The Handsome Family: Mr and Mrs Darkness

He played old-time music. She wrote stories too weird to publish. Together they became the Handsome Family, singers of black country tales

In a cramped dressing room in the bowels of Brighton Dome the husband-and-wife duo the Handsome Family, aka Brett and Rennie Sparks, are reflecting on why they abandoned their Chicago home three years ago for the dustier climes of Albuquerque, New Mexico. For Brett, a thick set, former born-again Baptist who once tried to write his own bible, it was to be nearer his family in Texas and "to escape the insanity of the city. You go on the road and you come back, and you're twice as crazy as you were on tour. Albuquerque is a good place to decompress."

For Rennie, a black-clad acid casualty and writer of arguably the most darkly sublime lyrics in country music, it was more a case of wanting to fit in.

"New Mexico's full of UFO crackpots, so I'm in good company," she says. "I can have long conversations with people about Bigfoot and they don't think I'm weird at all. There are a lot of hippies there but there's also a lot of nefarious military stuff going on which makes it kind of interesting. Every once in a while you get some really strange planes flying overhead that just don't look right."

Conversation with Brett and Rennie can take some bizarre twists and turns. Over the course of an hour, we cover such broad subjects as spiritualism, the Salem witch trials, the miracle of microwave ovens and the " invisible ethers that are all around that we can never perceive but only see by their effect on us". Their live show in the evening is no different, with Rennie talking at length in between songs about how US Wal-Marts have got so big that pine forests have sprung up between the aisles, her husband's fear of daylight, and the deer she imagines sitting in the audience.

Next week the Handsome Family release their seventh album, Last Days of Wonder. As with its predecessors, death and darkness pervade nearly every song. Human skulls lie in limestone caves, eccentric inventors die alone in hotel rooms, young lovers court silently in graveyards. Woodland creatures, an enduring Handsome Family motif, also make frequent appearances, often at the end of a huntsman's rifle. "Hunter Green" is a chilling number in which the protagonist shoots into the woods at a white deer and ends up killing his lover instead. The tale continues when the "next night I rowed upon the waves to catch a leaping fish/But on the hook my lover's heart I pulled from the briny depths".

At the heart of the Handsome Family is Rennie's storytelling that pays elegant homage to the narrative traditions of folk music. Certainly, such vivid writing is a lost art in a pop scene dominated by grunting hip-hop stars and scantily clad R&B divas.

"Most people's agenda in their lyrics is to say: 'I'm sexy, now pay attention.' I guess you can say that without having a narrative going on," she reflects. Instead, Rennie marries macabre themes such as murder and suicide with the everyday minutiae of life. Played live, it borders on performance poetry, with Rennie's words gathering greater shape amid her husband's stripped-down compositions and soulful baritone vocals.

Rather than look to records for inspiration, Rennie takes her ideas from reference books, novels and, more recently, barmy late-night radio shows in which people air conspiracy theories and play recordings of the ghosts living in their basements.

"Tesla's Hotel Room", a song on the new album about the Croatian inventor and pioneer of modern electrical engineering Nikola Tesla, who died alone and destitute, touches on one such conspiracy theory about his plans to build a death ray capable of shattering the planet.

"There's this idea that now, in Alaska, the government is using his plans to build this thing called the Harp Project, which is this vibratory force that can destroy things at long distances, and is making the whales beach themselves," says Rennie. "The whales are definitely beaching themselves, though you imagine that that's more to do with water levels. But I love this kind of stuff."

Brett and Rennie met when they were at university in New York - Rennie was studying philosophy, while Brett divided his time between a masters degree in pre-14th-century classical music and playing in a band. From there the pair moved to Chicago where Rennie got a series of secretarial jobs and Brett stayed at home writing songs and playing guitar.

After years of playing rockabilly, Brett had returned to the music of his youth - folk and old-time country - and had begun listening to the Carter Family, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. "Some of the greatest songwriters have used country music as a framework for their songs - the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young," he says. "There's an essential reason for that. It's very primordial. When I finally started listening to it again, it was like a homecoming. It really hit me over the head."

Meanwhile, Rennie was sending off short stories and poems to publishers, though her work was deemed too dark for publication. Eventually, Brett suggested she condense her stories into songs. By this time, Rennie was working as a copywriter for a lingerie catalogue and had mastered the art of writing economically.

"I had to write these one-sentence pitches and sell a product in this little tiny space. I would say stuff like: 'Lace, the world's most romantic fabric, now in easy-care polyester!' The more I did it, the easier it got and it really helped me to write concisely. I think I learned more doing that than anything."

Rennie's lyrics secured the Handsome Family's leap from the merely good to the extraordinary. And, little by little, they've been catching on. In 2003, the US rock critic Griel Marcus wrote an essay praising "words that in their everyday surrealism have no parallel in contemporary writing" and pronounced them "the Beatles of the folk world". That same year Ringo Starr declared himself a fan and the former Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews covered their ode to suicide "Weightless Again" on her solo album Cockahoop. More recently they came to the attention of television viewers when they appeared in the BBC Arena film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

While they are hardly about to storm the charts - they are first to acknowledge their music is too unfashionable and their lyrics too rarefied for mainstream consumption - they are content. After 15 years, they no longer have to take jobs in between tours. Theirs is a simple operation and they have no use for roadies or managers. "There isn't all that much to manage," says Rennie. "We're not children, we can get ourselves out of bed in the morning, manage our finances and work out what needs to be done. Trust me, it's not that hard."

"It's not good to be famous," adds Brett. "It's a very silly pursuit. You get less time to yourself and less time to work on the music. Everyone wants to go to the next level but I say: 'Screw the next level.' It would be nice to have a driver, and maybe even some new instruments, but if it doesn't happen, I can live with it."

'Last Days of Wonder' out on Monday on Loose. The Handsome Family tour to 3 June (

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices