Nearly every year for the last two decades, I've driven past the same patched-up, crooked house just after the intersection of Highways 78 and 79, close to Santa Ysabel. A few years back, with The Handsome Family's Singing Bones playing through the car speakers, I drove by that same house and began to imagine that husband-and-wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks had made their home beneath those peeling shingles, among the goats and sheep that grazed in the driveway. I imagined them sitting in faded chairs just inside the front door, Brett strumming to “The Bottomless Hole,” Rennie jotting lyrics and absentmindedly humming harmonies.
It's not too far from the truth, really. The Handsome Family write their dark little folk-murder ballads in their small home in Albuquerque, not far from where Brett grew up. Each song carries both the infinite openness of the New Mexico landscape and the claustrophobic menace of Rennie's experiences in a New York house where there was “so much green and so many vines and it was always overcast and overgrown.” She remembers being terrified as a child of the dark shadows in the trees, a fear she believes is cured now that she lives amid vast open space.
Brett was always a musician, and Rennie learned to play the bassoon in her junior high school band, where she was frustrated with the high-maintenance instrument.
“Very few people continue with the bassoon for any period of time,” she says. “You have to make your own reeds and cut and file things yourself. Plus, it's, like, $5,000 to buy one. It was more than I wanted to do, so I gave it up and didn't play music for a long time.”
When the couple moved to an “ugly urban street” in Chicago in the early 1990s, Brett struggled to find fellow musicians. He wanted to start a band but didn't know anyone. He asked Rennie to play bass, but that didn't stick. It was when she started to write lyrics that the two finally found collaboration to be pleasurable.
The band's eighth full-length album, Honey Moon, is less a practice in death and despair than its predecessors and more a declaration of love (it celebrates the couple's 20th anniversary). But Rennie doesn't see much of a difference between the two.
“To me, murder ballads and love songs are the same kind of thing,” she says. “A murder ballad is a love song that acknowledges mortality, that's all. These are just songs that say that the world can be a beautiful place at times.”No one dies, as far as I can tell, on Honey Moon, and no one goes insane, but the album holds on to a dream-like feel. Rennie says that ethereal tone is on purpose.
“I dream in stories, and they're really boring,” she says. “If I had more interesting dreams, I wouldn't have to write so much. The dreams just don't cut it. My writing, for me, feels like it helps me deal with things that I haven't dealt with—subconscious baggage. There are certain times that I feel like I will go insane if I don't sit down and write something. I'm not interested in diary writing.”
The romantic lyrics of Honey Moon are as far from diary entries as can be. But the songs are emotionally connected. “I wouldn't put anything on an album unless it was truly how I felt,” Rennie says. She does like to hang on to a sense of Western mystery. Nothing in the story of these songs is as it seems. If a song is too obvious as it's developing, Rennie will scrap it.
Perhaps, then, the challenge of unraveling the Handsome Family mystery is what makes them so attractive. One of the keys to doing this, it seems, is to understand how the landscape influences their music. Albuquerque, Rennie says, presents a “mix of ancient and brand new.”
“America feels very homogenous to me, but the land [in New Mexico] is so strange and I can't stop looking at the sky,” she says. “Even Home Depot looks strange when the sun is falling over the parking lot. You can see for miles in every direction. There are always purple and gold lights shining down on us.
“Very strange.”The Handsome Family play with Daniel Knox at The Casbah on Monday, July 27. www.myspace.com/thehandsomefamily.