Brett and Rennie Sparks have been making music together as The Handsome Family for 20 years. Credit: Jason Creps
When asked to describe The Handsome Family’s latest album, Rennie Sparks channels Rust Cohle of “True Detective.”
“A strange problem that humans have is that we keep forgetting that we’re animals alive on a planet with other animals,” she says. “We think we’ve left the forest, but we haven’t.”
Sparks, along with Brett, her husband and collaborator of 20 years, contributed the theme song “Far from Any Road” to the HBO series’ opening titles, which merited the series a creative Emmy Award this week.
Although she originally feared “True Detective” would be “a reality show about cops,” Sparks feels a kinship between the series and the song, which she says was inspired by moths feeding on the nighttime blooms of Jimson weed.
“I think they’re both obsessed with mystery,” she says. “They both reference a kind of mysterious world that’s just underneath the radar of normal life.”
As lyricist of The Handsome Family, Sparks explores the esoteric, whether in nature or history, most recently resulting in the surreal Aesop’s fables that make up their 13th album, “Wilderness.”
In a way, Sparks says, an urban audience can better appreciate the magical realism of her lyrics. Now a resident of Albequerque, New Mexico, when she was living in Chicago Sparks would write “fervently” about the forest and its creatures: “I missed them and I kinda had to dream about them because they weren’t around me,” she says. “The more detached we are from nature, the more we need art about nature.”
In their own way, she muses, cities themselves are like a “primordial hunting ground” where we take a “weird pleasure” in hunting for our quarry in big box stores.
Songwriting is how Sparks stays open-minded. “We only can see what we’re willing to believe can exist, so if we can make art that can give us a sense of the bigger possibilities that are available, then we may be able to see more beyond the art,” she says.
Getting another perspective
Just as a great audience can remind Sparks of the emotions she felt while writing a song, covers of The Handsome Family's work are almost like seeing an alternate universe version. Earlier this summer, longtime friend and fellow songwriter Andrew Bird released an album entirely of Handsome Family cover songs — a project they blessed with a “hell yes.”
“He definitely adds a lot that may or may not have been there but that I didn’t see until he reminded me it was there,” she says. “Andrew reminds me of what it felt like when the song was brand new.”
But there are no plans for The Handsome Family to try their hand at Bird’s catalogue. Their involvement in others’ material is strictly with The Parlor Trio, their Albuquerque band that performs only 19th-century parlor songs.
“I feel like it’s important to keep [old folk songs] alive,” Sparks says.