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The Handsome Family: A marriage made in gothic

Alt-country couple The Handsome Family are making waves thanks to a certain hit HBO drama
  • @FionaSturges

It’s taken a while for The Handsome Family, the Albuquerque couple once proclaimed “the Beatles of the folk world” by revered US rock critic Greil Marcus, to get the world’s attention. 

“21 years if we’re counting,” grins Rennie Sparks, one half of the band and writer of some of the mostly darkly sublime lyrics country music has ever known. “It’s easy to tell yourself ‘Well, maybe our songs can’t be understood by a lot of people’. But it turns out they just needed to hear [them].” 

The game-changer came late last year when HBO decided to use “Far From Any Road”, a song about a psychedelic plant that blooms at night, as the theme tune for True Detective, their much-acclaimed murder-mystery drama, whose first series, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, recently ended.

Many assumed that this 11-year old song had been commissioned specially, so perfectly did its mood chime with the series’ unsettling themes of murder, mental disorders and Gothic weirdness.

“The show references a lot of things that you rarely see referenced in mainstream TV like [HP] Lovecraft, pre-historical cave paintings and musings on time and quantum physics,” reflects Brett Sparks, Rennie’s husband and collaborator. “I think maybe we’re part of that too, this referencing of things that have always been under the radar.”

The couple were sceptical when HBO first got in touch. “We were all ‘Yeah right, we’ve heard that before,” recalls Rennie. “We’ve had our hearts broken with offers in the past that have come to nothing so we’ve learned to be wary.”

“But then we heard back and it was for real,” continues Brett. “And now we’re been getting emails from people in Iran and Kyrgyzstan who have just discovered our music. Not only that but they’re buying it, which in this day and age is a really meaningful gesture. I mean, who the hell buys music now?”

Since the first episode aired in January, sales of Singing Bones, the 2003 album on which the song first appeared, have skyrocketed, while “Far From Any Road” has had more than two million views on YouTube. Suddenly the song is charting in Hungary, Israel, Poland, Spain and Slovenia and it has been in the Top 20 of the UK Indie Charts for over a month. For their upcoming tour, the couple have had to switch to bigger venues to meet the demand.

Such adulation had never seemed likely for the Sparkses, who met in the late Eighties at university in New York – she was studying philosophy and writing stories while he divided his time between a masters in pre-14th century classical music and playing in a rockabilly band. From New York, the pair moved to Chicago where Rennie got a series of secretarial jobs and Brett stayed at home immersing himself in the old-time sounds of his youth including The Carter Family, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers.

Eventually, they decided to pool their resources and form a band. “There’s this strange notion that if you love somebody you shouldn’t work with them for the sake of your relationship but it works for us,” explains Rennie. “What always intrigues me is that we end up with a finished product that’s neither his nor mine completely. The process is always a bit mysterious, even to us.”

Over two decades the pair have maintained a modest following in thrall to their strange ditties about sad milkmen, poodles who think they’re cowboys and supermarkets where pine forests spring up between the aisles. Theirs is a potent mix of the macabre and mundane, with Rennie’s surreal couplets and understated vocals gathering greater shape and potency amid her husband’s stripped-down compositions and mournful baritone.

If their music doesn’t fit with the conventional notions of country music - you won’t see any 10-gallon hats at a Handsomes show – neither do Brett and Rennie. She is a black-clad acid casualty who collects cat’s whiskers in jars; he is a thick-set ex- born-again Baptist who, in the throes of a mental breakdown, once tried to re-write the Bible, and now takes lithium to keep the demons at bay.

At the heart of their sound is Rennie’s unique storytelling style, which pays elegant homage to the narrative traditions of folk music. When they first met she was writing a novel and 20 years later “I’m still working on it,” she says “but the songs seem easier for me. Besides, I’ve never been a fast writer.”

Their latest LP, Wilderness, released last year, is about animals and how their existence intertwines with human experience, and comes with a book of essays written and illustrated by Rennie. This sense of wonder at the natural world and its mysteries is a recurring motif for a couple who, 10 years ago, found themselves so gripped by New Mexico’s otherworldliness that they upped sticks and moved there.

“I’ve been bitten by fire ants and I share my house with spiders as big as my shoes,” says Rennie contentedly. “Every day the sky does things that makes no sense to me. No matter what I’m doing I’m always aware of being surrounded by this vastness and of living on this land that was once an ocean. On the mountains you can see seashell fossils everywhere. I feel like I’m living in a dream world.”

Neither of them anticipates their lives being turned upside down by this sudden flush of success. “We’ve been around long enough not to go nuts,” Rennie says. “And we’ve learned the hard way how to protect our fragile psyches. So for our upcoming tour we’re going to splurge and hire a driver – because the novelty of driving four hours to a show, unloading your equipment and then doing the same straight afterwards wears off after a while.”

“And it’s nice to know that when you sit down to order a set of strings you can order a dozen instead of six,” smiles Brett. “A dozen?” exclaims Rennie.  “Hey, that’s pretty extravagant for us. If we can afford a dozen strings, we must be going places.”

The Handsome Family begin their UK tour at the Deaf Institute in Manchester on 9 May. ‘Wilderness’ is out now on Loose Music (www.handsomefamily.com)