The Handsome Family’s new record (released Sept, 2023) began with a scream in the night. “It was a bleak winter during the middle of the pandemic,” says Brett Sparks. “One night around 4 a.m. Rennie started screaming in her sleep. She screamed, ‘Come into the circle Joseph! There’s no moon tonight.’ Scary as it was, I thought, man, that’s a good chorus!”
The Handsome Family (songwriting and marriage partners Brett and Rennie Sparks) have been defining the dark end of americana for over 30 years. Brett writes the music and Rennie writes the words. Their work has been covered by many artists including Jeff Tweedy, Andrew Bird and most-recently Phoebe Bridgers. Their song “Far From Any Road” was the opening theme for HBO’s True Detective season one and still receives thousands of Shazams every week from all over the world.
Handsome Family songs take place under overpasses and inside airports. Historical figures like George A. Custer and Nikola Tesla appear alongside a flying milkman and the whisper of an air conditioner against a plastic tree.
Their eleventh studio album, Hollow (out Sep. 8, 2023) delves into the natural world at the edges of the man-made. It is a record lush with leaves and shadows and echoing with occult mystery.
It begins with the dream-inspired “Joseph”— full of Mott the Hoople swagger and electric guitar so overdriven it sounds like an organ run through a vacuum cleaner. Next is the haunting “Two Black Shoes” which filters a Portishead groove through the highway motels, homeless encampments and McMansions of post-pandemic America.
“I wanted to get an electronic feel with organic drums, “says Brett, “So I chopped up our drummer’s takes into little bits, quantized the beats, and ran those through an Echoplex. I really like that hybrid of real and fake.”
“The King of Everything,” brings Brett’s harpsichord background into the mix plus Rennie’s time on the back porch taking muscle-relaxants and watching the white-winged doves.
“Squirrels in the basement Raccoons in the walls Centipedes with stingers,” Brett sings on the mischievous and mysterious “Skunks.” The spooky Beethoven-inspired piano and Brett’s eerie whooping create a jingle for an increasingly desperate business. “Call us anytime at night,” Brett sings. “Call us day or night.”
“The Oldest Water” is the real story of a primordial sea found deep in a Canadian mine. Dave “Guts” Gutierrez’s trilling mandolin gives the song an old-timey parlor elegance and the rushing feel of flowing water.
“Mothballs” is a simple hymn for voice and piano. “A buddhist friend of Aleister Crowley’s always wore this old purple coat,” says Rennie, “and moths were continually flying from its pockets. The man refused to harm even the tiniest wool moth and I think that’s something we should all aspire to.”
The softly-strummed “Shady Lake” is based on a real fishing hole hidden in the cottonwoods outside of Albuquerque where soft waves lap the reedy shores as turtles dive from wet rocks into the murky glory.
“To The Oaks,” sings of the shady groves of ancient mystery cults while Alex McMahon’s overdriven guitars conjure up more modern tones. Brett sings, “Phantoms fly the forest Twist up dripping ferns Spirits in the shadows In root and dirt and bone.”
The album closes with “Good Night,” a lullaby that at once soothes and threatens. Over a lazy honky tonk Brett sings, “Time for Santa to sharpen his claws Time for skin walkers Time for the saw…” This song has instantly become the band’s favorite live-show closer.
Asked to describe their music Brett says, “Western gothic.” It is music inspired by the abandoned strip malls of desert America where cracked pavement shimmers with heat and thorny weeds slowly reclaim the land.
Handsome Family songs may be dark, but there’s always laughter on stage. Rennie sings as well as plays banjo and bass. She often introduces songs with seemingly unrelated stories. Brett, with his deep baritone and stentorian presence, is the undeniable center of stage. The two are often joined by multi-instrumentalists Alex McMahon and Jason Toth as well as fans, new and old, some returning again and again to see them live over the decades.
“My proudest musical moments,” says Brett. “Are the check Richard Starkey wrote our label to buy all our cds and the words, “The Handsome Family” written in David Bowie’s last notebook.
“We’re astonished to be breathing,” Rennie says about the band’s longevity, “Let alone still be inspired to write songs and sing together. There’s been a lot of smashed coffee cups in our house over the years, but we’re still unable to resist the urge to make music.”