Murder, they wrote

Brett and Rennie Sparks' brand of country music owes more to Raymond Carver than it does to Garth Brooks. Because life's like that. Fiona Sturges meets the Handsome Family
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The Independent Culture

Meet Brett Sparks: a 200-pound, Texas-bred, former born-again Baptist who takes Lithium every day to keep him on an even keel. Then there is Rennie, Brett's wife and co-collaborator, a former acid casualty from New York and writer of the most darkly sublime lyrics country music has ever heard. Together they are the Handsome Family.

The Sparks' strange, antique-sounding music has been gathering a calmly fanatical following for more than half a decade. Theirs is a potent mix of the macabre and the mundane, the complex and the gloriously simple. Played live, it borders on performance poetry, with Rennie's words gathering greater shape and form amid her husband's stripped-down compositions and rich baritone vocals.

Musically, they have always been filed under, lumped alongside fellow Americans Wilco, Lambchop and Smog, but out of these bands, Rennie and Brett are the most explicitly country-sounding.

"There is this misconception that what we do is in opposition to something else," explains Rennie. "Even the moniker 'alternative country' implies that it's a reactionary, knee-jerk thing against Nashville. But for me the music that comes out of Nashville means about as much as Britney Spears. It's irrelevant."

Brett and Rennie are sitting upstairs at Whelans, a small music venue in the middle of Dublin. For reasons known only to themselves, the owners saw fit to put church pews in the dressing-room, a touch that is oddly in keeping with Brett's background. Back in Texas ("land of bigoted, narrow-minded shit-heads") he became interested in music after singing at the local Baptist church.

"It was where I learnt to sing harmony. I played a game with myself where I would sing the bass part first, then the tenor, then the alto, then the soprano, and then start over just for fun. It's a great way to learn how to arrange parts for songs."

Brett's time in Texas was largely unhappy - "I got hassled every day just because I was a skinny little dork that listened to classical and played piano" - but on moving to New York he felt homesick and listened to folk and old country music, from Bob Dylan to Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

"It was like a light came on in my mind. The vocal harmonies and the style of singing is just so soulful. I started listening to Irish and English folk songs and blues from the Thirties and Forties. Once you start digging, it really never ends."

The pair met at university: Rennie was a philosophy undergraduate in New York, while Brett divided his time between a masters degree in pre-14th-century music and playing in a rockabilly band; the band eventually won - "I was not on the tenure track, shall we say," remarks Brett. From there they moved to Chicago, where Rennie worked as a secretary, furtively writing short stories while pretending to type letters. Brett stayed at home playing guitar and writing songs.

"We always kept our jobs separate," remembers Brett. "We had been married six years before we started collaborating. It just never occurred to us. I'd been in a band ever since the beginning of college, but when then we got to Chicago I couldn't find anyone whom I wanted to work with."

Brett set about teaching Rennie to play bass in the evenings. He also bought a drumkit and taught his friend Mark Werner to play it. "I had always been in bands with friends rather than musicians, so it didn't seem a weird thing to do. We did sound horrible, though."

"We were just doing it for giggles, but then people just kept on booking us," recalls Rennie. "They either thought we were funny or they liked the songs. So I guess then we started to take things a little more seriously."

Rennie was still sending short stories to magazines and publishers, but to little avail. Would-be editors expressed admiration for her prose style though they were ritually exasperated with her dark subject matter. "They always wanted happy endings," she complains.

Bit by bit, Rennie took over lyric duties in the band. "By this point I was working as a copywriter for a catalogue so I was being forced to take lots of information about pantyhose and cram it into three sentences. Writing lyrics seemed very similar, painting detailed pictures in as few words as possible." In fact, she found it liberating. The only creative constraints were that the sentences shouldn't be too long and they had to rhyme.

Rennie's lyrics prompted the Handsome Family's leap from merely good to extraordinary - by the time their second LP, Milk & Scissors, was released, she was being compared with such hallowed writers as Raymond Carver and Robert Frost.

It's not hard to see why. Rennie marries grand themes - murder, violence, suicide - with the minutiae of life. Rather than look to records for inspiration, she reads anything from reference books and novels to religious hymns and poetry. Prior to writing "Up the Falling Rock", a song from their latest album, In the Air, she says she had been reading a chapter about ants in a natural history book. The song begins with a man shooting his brother in the back, but, sure enough, there are black ants crawling aimlessly all over the dead brother's hands.

Rennie does have a romantic streak but it is tempered by a dark and mischievous sense of humour. In "A Beautiful Thing", a child is so enraptured by fireflies that he puts them in a jar so he can take them home and look at them in bed at night. But every morning he finds they are all dead. In the same song, a couple's date to the cinema is destroyed by the man drinking a bottle of gin and then throwing up on the way home. With a lyrical shrug of the shoulders, Rennie determines: "But, darling, don't you know it's only human to want to kill a beautiful thing."

Such a sentiment rings particularly true in the case of Rennie and Brett. Disaster threatened to destroy their creative partnership in 1995, when, after a difficult tour with Wilco during which their drummer left, Brett's already troubled mental state reached its nadir. He was eventually taken to Chicago state mental hospital.

"It was a case of a nuthouse and Lithium or jail," he deadpans. "When you are busy writing your own bible, trying to wire your car so that the stereo will operate the engine and running around town in your underpants, you know deep down something's seriously wrong."

As her husband became increasingly divorced from reality, Rennie stood by, horrified yet fascinated. "I would go visit him and watch these people who were living in a completely alternative world. I wanted to say to them 'C'mon, write some poetry. Let us know what you're doing in there.' "

Brett, though, gets incensed at the romantic notions that surround artists who suffer breakdowns: "All this tortured artist stuff is bullshit. You don't really get a lot of creative work done when you're in that condition. The scary thing was not knowing if I would be able to work again at all."

Happily, the Handsomes came out on top and are now building on the excitement garnered from Milk & Scissors. Despite the gallows humour, there is an atmosphere of contentment to In the Air, and a confidence lurks amid the chaos that characterises their shows. You could do worse than go check them out.