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For The Handsome Family, Music Is A Safe Place To Express 'Terrifying Things'

Married couple Rennie and Brett Sparks have been making songs together as The Handsome Family for 21 years. In 2014, they gained much wider fame when their haunting song, "Far From Any Road," became the theme for the first season of HBO's True Detective.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I first heard the music duo known as The Handsome Family on season one of HBO's "True Detective," when their mysterious, haunting song "Far From Any Road" was used as the theme music. I liked it so much, I went back and listened to their other recordings. They have a new album called "Unseen." So of course, we invited them on the show. Brett Sparks writes the music. Rennie Sparks writes the lyrics. Brett sings lead and plays most of the instruments. Rennie sings backup and plays banjo and autoharp.

This description is from the magazine, Absolute Sound. Quote, "Rennie's creepy modern tales of sudden death, paranormal mysteries, descents into madness and God-fearing maladies unsmirkingly meld with Brett's achingly beautiful melodies and tender ballads," unquote. Brett and Rennie have been married since 1993 and have lived in Albuquerque since 2001. The southwest desert helps set the mood for some of their recordings. But as we'll discuss, some of the dark atmosphere in their music comes from dealing with their own dark moods. Let's start with the opening track of "Unseen." This is "Gold."


THE HANDSOME FAMILY: (Singing) Got a tattoo of a snake and a ski mask on my face, but I woke up in a ditch behind the Stop-N-Go. Lying in the weeds with a bullet in my gut, watching dollar bills fly away in the dust. Now the sun's sinking down, spilling gold on the ground, but I'm going out tonight, out past the last lights of town.

GROSS: That's "Gold" from the new Handsome Family album, "Unseen." Brett and Rennie Sparks, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your music, and it's a pleasure to have you on the show. So let's talk about the story behind that song - so just, like, the story itself. So this character wakes up in a ditch behind the Stop-N-Go with a bullet in his gut. This is definitely, like, the start of a story.

RENNIE SPARKS: (Laughter) Yeah.


GROSS: Do you know what happened? Do you know who he is?

B SPARKS: We - it's based on an actual occurrence that happened when we first moved to town. I went out to buy, you know, a six pack or whatever and went down to the local convenience store. And I got out of the car, and there was a swirling twister of dust. And in this twister were dozens and dozens of bills, like, singles, fives, twenties just in the air. And yeah, it was just a really - very surreal experience. So I got home and told this to Rennie. You wouldn't believe what happened to me. I got $56 in loose bills that were flying through the air. And that's where...

R SPARKS: Well, that's - the difference between the two of us was, I think, clear there because you came home so happy. And I immediately thought, there has got to be someone dying in a ditch...


R SPARKS: ...Because that's the only way anyone lets go of a fistful of dollars in this town.

B SPARKS: Yeah, and - to me, I really liked that first line, I got a tattoo of a snake and a ski mask on my face. When I read that - Rennie gives me the lyrics. The way we work is always lyrics first and then music. And when she gave me that lyric, I think that lyric was in the fourth verse. And I read that line, and I was like, that is the perfect way to start a record - just, like, you know, a one-two punch.

R SPARKS: The other funny, true thing about this - well, not so funny - is that at our local Wells Fargo, there is a sign in the lobby. And this is New Mexico, where you don't wear a ski mask, really, except to rob a bank...


B SPARKS: You don't wear a ski mask for any reason, yeah.

R SPARKS: ...There is a sign that says, please no ski masks...

B SPARKS: Or baseball caps.

R SPARKS: ...Or mirrored sunglasses to be worn in the lobby, just to - you know, that way they can clearly see who's there to rob the bank, give them, like, a five-second lead.

B SPARKS: It's the wild, wild West. So it's kind of a song that has the trappings of that wild, wild West stuff, like all the Morricone kind of sounding bells and stuff like that.

GROSS: Yeah, well, Rennie, in your lyrics, I mean, there's a lot of sun. There's a fair amount of, like, snakes and creatures that seem to be very much of the desert and, you know, poisonous plants and the kind of thing that you wouldn't find on the streets of Philly, for instance.

R SPARKS: Yeah, it is amazing out here that the insects are - when I first moved here, I would almost have, like, a feeling like I was having a psychotic break when I'd see these insects that were just - my brain couldn't fathom that they were real. But they're incredibly beautiful and frightening.

GROSS: So I want to play this song that you're probably best known for, "Far From Any Road", which was used as the theme song - the opening theme music - for season one of HBO's "True Detective". And I watched the series. And one of the things I really looked forward to every week was hearing the theme.

B SPARKS: (Laughter) Thanks.

GROSS: And yeah, so...

R SPARKS: Us, too.

GROSS: ...Yeah, I can imagine. let's hear it. And then we'll talk about it. So this is "Far From Any Road," The Handsome Family. And you'll recognize it as the theme from season one of "True Detective."


THE HANDSOME FAMILY: (Singing) From the dusty mesa, her looming shadow grows, hidden in the branches of the poison creosote. She twines her spines up slowly towards the boiling sun, and when I touched her skin, my fingers ran with blood.

In the hushing dusk under a swollen, silver moon, I came walking with the wind to watch the cactus bloom. A strange hunger haunted me. The looming shadows danced. I fell down to the thorny brush and felt a trembling hand.

GROSS: That's The Handsome Family, and my guests are Brett and Rennie Sparks. Let's talk about what you intended when you wrote this song because you wrote this song years before it was actually used as the "True Detective" theme. And it's the kind of song where you can debate, like, what does it mean? Is this character dying from a rattlesnake bite, from a poisoned flower, or is this character just haunted by the hallucinations brought on by a cactus psychedelic plant? So you tell me.



R SPARKS: All of the above, right.

B SPARKS: Well, that's what's great. I mean, those are - my favorite songs are the ones that have holes in them. And you have to, you know, leave the listener something to try to puzzle out for himself, you know?

R SPARKS: There should be some space for...


R SPARKS: ...For many different theories.

B SPARKS: To me, that was the first real desert song that we wrote, too. And we wrote it almost as pastiche to me. Like, we - I really want to nail, like, that sound, you know? So I took the sound of the castanets as insects from "Sketches Of Spain" and using classical guitar, you know, and sounds like that and kind of the Morricone thing. And it's an obvious homage to Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. That's undeniable in the exchange between the woman and the man.

B SPARKS: And then it got used for, yeah, a cop show set in Louisiana, so go figure.

R SPARKS: But that's what's so wonderful about it, I think, is that a song should have space that it can take on many meanings and take on many lives and can be put in different contexts and fit perfectly. So, to me, that was just, like, the most gratifying thing you could have for a song, to be bigger than you could imagine it to be.

I do think, though, once again, it's about insects because that was completely inspired, for me, by this horror that I had as an Easterner. I grew up in New York. And when we first moved out there, that I - when I discovered the hard way that ants can bite you viciously...

B SPARKS: She was working out in the driveway on something - I don't know - paving the - repaving the driveway or something. And, yeah, she got bit by all these big fire ants, you know, like, almost the size of your pinky. And yeah, you...

R SPARKS: It went on and on and on for days, that pain.

B SPARKS: You hallucinated the lyrics to that song.

R SPARKS: I do remember distinctly, though, that that summer we were recording that song, that was a summer of cicadas, you know, that's, like, every seven or nine or, you know, odd number, prime number years that the cicadas come.

B SPARKS: Seven, I think.

R SPARKS: And they were deafeningly loud outside. And you were getting them on the track. And I think it kind of - you kind of worked with it.

B SPARKS: I think they are on the track. And instead of - you know, looking at Brian Eno's oblique strategies - instead of, like, trying to save the track and get rid of the noise and the cicadas, I decided to put more on there, but more through the use of actual instruments like claves and, you know, castanets and guiros and stuff so that when you mixed all this big mess together, it just sounded like this big giant chorus of insects, which is what the mandolins are doing in the chorus, too. They're like these fluttering wings, you know, like having that mandolin multed seven or eight times, like a mandolin choir. That, to me, sounded very insectoid, too. So...

GROSS: And you have a home studio - a home recording studio.

B SPARKS: Yeah, that's why I can do these stupid things (laughter). That's why I can do these - get these ridiculous ideas in my head and then actually, you know, pursue them.

GROSS: So how do...

B SPARKS: It's really hard for me to work in a regular studio anymore. It's very difficult.

GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more and then hear some more of your music. So if you're just joining us, my guests are Brett and Rennie Sparks, who together are The Handsome Family. They have a new album, which is called "Unseen." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Brett and Rennie Sparks, who together are The Handsome Family. They have a new album called "Unseen," and they're best known for having written the song that became the theme for season one of "True Detective." So, Brett, you have this really deep voice. And the deepness of your voice seems to match the tone of the lyrics, the darkness of the lyrics. Were people like Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash important to you, not only because of their songwriting but because of how deep their voices are?

B SPARKS: Well, those artists are important to me for what they are. I guess - I don't think they were really - I don't really consider them influences. I think more about people like George Jones and Frank Sinatra and, like - I don't know - like, classical music when I sing. I don't really - I don't want to sound like Johnny Cash. I never did want to sound like Johnny Cash, even though I probably do sometimes. It just - yeah, it's just - I'm stuck in that baritone world or bass world, which is good because you can do a lot of - you can do - go lower and go higher.

GROSS: Did it feel limiting at first?

B SPARKS: Actually, it was very, very - it took me a long time to - I hate when singers say this. But it took me a long time to find my voice, you know? It did take a long time to figure out that - or just accept the fact that this is what my voice sounds like, and I'm going to learn how to use that.

GROSS: What were you singing before you figured that out?

B SPARKS: You know, when I was in my - well, when I was in my 20s and, you know, teens, 20s and 30s, I was singing much too high. I was singing an octave, octave and a half. I was writing pop songs and, you know, new wave songs and stuff like that, (laughter) whatever. And I was singing way too high because pop music is sung by people with tenors, you know, The Beatles. And those are all tenor singers.

But then, yeah, you start realizing, oh, well, this is what - a lot of it had to do with - in college, singing in choirs and singing - sing - I hate to admit it, but singing, like, operatic arias, like learning how to sing classical music. And, you know, there's so much stuff out there. And it's - so much of it is great. Like, the Schubert lieder was a big, big thing for me in, you know, getting in touch with, you know, having a low voice. So I don't know, yeah, it wouldn't be Johnny Cash. It would be Schubert (laughter).

GROSS: So, Rennie, do you think you had anything to do with helping Brett find the voice by providing lyrics that were so suitable for it?

R SPARKS: No, I'd love to say I have, you know, some power to shape other people in their, you know, their own journeys. But I find it so difficult to write lyrics that I'm just amazed when I finish anything, let alone something I think is appropriate for Brett or shaping our journey or, you know, a plan. I just want to finish a story that I find mysterious and will resonate.

And it is always a mystery whether the lyrics that I give him are - what they're going to sound like because I always have a very different idea in my head what kind of music goes with the lyrics and what melody should be. And that's part of the excitement of working with him is that he'll come back singing these words in a very different way and bringing a whole different mood to them.

B SPARKS: Yeah, it's almost like a third person is writing the songs, but - that isn't one of us, that just has little pieces of us, you know. And that's cool. And the thing about Rennie is that - I mean, Rennie was a writer before she ever started writing lyrics. So as a writer, I think she is a little more, you know, attuned to changing voice within a song or not necessarily writing in her own voice but in an assumed voice. And at the time, we were also really into folk music. And in folk music, the emphasis isn't on the singer, you know? The emphasis is on the song. So, I mean, a lot of them are anonymous. So the singer's just kind of irrelevant.

R SPARKS: Well, I'm really repelled by the the cult of personality in pop music. I don't - I find that kind of enjoyment of music is really empty in the end, whereas a song like - an ancient song like "Barbara Allen," which is a song that anybody can can sing and anybody can put themselves in that song, it makes everyone feel like their life could be a little bit bigger by listening to the story. I want these stories to feel like they make people's lives - their emotional lives - wider and faster rather than to make you feel like, wow, I wish I lived a cool life...

B SPARKS: Yeah...

R SPARKS: ...Like that guy in those leather pants.

B SPARKS: I wish I was that guy, yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

B SPARKS: He's happy.

GROSS: So it's more like I wish I murdered my lover, like the singer of that ballad (laughter).

R SPARKS: Well, no, I think there's - I mean, I think that really...

B SPARKS: He just died. It was...

R SPARKS: It does bother me though because I don't think that I am interested in songs that have murder in them or death in them because I like murder or death. You know, there's - it's catharsis. It's a safe place to experience really terrifying things, and that's what art's for. So to say, you know, there's nothing in common between a serial killer and someone who writes about about killing, I think art has a real purpose there in giving us a place to experience these really, really terrifying emotions.

GROSS: So your songs are largely not autobiographical, but there is at least one song that's kind of an exception. And it's called "My Ghost." And...

B SPARKS: Uh-oh...


GROSS: And...

R SPARKS: You know, I...

GROSS: Yeah.

R SPARKS: I was just going to remind you, though, that I write the lyrics. So, you know, there's only so much autobiography in a song that I've written about someone else's experience.

GROSS: But you're writing...

B SPARKS: Yeah, so there's a lot of weird...

GROSS: ...It for Brett to sing, so yeah...

B SPARKS: Yeah, but there's a lot of weird ambiguity going on when we - yeah - when she writes because that song - well, go ahead and finish the intro...

GROSS: Well, let me just finish the thought. Yeah, so...


GROSS: To finish out that thought, "Ghost" is about having been hospitalized after a bipolar episode, probably an episode of mania. And...

B SPARKS: I think, yeah.

R SPARKS: That's how you get locked up.

GROSS: Yeah.

B SPARKS: Calm moments they really don't care about (laughter).

GROSS: And this character is basically not getting out of the ward until he's able and willing to comb his hair and brush his teeth and things like that. So - and I know that there was a period probably in the '90s, Brett, when you did have a break and...

R SPARKS: 5-9-'95...

B SPARKS: Yeah...

R SPARKS: ...Was the...

B SPARKS: ...Palindrome.

R SPARKS: ...The palindrome date drove you over the edge. I remember.

B SPARKS: Yeah, yeah, that's right.

GROSS: So why don't we hear the song, and then we'll talk? So the song is called "My Ghost." The music is by Brett and the lyric is by Rennie. This is The Handsome Family.


THE HANDSOME FAMILY: (Singing) My ghost drives around with a bag of dead fish. Falling neutrinos drift through the trees. He staggers and reels, runs up credit card bills and clogs up the toilet with bottles of pills. Here in the bipolar ward if you get a gold star. But I'm not going far till the Haldol kicks in. Until then, until then I'm strapped to the this [expletive] twin bed and I won't get any cookies or tea. Till I stop quoting Nietzsche and brush my teeth and comb my hair. Days pass slow in slippers and robe, but my ghost still bangs on the roof...

GROSS: Brett and Rennie Sparks will talk more about writing that song after a break. The Handsome Family has a new album called "Unseen." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Brett and Rennie Sparks, the music duo known as The Handsome Family. They're best known for writing and performing the song "Far From Any Road," which was used as the theme music for Season 1 of HBO's "True Detective." Brett writes the music; Rennie writes the lyrics. The Handsome Family has a new album called "Unseen." When we left off, we were listening to the song, "My Ghost" from their 1998 album, "Through the Trees." The song is based on one of Brett's manic episodes that led him to be hospitalized. He has bipolar disorder.

Can you tell us the story of writing that song?

B SPARKS: So that song was started by me about trying to write about my experience...

GROSS: In the hospital.

B SPARKS: ...With - yeah, mental illness in the hospital. But I don't write lyrics. That's not my thing. So - but I thought the idea was good, so Rennie took up the lyric and turned it into a lyric - or took up the idea and turned it into a lyric. And so that's weird. I mean, that's another level of strangeness, you know, bouncing back and forth between the two of us. That song is tough to do, and we get a lot of requests for it. And I'm usually just, like, no, I just don't want to go there. (Laughter)

GROSS: It's tough to do because - not for technical reasons but for emotional ones.

B SPARKS: Well, it's not even that. It's more like kind of - I mean, dealing with this illness, I've come to realize the fact that there's nothing cool about it.

R SPARKS: Most people in mental hospitals are not artists, they're just very sick people.

B SPARKS: Yeah, they're just really, really sad, screwed up people. And it's not - it's a place that - it's something I don't really want to reinforce with people because I think they take it as kind of funny, and it is funny, and that's where I was at when I wrote the song was trying to make some fun out of it. But it's really not funny anymore. It's just...

R SPARKS: Well...

B SPARKS: It just is, you know? And it's not the greatest song in the world. It's a simple one-sixth. You know, it's a doo-wop song basically. It is. It has that same chord progression as, like, "Heart And Soul" or whatever.

GROSS: Let me ask you about a specific line in the song, my ghost drives around with a bag of dead fish.

B SPARKS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, that was a bad day. (Laughter)

B SPARKS: That was a bad day. Yeah, I had this fish tank. I was really into fish when I was a kid, like, I was really into aquariums. And people who are bipolar shouldn't be allowed to keep fish tanks.

R SPARKS: It didn't end well.

B SPARKS: It did not end well.

R SPARKS: No, you were driving around with those fish in the car, and you were making some kind of recording antenna to reach...


R SPARKS: ...Outer space people...


R SPARKS: ...In the car, and there was - he was eating cat food...

B SPARKS: Yeah, that was really - had all the clichés.

R SPARKS: It was a mess. It was pretty ugly stuff.

B SPARKS: Champagne and cat food.

R SPARKS: But yeah, afterwards...

B SPARKS: See, I'm making fun of it now (laughter).

R SPARKS: ...You know, it is funny to go, you know - while you were in the hospital, I was going around returning your purchases. He spent, like, thousands of dollars on pillows...

B SPARKS: Pillows.

R SPARKS: ...And I went to Bed Bath and Beyond, and I said, my husband was - had a manic episode - can I return these pillows? And people were nice about it. When you say someone did this when they were crazy, they'll usually take the pillows back.

B SPARKS: Well, this is why I don't go there.

GROSS: Well, I'll ask about one other line. You referred to this, he staggers and reels and runs up credit card bills and clogs up the toilet with bottles of pills. Were you not taking your medication?

R SPARKS: I think you were just...

B SPARKS: Well, that's weird.

R SPARKS: ...You were prescribed the wrong medication is what was happening. You were being prescribed things for depression...

B SPARKS: You know, that may have just been a good rhyme...

GROSS: That could be.

B SPARKS: ...That is a damn good rhyme.

R SPARKS: No, I remember you were taking the wrong - I think that may have brought you into a manic state...

B SPARKS: Runs up credit card bills is a classic bipolar trait...

R SPARKS: Well...

B SPARKS: ...Over-shopping.

R SPARKS: A lot of people are put into manic states by being prescribed antidepressants...

B SPARKS: Right.

R SPARKS: ...Because they first go to a doctor because they're experiencing depression. And no one's seen the manic side of it so...

B SPARKS: (Laughter) Yeah, because nobody goes when they're manic.

R SPARKS: So it is a bit dangerous when you first take antidepressants. You can end up in a very dangerous, manic place.

GROSS: Rennie, do you have a mood disorder, too? Because that's - I read something along those lines.

R SPARKS: Oh, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: What's your thing? (laughter)

R SPARKS: (Laughter) I'm just a very depressed person, I guess when I'm - you know, I'm hopped up on a lot of antidepressants, and this is as happy as I get. But, yeah, I think both of us recognize that without modern pharmaceuticals, we would - neither of us would've survived this long. So we're - you know, we're fortunate that there is medication out there that can help us have a life.

GROSS: Has it helped you understand each other, knowing that you both have to deal with a mood disorder?

R SPARKS: I think the funny thing was, I think we had a discussion about this once when we first met that I was secretly thinking, well, he'll be my rock because I know I'm going to be crazy. Turns out, you know...

B SPARKS: I think...

R SPARKS: ...Drowning together, we've managed to tread water.

B SPARKS: I think it's made us a lot more patient with one another and...


B SPARKS: ...Tolerant with one another. And I think quote, unquote, "normal people" sometimes lose patience with each other, and that's where their relationships disintegrate. But I think we know that sometimes the other person needs a little extra slack.

GROSS: My guests are Brett and Rennie Sparks, who perform under the name The Handsome Family. Their new album is called "Unseen." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Brett and Rennie Sparks who perform under the name The Hansome Family. Their new album is called "Unseen."

I know you both like a lot of traditional music, and so much...


GROSS: ...Of the traditional music, you know, the American, like, folk traditions and British folk traditions, there are ballads about lost love, about murder, about, you know - country music, too, about, like, sinning and (laughter) having lost...


GROSS: ...Your way. And you do do a couple of traditional things. So I want to play a traditional song called "The Lost Soul" that you say you first heard on the Doc Watson Family album, and this is a really dark song. Do you want to quote some of the lyrics before we hear it?

B SPARKS: (Singing) What an awful day...

R SPARKS: (Singing) What an awful day...

B SPARKS: (Singing) ...When the judgment comes.

R SPARKS: (Singing) ...When the judgment comes.

B SPARKS: (Singing) And the sinners hear their eternal doom.

R SPARKS: That's a good time religion.

B SPARKS: (Singing) Though for help I cry but it all in vain. For alas I'm doomed for aye, I'm doomed for aye.

Yep, happy stuff.

GROSS: Why did you decide to sing this?

B SPARKS: Oh, seems obvious (laughter).

R SPARKS: I think it's - for me, it's comforting. I don't know why. I guess just because I think I'm also - I really like horror movies and I like books about disasters because they kind of match the mood that I'm naturally in. So that song makes perfect sense to me. That's the way I - you know, that's how - the way I leave the house each day.

B SPARKS: Go ahead, sorry.

GROSS: This is a song about no salvation.

B SPARKS: At all.

GROSS: Salvation is an impossibility for this person, and they are doomed. And you...

R SPARKS: But they can still sing.

GROSS: Yeah, and it sounds like you overdubbed your voices to have a kind of chorus effect, as if, like, there's a whole family of singers or a whole room of singers.

B SPARKS: Yeah, it's just Rennie and me.

R SPARKS: And I think there is a comfort in that. At least we're all together in hell singing.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So this is "The Lost Soul," The Handsome Family, my guests Brett and Rennie Sparks.


THE HANDSOME FAMILY: (Singing) What an awful day, what an awful day, when the judgment comes, when the judgment comes, and the sinners hear, and the sinners hear, their eternal doom, their eternal doom. At the sad decree, at the sad decree, they'll depart for aye, they'll depart for aye, into endless woe, into endless woe, and gloom, endless woe and gloom. I'm paying now, I'm paying now, the penalty, the penalty, that the unredeemed, that the unredeemed, must ever pay, must ever pay. Though for help I cry, though for help I cry, it is all in vain, it is all in vain. For alas I'm doomed, for alas I'm doomed, for aye. I'm doomed for aye. If I could recall, if I could recall...

GROSS: That was The Handsome Family, which is my guests Brett and Rennie Sparks. The song is "The Lost Soul." It's a traditional song that they learned from a Doc Watson album. And now they have a new album, which is called "Unseen." That's just so chilling. I really love your recording of that. You know, it makes me think, like, what were you first taught about death?


R SPARKS: (Laughter) Well, my parents always told me, don't think about it, which, of course, doesn't really work.

B SPARKS: Well, I was probably closer to the content of that song. I was born and raised in the Southern Baptist church. I mean, I grew up - I was a born again Christian when I was in high school - junior high and high school - so, you know, I grew up in that guilt-ridden, you know, mess in Texas, where I'm from. So that - I mean, I've heard stuff like that sung in church. I've sung stuff like that in church. But...

R SPARKS: I think for me, though, it's - my family are Jews. And I think they are the kind of Jews that after World War II said, there's absolutely no point in religion anymore and we're just going to try to live our lives as best we can and not consider what's - what kind of order there can be in the universe because there can't be an order that involves gas chambers. We can't have that. So, you know, when you - when I started hearing gospel music, to me it was sort of - even a song like "The Lost Soul" is better than the world view that I came from, (laughter) which is no order. So this at least is saying someone's - there's an afterlife. It may be awful, but it's something.


R SPARKS: That's ok. Maybe that's a certain kind of religion.

B SPARKS: There's something, but I don't know what the hell it is.

R SPARKS: Like, we were saying the other day, I mean, you know, this planet we live on is mostly full of insects. And I don't mean to harp on them, but if there is a God, he certainly prefers insects.

GROSS: Brett, when you were growing up in the Baptist church, did you like the songs? Did you like the hymns?

B SPARKS: Very much. Very much so. That's where I learned how to sing harmony. I would just, you know, sing a song and I'd sing the bass, then I'd sing the tenor, then I'd sing the alto, then I'd sing the soprano. There was always four verses, (laughter) so there was ample chance to do each of those things. So that's kind of, like, you know, where I figured out those kind of - how to - how those things work.

And then, you know, I went to church for years and years, so it's a huge influence. It's the first place I probably played with other people. I played piano in the church choir and, you know, stuff like that. I still have a hymnal. I still sit down and will read through "Amazing Grace" or "Just As I Am" or whatever...

R SPARKS: It's undeniably beautiful music.

B SPARKS: Oh, they're unbelievable. And the thing is, to me, I'm obsessed with J.S. Bach. So it's basically just the beginning of - it's - has so much in common with the Lutheran tradition that's behind Bach's music that it all kind of blends into one for me.

GROSS: And, you know, something about, like, hymns, there's no irony in them. Like, there's a lot of irony in pop music.

R SPARKS: It's lovely. And I think even if...

B SPARKS: (Laughter) That's funny.

R SPARKS: ...Even if you can't, you know, if you - I can't embrace the cosmology of, you know, Judeo-Christian world every day. But when I sing one of those songs, I can live inside the song.

B SPARKS: Yeah, there's something really beautiful and poetic about some of them, too.

R SPARKS: For the few minutes you're in the song, it is real. It is true.

B SPARKS: You have songs like (singing) leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms. I mean, that's just a beautiful...

R SPARKS: I feel better just hearing that.

GROSS: Yeah.

B SPARKS: I mean, it doesn't have to be, whatever, God. It's just...

R SPARKS: It's just beautiful and comforting.

B SPARKS: Yeah, it's nice.

R SPARKS: And you don't have to...

B SPARKS: It's a beautiful melody, too. It's a perfect melody.

R SPARKS: You don't have to know why you like it. You just can - just let it comfort you.

GROSS: Good.


GROSS: So you have - Brett, you have an interesting music background because you studied classical music. You were also in New Wave bands. But on one of your albums, you have two prepared piano tracks. And that's, like, a John Cage thing where you kind of stick stuff inside the piano on the strings so that when you press one of the keys, you get this really odd sound, not a piano sound. So...

R SPARKS: That's when I knew I was going to marry him was...

GROSS: (Laughter).

R SPARKS: ...When he prepared a piano in front of me. Once he put a screwdriver in between those piano strings, I thought that's the man for me.

B SPARKS: Oh, yeah. What a dreamboat.

GROSS: Did you think you were going to become a classical composer or musician?

B SPARKS: When I was very young, I think I might have been naive enough to believe that.

GROSS: A classical composer or musician?

B SPARKS: When I was very young, I think I might've been naive enough to believe that. I started playing piano when I was - when I was young - yeah, and I was 5 or 6 or something like that. My mother taught me piano lessons. So I've been playing piano a long time, and it's kind of all I ever did and studied. I studied here at UNM. I graduated from here with a degree in music history because basically I started becoming more interested in thinking about music than actually playing it.

I don't know, I'm kind of obsessed, obviously, with music. And I go through phases and I devour as much as possible. I mean, last year, I listened to almost nothing but Bach. I mean, I even went to Leipzig to see more Bach lived and composed.

GROSS: Rennie, what kind of music appealed to you before you started writing lyrics?

R SPARKS: Yeah, I think - it took me a long time to consider that lyrics could be important. I was always a reader and wanted to be an author and thought of music as a place where words didn't matter too much. They were just sort of syllables to be screamed or whatever.

But I didn't think about myself as a writer of lyrics until we'd been married quite a while and I was just trying to write on my own and he was trying - Brett was trying to write songs on his own. And we didn't really collaborate. We just sort of had our sections of the apartment where we were doing our work.

GROSS: My guests are Brett and Rennie Sparks, who perform under the name The Handsome Family. Their new album is called "Unseen." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guests are Brett and Rennie Sparks, who perform under the name The Handsome Family. Their new album is called "Unseen." Brett writes the music; Rennie writes the lyrics.

Rennie, when you were young you were you always wanted to be a writer. But you wrote ad copy for a while. What kind of ads were you writing?

R SPARKS: I think that I - you know, I went to creative writing - I got an MFA in creative writing at University of Michigan. But I don't think I really learned anything there - not because of the school but just because it was maybe because we don't really know how to teach writing to each other.

But I didn't learn how to really write until I became a copywriter in Chicago. So I worked for the Sears catalog, and my job was to write real short paragraphs about women's underwear. And the woman's underwear in the Sears catalog in the late '80s, early '90s, I guess, was - we were still selling imitation whalebone corsets and very big...

GROSS: Whoa, really?

R SPARKS: (Laughter) Yeah, crazy stuff, real old school.

B SPARKS: The Big Book.

R SPARKS: Yeah, and not attractive stuff, very - I think we stressed watchability. And...


R SPARKS: But we had to sell the product all the same. And they would give me a sample of, you know, polyester panties that were just, you know, I didn't want to touch them the fabric was so off putting. But I have to find a way to make this sound romantic and fun. And I really learned how to use words then to create a picture and to try to tell a story and to maybe make things come alive that really were dead. So, yeah, I owe a lot to the Sears...

B SPARKS: In a very short space, too.

R SPARKS: Yeah, it was...

B SPARKS: The economy of the writing is - was critical.

R SPARKS: The great gift of being a copywriter...

B SPARKS: That taught you a lot about songwriting.

R SPARKS: ...You have this many words. And it's a great way to learn how to write is when you're being told you have this many...

B SPARKS: Yeah...

R SPARKS: ...Words and no more.

B SPARKS: ...No more (laughter).

R SPARKS: So you have to choose your words carefully.

GROSS: Do you remember any of your polyester underwear copy?

R SPARKS: Let's see, lace, possibly the world's most romantic fabric...

B SPARKS: Got to get that possibly in there.

R SPARKS: ...Now in new easy-care polyester.


GROSS: That's pretty great. So when did you first start playing together?

B SPARKS: Oh, it was much - we were married for five years before we ever wrote a song or played together at all.

R SPARKS: It's funny how you think we would have thought of it earlier, but we didn't.

B SPARKS: We were both doing our own things. I was writing my own songs and doing little demos on a 4-track and Rennie was writing short stories and trying to get them published. And...

R SPARKS: I think the conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't, you know, work with your significant other, that you'll fight, it'll break you up or...

B SPARKS: Proof positive.

R SPARKS: (Laughter) ...So we always sort of felt like we had to keep that separate from our emotional life. But...

B SPARKS: Yeah, it's weird.

R SPARKS: I remember he was - you were writing some lyrics and having some trouble with rhymes and using the word baby a lot...

B SPARKS: Oh, yeah, that's...

R SPARKS: ...Which I find highly objectionable on many levels (laughter).

B SPARKS: The first song we ever wrote together is on "Odessa," and it's called "Arlene." And that's the one that I had written and I was trying to sell to somebody in Nashville as a country-pop song. I was getting some nibbles, but nothing worthwhile, nothing real. And then I was like, hey, Rennie, why don't you revise these lyrics? And there you go. And Rennie turned it from a country-pop song...

R SPARKS: I made it completely unsellable in Nashville.

B SPARKS: ...Into something completely - yeah.


B SPARKS: And that was the first murder ballad that we wrote. And that's why I'm kind of - I don't need to write any more murder ballads.

R SPARKS: But, you know, it was also really - it was really fun. It was a really fun experience. I thought it was exciting to work with you on something. And I really enjoyed it. And it was also really immediate because as a writer, writing is so lonely and so disconnected from your audience, if you have any audience.

GROSS: Rennie, you said you objected to Brett's use of the word baby so often in lyrics.

R SPARKS: (Laughter) I object to that just across the board in all songs. We should - no more - yeah, I find it's often just a filler, when people...

B SPARKS: It's the musical version of, you know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

R SPARKS: Yeah. It's a filler when the line is too short.

B SPARKS: Yeah. It's cheap, you know - you know (laughter).

R SPARKS: Yeah. Plus I...

B SPARKS: It's lazy.

R SPARKS: ...I don't like infantilizing love objects either, so that creeps me out as well. It's a much creepier word than people give it credit for.

B SPARKS: It's hard to listen to, you know, some of your favorite bands. The Beatles, The Kinks, there's a lot of babies in there.

R SPARKS: Well, I'm just saying a moratorium maybe - enough.

B SPARKS: Springsteen uses mister instead of baby.

R SPARKS: That's true.

B SPARKS: You should do mister baby.

GROSS: (Laughter).

R SPARKS: But so I thought that was song to me was also really helpful because I was depressed, as usual, and it was winter in Chicago.

And I was really thinking about moving to a cabin in the woods because everything was just so - you know, the snow in the city gets real dirty. And everything is just filthy in the winter in Chicago. It seems like...

B SPARKS: Dirty old town.

R SPARKS: ...The garbage just freezes on the street. And we lived across - we lived on a very busy city street. And across from us was a liquor store where this woman who worked at the cash register, her name tag said Arlene, and I always liked her name. But she was just an angry, hideous woman...

B SPARKS: Chain smoker.

R SPARKS: ...Physically and just personality wise, she was very much unlikable. She snapped at everyone. And on her break, she would stand out in front of the store and smoke in this really angry way.

B SPARKS: Angry smoker.

R SPARKS: Like she was biting the cigarette. And then she'd throw it down the ground. So it just came to me that I thought, you know, this is what art should do.

B SPARKS: I liked her.

R SPARKS: (Laughter) Let's try to make her beautiful and give her a romantic story.

B SPARKS: She dies in the end.

R SPARKS: Yeah, but...

B SPARKS: Anyway, there's Arlene.

R SPARKS: ...But she's - I think she would've loved to have a love affair like that.

GROSS: Well, OK. It's been great to speak with both of you. Thank you so much. And my guests have been Brett and Rennie Sparks. They're The Handsome Family. And I'm going to end with this first collaboration between Brett and Rennie Sparks. This is "Arlene."


B SPARKS: (Singing) Arlene, I'm sorry for what I've done.

I wasn't looking for love until I saw your red hair in the sun.

What we had could never be love, that was easy to see.

But when I saw you at Red's pouring coffee, something took a hold of me.

Oh, Arlene, you wouldn't even let me hold your hand.

When I stopped you in the road, you just screamed and ran.

Oh, Arlene, you wouldn't even let me hold your hand.

When I stopped you in the road, you just screamed and ran.

GROSS: Brett and Rennie Sparks perform under the name The Handsome Family. The Handsome Family's new album is called "Unseen."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Ryan Speedo Green, who went from being an angry, violent child doing time in a juvenile detention center to singing at the Metropolitan Opera. In 2011, he won the Met's National Council Auditions. He's about to co-star as Colline in the Met's production of "La Boheme." And there's a new biography of him, although he's only 30. It's called "Sing For Your Life." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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