Interview with the Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks

by Kara Murphy on May 26, 2015

The Handsome Family

Husband-and-wife duo, Brett and Rennie Sparks, the core of goth Americana outfit the Handsome Family, have been releasing albums for the past twenty years. Their unique, eccentric tales of ghosts and folklore deftly weave through dark, highly unpredictable ballads. This fierce dedication to constantly challenging the listener has earned them a slow-and-steady cult following. However, they didn’t receive mainstream recognition until the track “Far From Any Road,” from their 2003 release Singing Bones, was commissioned as the main theme song for HBO’s hit crime drama, True Detective.

The Handsome Family has been touring extensively in support of their latest release, Wilderness, these past few months, and while I missed the opportunity to meet them in person, at San Francisco’s The Chapel, Rennie was nice enough to answer a few of my questions virtually.

Here are her thoughts on modern music distribution, why crowdfunding is wrong, and where she and her husband want to settle next.

You’ve been married for 20 years, now, while constantly recording and touring with Brett. How do you make that work?
We don’t know any other way. This is the only band I’ve ever been in and the only way I’ve ever written songs. Writing and playing music together doesn’t tear us up, it brings us closer.
Handsome Family has recently been referred to in the press as the band behind the True Detective theme song, “Far From Any Road.” Does that bother you or is the exposure to a new generation of fans worth it?
It’s been immeasurably helpful. We are very grateful. Many people have gone on to explore our entire catalog after hearing that one song. 
You’re from New York, Brett is from Texas. You formed the band in Chicago, lived in Ann Arbor, and are now based in Albuquerque. Which city has influenced your music the most?
I’m sure they all have. When in Chicago I wrote about snow and forests a lot. Here in the desert I write about sunlight and oceans a lot. I guess dreams are effected by landscape. In Ann Arbor (a college town) I was obsessed with writing about old people. I think I dream what I need to dream.
Is there anywhere, in particular, you’re yearning to live or explore?
Currently, we’re trying to move further out of town into the desert. There are many fascinating creatures lurking in our foothills here. Prairie dogs, bob cats, black bears, strange plumed birds, huge spiders, lizards, snakes.
Besides being featured on a popular TV show, what services (Spotify, YouTube, Bandcamp, for example) do you find useful for discovering new music and revisiting old favorites?
I’m not impressed by any of those services. They are a necessary evil, I suppose, but it doesn’t make me feel great to see that millions of people have listened to our songs for free. That’s the world we live in. These people often do go on to buy CDs or come to shows, so it does help. Still, if we’d had a popular TV theme song in the 1990’s we might have made millions of dollars. It’s a different world.

(Editor’s note: I didn’t get into it, considering the scope and nature of the interview, but I would have countered that Bandcamp takes, by far and away, the lowest cut of any third-party music service.)

What do you think of the growing number of musicians using crowdfunding platforms such as Patreon and Kickstarter to finance new projects? 
I think it’s kind of sad. It seems incredibly easy to just ask your fans to donate to you through you own website. Why involve a third party?
So, you would never consider taking that route?
No, I dont want to pay someone just to hold basically an on-line auction for me. For similar reasons I am always glad to sell my own merch in person at shows. Shopping doesnt mean much these days unless we can make it meaningful.
Is there anything new and exciting we can expect in the near future?
Yes, we’re hard at work on a new set of songs and more writing and more animal paintings!
Editor’s note: Rennie creates exquisite paintings of animals that are for sale through the Handsome Family’s official site. They sell out relatively fast so it’s probably best to commission one of these fine works. If anyone from New Mexico, Norway, or Sweden is reading this, you can catch the group on tour throughout June and July.

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