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Our guests this week on Art of the Song are Brett and Rennie Sparks, together known as The Handsome Family. The husband and wife duo experienced unexpected worldwide fame when their song “Far From Any Road” was picked as the Season 1 theme song for the HBO hit show “True Detective”. Their songs have been covered by artists including Jeff Tweedy, Amanda Palmer, and Andrew Bird, who released an entire record of Handsome Family covers. With their unique mix of country instrumentation and surreal lyricism, their music explores the unseen stories, people, and places of the American west. We spoke with Rennie and Brett in our Albuquerque studios.
Viv: We are here in the Albuquerque studios and really pleased to be talking with the Handsome Family. Once again. Brett and Rennie Sparks, welcome back to Art of the Song.
Brett: Thank you. Pleased to be here.
Viv: So life has been good? You’ve been traveling? You’ve been cutting a new record?
Brett: Yeah, we traveled a lot after the True Detective thing. Might as well get it out in the open.
Viv: I was going to say: let’s just rock right to True Detective. Yes, folks, here on Art of the Song.
Brett: There’s a lot of touring after that.
Rennie: A lot of people in strange countries taking out cellphones just to film us playing that song and then leaving.
Brett: Yeah. ‘That’s ok, you can go now.’
Rennie: ‘Look what I saw!’
Brett: It took a long time to get back home and get back into the studio and get back into writing. I wouldn’t say it was ‘disruptive’…
Rennie: Don’t try to paint this as a tragedy, cause it’s not.
Brett: No it definitely did really preoccupy us for a long time.
Rennie: There isn’t a violin small enough to talk about this.
Brett: I mean something like that happens only once or twice in your career so you have to kind of work it.
Rennie: It’s a wonderful opportunity.
Brett: But it’s actually nice to get back to a place that’s kind of normal, like working in a studio again and thinking more deliberately about what you’re doing as a musician and making decisions for yourself instead of kind of being blown around by this ‘temporary celebrity’ should we say.
Viv: It’s like an instant phenomenon. You have a song placed on a show, the theme song that rocketed to the top.
Rennie: It’s really luck though. There’s tons of great TV shows that have great themes that nobody pays any attention to.
John: How did it happen?
Brett: We got an email. I think we deleted the first email. We get a thousand emails like that.
Rennie: The first email said ‘We’re thinking about using it 30 seconds in an interrogation room scene and P.S. we might use it for the theme song. And we were like ‘Oh, they’ll never use it for that.”
Brett: So then we get another email and it was kind of like, “Oh, ok. Well I guess this is going to happen.”
Rennie: But of course we said ‘Yes’ because we say yes to anything. We’re that desperate. It was amazing.
Brett: Well not anything.
Rennie: You’d be surprised what I say yes to. It was an amazing thing when it came on and it was actually a really good fit because I wasn’t expected that at all. It was such a good fit that people were looking at the lyrics and connecting them to plot points in the story even though the song had been written in a completely different place and time than the series.
Brett: Fifteen years before anybody ever thought about the series.
Viv: The universality of music. Well done you.
Rennie: Well, it was a really good pick on their part because it wasn’t an obvious pick. An obvious pick would have been some Bluesy-Cajun song so they really went out of their way to find something that was an interesting connection.
Viv: Wow. Ok, so this is one of the questions that I have across the board: how has that affected your creative process?
Brett: I’d say we both have different answers. You go first.
Rennie: Mine’s the happy answer. No. I think it was really gratifying. We found a lot of new fans and a lot of people really responded to the lyrics and the music and I think we just found our people in a way. People that we couldn’t find before because I think if you just describe us as maybe a country band or a folk band, maybe not always the right people get interested in us. Whereas people who are interested in occult literature and science fiction and H.P. Lovecraft don’t necessarily like country music. To find people that were interested in us, the T.V. show was really good at that. I felt like maybe for the first twenty years of our career I’d been explaining myself to people. Why would you write a country song about parking lots? Then I have to backtrack and talk about why parking lots are important: because they’re the wilderness of our day. And things like that. But I found some new people that I didn’t have to explain my lyrics to and it was really great and it really encouraged me so I felt newly confident about writing this new record. And now, for the dark side. Brett?
Brett: No, those are good answers. I feel the same way. Following it up is obviously difficult just because of your own expectations.
Rennie: Sure. Every new song is hard to write.
Brett: Now I’ve got 40,000 Facebook likes where I used to have 3,000 or something. All these people that are like, “Oh I found your music through True Detective.” You know that a lot of those people are going to fall away. Definitely. Maybe half of them. Or maybe a third of them will stick around for the ride, you know what I’m saying?
Rennie: That’s the spirit. Power of positive thinking.
Brett: But I wanted to make a record that would be accessible and catchy enough to try to grab hold of those people that were kind of sticking their toes in the water. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to totally dumb it down into something that I was embarrassed about. So, to me, following up the True Detective thing was harder than the actual experience of it. The experience of it was great. And the greatest thing was you almost, you were hinting around, we’ve always felt kind of marginalized like, “Oh the Gomez and Morticia of country music, whatever.”
Rennie: “Yeah, they’re weirdos doing their weird thing.”
Brett: But to them, we realized that “Sheesh, this is like #1 on iTunes! This is the #1 viral thing on Spotify.” People are not perceiving this as weird. It was a ‘mainstream’ hit if you can use that word. That was kind of like, “Ok, we’re not actually that weird after all.”
Rennie: I can call my mother up and say, “See! I’m not as weird as you said I was!”
John: Well it sort of legitimized your career.
Brett: Or maybe the world needs a little more weirdness or something.
Rennie: I think it’s just context is everything and so it is really hard to create that moment where people can understand what you do and so it was a great gift to have that. It’s nice to stop explaining myself to people I think. So, when you have people that just like dark music that tells dark stories then I don’t have to explain to them why my songs might have unhappy endings.
Viv: I was listening to “Unseen”, what I was really taken by was the point of view from this little tiny moment of somebody who’s been shot out of the back of a 7-11, or a Stop-and-Go.
Rennie: It was a 7-11 in the real thing, but it’s easier to sing Stop-and-Go.
Brett: Based on the real event.
Viv: It’s this guy who’s slipping away in the back of this Stop-and-Go. This fictitious place that’s real here in Albuquerque.
Brett: The lyrics are posted on our Facebook page. I posted them because they ere so funny because there’s so many cross-outs and so many revisions.
Rennie: All the lyrics to the song “Gold.”
Brett: All this stuff and it’s like that line, “I got a tattoo of a snake and ski mask on my face” was like in the second half of the last verse. It was like, “Man that line is such a one-two punch” that just started the record. That is the image that is just like, “bam”. And it happens in like, “Zaaa” and then boom, there are the first words of the song.
Rennie: That’s also where it’s great as a writer to have you sing my words because if I sang about having a tattoo of a snake and a ski mask on my face, it wouldn’t sell as well as your voice.
Brett: Actually that would be kind of cool.
Viv: There is something about having the richness of your voice, Brett, take on Rennie’s words that way because there’s this sort of gravelly other sidedness to it.
Brett: I know what you mean though.
Viv: Yeah, so it is. It’s just like this little bit otherworldly.
Brett: Yeah it’s like this other person and that’s the unseen person.
Viv: Is that what the record’s named for?
Rennie: No, it’s for a lot of other reasons.
Brett: These kinds of things have been coming up a lot lately. We’ve been thinking about stuff like that. That’s just one of them. We always talk about like Rennie writing the lyrics and me singing the lyrics and writing the music and then recording. The fact that she is doing the words and I’m singing kind of creates this third person…..
Rennie: This middle, unseen person yes, who’s really good at writing songs.
Brett: This invisible third person that is the real voice of the song. And that, to me, is fascinating. At this point in my life I can’t imagine writing songs by myself.
Rennie: The fun part about it is that we end up with a song that’s neither 100% me or 100% him and so it’s always mysterious to us how this song came to be because neither one of us can explain it fully. It’s nice to have a third person who knows how to finish songs.
John: Do you sit down together to write or do you write the lyrics first and then you write the music?
Rennie: I usually write the lyrics first and then he’ll work on music after. But then, when you start recording, we do go back and forth a bit.
Brett: I’ll make really rudimentary demos.
Rennie: We suggest things to each other.
Brett: And I’ll read them and I’ll start scratching.
Rennie: But usually you ignore my suggestions and I ignore your suggestions. Every once in a while we pay attention.
Brett: As time goes on we ignore each other even more and we have the last interaction.
Rennie: That’s also the unseen part of it. The less we tell each other, the better.
Brett: For me, it’s not a stubborn thing, but for me I’d actually learned over the years that she’s right and I’m usually wrong.
Rennie: I feel you’ve had some kind of a minor stroke to say that. We need to get you a neurological test after this.
Brett: You know my shrink he’s right down the road.
Viv: John and I, we actually take a moment when either one of us says, ‘You’re right’. We just take a moment and make eye contact.
John: We appreciate the moment.
Viv: And we just kind of like “Ah”. We honor that moment that someone just acknowledged that the other one was right. It’s just something we do.
Rennie: That’s a very nice way to do it.
Brett: That’s a good thing to do.
John: So we totally understand.
Rennie: Thank you, Brett. That was very sweet of your to say.
Brett: Well, it’s been proven over time because five or six of what I consider to be the best songs that we’ve written, like “Weightless Again”, that’s one of my favorite Handsome Family songs, when Rennie gave me the lyrics to that, I was just like, “I have no idea what you’re after here. Now this is totally ambiguous and weird and gray. I just don’t get it.” I almost was like, “I just can’t set this. I can’t work. I can’t do this.” But it ended up being the opening song on that record, “Through the Trees” which is a great record for us. That just kind of proves me wrong in a way. Or not wrong, but it proves that she’s doing that job for a reason.
Rennie: Yeah, but I also have to say that whenever I try to write the music to go with my lyrics, it always ends up sounding like the same Christmas song so I need you too.
Brett: “The night before Christmas and all the house, not a creature was stirring….”
Rennie: A little bit of that and a little bit of silent night. And I’m not even Christian so I don’t know why I have Christmas songs stuck in my head.
Brett: Yeah, so the first thing I do is I sit down and I look at the metric of the song.
Viv: So you go for the meter. You used the word “couplet” which I think Shakespeare.
Brett: Fancy word.
Viv: Yeah, a fancy word for a verse. But still, lyric does break itself. Rennie, so how does that work for you? Do you work consciously into structure things in that way?
Rennie: Yeah, everything that I write lyrically is meant to be sung so it has to sing. So that’s why we sang before. 7-11 is just something. I can’t sing that so I knew he couldn’t sing it. But sometimes we do run into things where I speak New York English and he speaks Texas English so the rhythms tend to take on a different direction sometimes, a different lilt, when you get your hands on things. And we often have to take syllables out because I think they fit and your brain doesn’t fit them.
Brett: Yeah, I’m always taking out syllables. Syllable count too. I do it like “This line is two syllables too long. Sorry.”
Rennie: So, I understand that.
Brett: The first couple of passes at lyrics are very mechanical for me. I just look at them like, “Can this work mechanically. Structurally, will this work?”
Rennie: One thing I do when I’m writing lyrics, even if I’m not writing the melody, I put on garage band and just have like a BPM going and try to at least talk the song.
Brett: So you get it on a 60 and then you get like a sea shanty thing going.
Rennie: That’s right. If you can’t talk it in rhythm then you know you’re not going to sing it in rhythm. So it’s a start.
Brett: Well that is a good idea for young songwriters. Just people sitting with their guitars and “I don’t know what to do!” Beat machines can be cool cause you go and they give you a meter to function instead of your erratic meter.
Rennie: I love BPM. Just gives you something to start with so it’s not total silence. And sometimes a BPM in garage band you can go up and down the BPM and when you hit the one you like it’s like a weird Rorschach test. It’s like, “I guess I feel like writing a slow song” or “Oh, I should write a fast song!” It’s really hard to start writing a song from nothing so BPM is just a way of not having nothing.
Viv: That is an absolute first. We’ve been doing this for, what, 13 years? Nobody has ever brought that forward as an idea as a jumping off point. Just turning on that metronome type of feel.
Brett: Yeah, a drum beat’s good you know.
Rennie: I don’t even have a drum beat. I just have BPM. Like a metronome, but a drumbeat would be good too I suppose. That sounds fancy. It’s something.
Brett: So a drum beat’s definitely going to influence the way that you write.
Rennie: Well every computer, every Macintosh, comes with Garageband now and you can easily download apps with metronomes. There’s so many things to make it easy to start writing songs.
Viv: And, again, how has that changed your songwriting processes and your composing processes?
Rennie: In the end, it’s still hard to write songs and I think it gets harder because I always say your first ten songs are a gift because those are the easy ones to write because everyone’s got ten songs in them. Or at least one song. Everyone’s got something from the first twenty, thirty years of their life that you have to get off your chest. But then, after that, it gets harder and harder to find something new to talk about. It’s always hard to write songs.
Brett: Or new musical ideas.
Rennie: It doesn’t get easier even though you think you get better. It’s kind of counterintuitive but most things like pottery or something or sculpture, you get better and better and you get more refined with age, but songwriting gets harder I think because you’re sending your bucket down deeper and deeper into that unconscious well and it’s pulling that rope up, pulling and pulling a long time!
Brett: You gotta go a little deeper every time.
Rennie: Sometimes the water that comes up is kind of brackish.
Brett: —kinda murky!
Viv: Sketchy! Do you seek outside inspiration or is it a constant sort of….
Rennie: For me I like to read a lot and that helps me. I tend to get probably too influenced by coincidence and luck and things like that but, you know, you get magical thinking with creative stuff and sometimes it works but sometimes I’ll go to a thrift store and I’ll just close my eyes and grab a book and force myself to read that book looking for the secret. Every once in a while it works! Just finding something somebody else had to say about anything can be interesting but I find, for me, I’m interested in Natural History and Science and things that I find that aren’t being written about in songs so that makes it easier for me. There’s not that many songs written about jellyfish and spiders and frogs. It’s wide open!
Brett: So there’s a lot of that on this record. Yeah.
Rennie: And you know, if you can manage to make it emotional. That’s the other thing is that songs take music and words together to create an emotional experience. So that’s what you’re looking for in the end. The goal is always the same. To make you feel something and hopefully make the person hearing the song feel something. So if you can feel something about what you do then you’re on the right track.
Viv: Brett, you were saying about the meter. Like you start working with a song with a lyric to see if it’s gonna work in that meter. Do you then start to hear melody or do you noodle? What’s your process?
Brett: I usually take a lyric and read it over and over again without judging where does it live metrically. And what is it insinuating melodically? Certain words do certain things. Certain sentences are going to rise and fall. Certain things are going to have melodic curves that are just falling or just rising. It’s still very unconscious, but you start thinking about that kind of stuff so it kind of builds up this real base idea of the song. To me, tempo is a really important thing and my tempo is always way too slow when they start. I always have to goose them up when I get to the demo part of doing things. And I demo a lot too. So, if I have an idea (this is what I like about ProTools), I can go in and I can, in fifteen minutes literally, I can make just guitar/vocal/base drums or just guitar/vocal/drums. Drum machine, you know? But that gives me an idea of the direction that the song is taking.
Rennie: Because also, it’s very easy to forget ideas that you have. You think, ‘Oh that’s a great idea! I’ve got that song figured out!” then the next day you’re like “Uh-oh, I forgot the chorus.”
Brett: Yeah, I walk around with a press recorder all the time because you never know. I’ve got one by my bed. That’s when all the good ideas come. Like right when you’re going to sleep. “Oh that’s its! That’s that Aminor weird thing!”
Rennie: And once I woke up in the middle of the night and was like “Oh my god!” and I came up with this amazing melody and I sang it into the tape recorder and I went back to sleep and the next morning and I played it and was like “Oh my god that’s Sting’s “Fields of Barley”. It’s a really nice melody but I didn’t write it.
Viv: That Celtic groove speaking through you at the twilight hour.
Rennie: So it’s good to have a record of what happened.
Viv: So the new record, Unseen, filled with incredible stories, some grand and sweeping. Tiny Tina.
Rennie: Have you been to the State Fair here? Have you seen her?
Rennie: Well, she used to be there every year.
Viv: She’s not there anymore?
Rennie: One year she just didn’t come anymore. I don’t know, maybe she got so small that….
Brett: Not politically correct.
Rennie: I don’t know the reasoning. I think she just got too small.
Brett: No they cleaned up the free shows.
Viv: They cleaned up the free shows!
Brett: They got rid of all the stuff at the state fair. I’m not making a judgment one way or another.
Rennie: When we first went to the state fair it was 75 cents to see her. Then it rose to a dollar. And still I didn’t go. Then every year I was like “Oh next year. Next year.” And it wasn’t because it was too expensive obviously, I was afraid it would be disappointing.
Brett: It would have been. Trust me, I’ve seen her.
Rennie: Well, now I can always imagine that it was this peak experience that I didn’t have rather than seeing it and being disappointed.
Brett: It’s better!
Rennie: But I struggled with it every year at the fair. Then one year I was like, “Darn it! This year I’m going to see that horse!” And I got there and they didn’t have it that year and every year now she’s been gone. I think she just got so small that they weren’t able to show her to humans any longer.
Brett: Unseen. The unseen horse. It’s too weird.
Rennie: It’s a special breed of horse that gets smaller and smaller with age. Then, gradually, they just can’t find them anymore. They may be in the barn, but they just don’t know.
Viv: Yeah they’re cheap. They’re cheap to feed.
Rennie: That’s right.
Brett: Just a handful of oats.
Viv: That’s right.
John: On your website, there is a Tarot Card that illustrates the current state of the music business. It’s a burning tower with people jumping out of it.
Rennie: The Tower is a bad card to get.
John: Tell us — what’s your current take on the state of the music business?
Rennie: It’s in shambles and no one knows what’s going to happen. All traditional forms of income have been taken from us so now we depend on T-shirt sales and merch table stuff. Live touring. We used to actually make money off of record sales. That’s when it made sense. You write songs. You would like to get paid for them and sometimes you did and that was good. But now, writing songs doesn’t make you money so even if you love songwriting you might find yourself becoming a traveling salesman because that’s what you have to do to make money. But you just have to be creative. Nobody knows anything right now. Anybody who tells you they’ve got it figured out, they don’t. No one knows what to do next and people are just trying everything. Trying desperately just to get someone to click on their Facebook post. We’re so bombarded with stuff. Also, the bottom line is that most of us now have enough music that we could listen to for the rest of our life and be fine. We don’t need any more music so luckily there’s an emotional need that people have to hear new things and they like new things from a band they like. So there are emotional reasons that people still follow us and give us money. But they definitely don’t need to do that. In a weird way, even though everything is desperate and nothing makes sense, it’s very touching to me when someone buys a CD from me after a show because they’re basically saying, “Here, I want you to have this.” They’re giving me a gift. It’s become very meaningful, the exchange of money. So I like to look at it that way. We’ve downsized the monetary possibilities in the music business, but we’ve made them much more meaningful when they occur.
John: Nice. That’s a nice outlook.
Rennie: It’s either that or jump out the window and join the rest of the falling.
Brett: If you think about things going in cycles, I think this is a transitional period too. The end of the ’20’s, right when companies like Blue Bird, and right after people discovered Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family. I mean when radio came in, it decimated the Victrola makers and the record people and it was a total disaster. And it’s exactly the same thing.
Rennie: This is capitalism. That’s what happens.
Brett: Streaming is the same thing as radio.
Rennie: Capitalism is geared this way. That someone is going to come up with an idea to wipe out the people before them. That’s the way it works.
Brett: But it could take ten or fifteen years is the problem.
Rennie: I think the one thing I like to tell people that’s really surprising and also connects with the emotional chopping idea is that you’d think that the song that was the theme for true detective would be the last one that anyone would buy because it is not only free on the show but on YouTube everywhere.
Brett: It was totally ubiquitous.
Rennie: There were millions and millions of people watching it on YouTube and everywhere and all over the Internet people were passing it around. It’s definitely not a song you needed to buy to have, but people did buy it.
Brett: People did. That’s weird.
Rennie: It made me realize that, and I do this too, when I hear a song that really connects with me, I don’t need to buy it but I do buy it because I just want to have it and, I don’t know, live with it somehow in a different way even though you may just buy a download so you’re not really touching it. Somehow having it on my computer in my iTunes feels different than just listening to it on Spotify. So it’s really a strange thing but we do tend to buy things now for very important reasons. We buy less but we care more.
John: It seems like it’s maybe part of the human nature, part of the human condition that we like to collect things. We like to have a memento or something.
Rennie: Yeah, we’re sentimental creatures after all.
Viv: It’s just wonderful to reconnect with you both.
Brett: It’s great to see you.
Viv: Well, Brett and Rennie Sparks, the Handsome Family, thank you so much for joining us again for Art of the Song.
Rennie: Our pleasure.