Rennie interjected, as if by way of explanation, “I guess from a literary perspective I have a particular kinship to hysterical realism … or magical realism, such as the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Franz Kafka”
I was interested in their discussion of darkness and death, which featured in the film, Searching For The Wrong Eyed Jesus (Jim White)… and wondered why darkness seems to be a key feature of their songs?
“Well …” said Rennie, it’s just music for grown ups .. Most music these days is manufactured for children, and we produce something that adults can connect with”
Brett picks up the theme, “Songwriters of the past, from Robert Johnson, Hank Williams to Leonard Cohen … Its like man I’m lonely, I wanna die, if I ain’t dead already” he said with a laugh.
Rennie interjected again, totally deadpan … “Children don’t believe they’re gonna die, but adults do. Once you realise you are going to die … it seems pointless to listen to music that doesn’t acknowledge that. You tend to crave art that deals with the fact that we are mortal… and tries to find beauty in the World, despite that. Once you have seen the shadows…there’s no comfort in songs that are just seeing the light.” With that a thin smile crossed her lips briefly.
Somehow we moved from animals, onto the subject of Crows! Rennie had found her niche now and seemed particularly well informed. “Oh, I’m a big fan…” she said, “they are clever birds they are said by scientists to have a working language of at least seventy words (Brett snorted with laughter at this point, and I was struggling to keep a straight face) … No its TRUE I’m not making this up … they have regional dialects.. (more laughter) … No I’m not kidding crows in the northern part if America have a different dialect/ accent than those in the south … Some researchers did some experiments to show that crows can recognise human faces (even more laughter). If you don’t believe me guys… go check it out on the internet!! (we did and she was right) I think we have a problem with crows because they eat dead flesh and corpses… and I guess we find that uncomfortable.”
Brett had finally regained his composure … “Yeah” he said with a wry smile, “If you look at old folk music Elizabethan music for example … there’s a lot of songs about birds and how they feature in the folk-lore.”
Rennie was quick to interject, the bit clearly between her teeth, “They’re not real birds I don’t think … they are our dream birds our imaginary birds. The birds are used as a springboard for the songs. What I’m saying is that we love birds because of what we imagine and what we see and the fantasies that we place upon them … They can fly, they can sing … Perhaps we imagine ourselves as say a sparrow… But my guess is that it actually really sucks to be a Sparrow … So there’s the dream sparrow and the real sparrow the dream crow and the real crow… I like to write about both.”
I asked Brett about his interest in ancient music?
“I started music when I was real young… Growing up in Texas as a young man, I started playing piano when I was real young and took up an interest in classical music. I studied music, took a Masters of music history and just listened to whatever came in front of me at the time. The oldest recorded songs like ‘Summer is Icumen in’ … They were used like magic you know… to like actually BRING the summer in! It is a powerful thing, to think that music can actually affect the seasons … or that people thought that it could”
He went on, “One of the biggest things that influenced us perhaps was the Harry Smith Folk Music Anthology, which basically has like all those old ballads that can be traced back to England and Scotland, so that was a really big influence … Those real old ballads like Barbara Allen that then became standard in bluegrass music and the subsequent folk revival.”
Rennie was laughing at their moment of discovery, “Each generation discovers these songs … for the ‘first time’.” “Yeah” Brett interjects … “we thought we were really special, all these old songs that no one had ever heard of. Isn’t it amazing that a song like Barbara Allen or House Carpenter can still affect every generation with such an emotional wallop…it’s magic! It’s very powerful music, no one even knows who wrote these songs … thousands of performances and 100’s of generations have moulded them over the years as they have been passed down … it’s just amazing!”
Brett is half laughing again. “We sell out here… People’s attention spans seem better here, we sell more records and people seem to get it, you know the humorous side. It’s nice for us here. The US can be rough … They can be really stupid sometimes in the US … I think basically that we’re FUCKED!” He proclaimed with gusto.
Rennie in typical style, picks up his theme… The dynamic, becoming more and more like pinball. “Humour? … Sometimes in the States I get asked ‘was that song happy or sad?’… If I say both, they get really angry with me cos they can’t handle that!” She went on, “Here people seem to be much more comfortable with the middle ground, the greyness.”
It’s back to Brett who is on a roll now…”English humour can be much darker … people kind of get the fact that it is ironic and we are taking the Mickey out of ourselves. They get the fact that the World can be a really dark place … But, like you know, lets have a laugh, lets see the irony man. You know I’m not afraid of heights … I’m just afraid of falling. We (in the States) are too religious too.. Our music has very little to do with religion… we’re not Christian!”
Rennie has a bee in her bonnet now … “But with regard to the the Searching For The Wrong Eyed Jesus thing… I kept telling them: Two things, I’m not Christian and I’m not from the South … and were definitely NOT ‘Southern Gothic’ … PLEASE let me have my own damn darkness” she says, finally laughing herself, relieved to have got that off her chest.
Finally I ask if miserable is the usual adult state ….?
Rennie is quick on the draw, “ No, no, I don’t think so at all …I like to illuminate the light in songs, you need to have the darkness to see the light”
Brett is straight on this thread and seems keen to philosophise a little … “Life is essentially a slow, beautiful downward spiral. It’s filled with funny bits and beautiful bits and love and pain music and art… but it is a downward spiral nonetheless and anyone who refuses to accept that is just a fool, they’re deluding themselves…” (Laughs.)
Rennie agrees, “Yes, I think the first step to attaining meaning in your life is understanding that fact”
Brett continues, “I actually think that people like Leonard Cohen got close to addressing this whole issue… They say everything is temporal… life is suffering, that is the first of the Buddhist noble truths. Rennie picks up …”So then, you go from there and you can find wonderful meaningful truths.”
Brett ponders briefly, before delivering his final shot… “Leonard Cohen is one funny fucker … and he’s fucked his way around the World … He’s gotta know something we don’t!” At this, Rennie simply smiles serenely and makes a final pre show check on her makeup, whilst Brett was still chuckling. It’s a full house and the waiting crowd are about to experience another night of dark yet handsome musical humour. Alan J Taylor