Interview with Rennie Sparks of Handsome Family

Interview with Rennie Sparks of Handsome Family
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Living in Chicago there are constant opportunities to discover new music or perhaps established music that is new to you.  This was the case when I went to Schubas last spring to watch Handsome Family on tour in support of their then new album, Honey Moon.

Husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks make whimsical, sometimes macabre alt-country music that is haunting and playful all at once. The same can be said of the pair in concert where two decades of marriage are evident in their chemistry.  Brett, slightly drunk, rolls his eyes as Rennie sweetly sets the stage for the coming song.  In a venue as intimate as Schubas, a listener feels invited into the world of Handsome Family, warts and all.

Though no longer of Chicago, Handsome Family has roots in the windy city where Rennie and Brett hailed from during the 1990’s.  In anticipation of their return this Sunday, June 13th when they will play at Old Town School of Folk Music, Rennie and I did a little emailing:

Via Chicago: So you guys have been married for 20-some years. What came first, the marriage or the music?

Rennie Sparks: We were married for about five years before it ever occurred to us to play music together. 
VC: What are the pros and cons of working with your spouse?
RS: It’s lovely to sing a harmony with someone you love, but it’s awful to sing out of tune with someone you love.
VC: Did you meet in Chicago?  How do you think living in the Chi influenced the music of Handsome Family?

RS: We met in NY and then ended up moving to Chicago together a few
years later. We were there a bunch of years before we ever met any
musicians, but once we did it and once we started to play music
ourselves it was a very inspiring time. So many great musicians helped
us and inspired us:  Jeff Tweedy, Andrew Bird, Jon Langford, Neko Case,
etc. Great clubs like Lounge Ax and The Hide Out. It was a wonderful
place to learn how to be a musician. There’s also a lot of Chicago in
the lyrics from that time period. A lot of snow and dark streets.

VC: Why did you end up leaving?

RS: Mostly
just couldn’t afford to live there anymore unless we moved way out of
town. Albuquerque is cheap and sunny. We own a house and have a
separate space to record in. In Chicago we always practiced and
recorded in our living room. When someone was laying down a track the
other one had to sit very quietly and wait.
VC: I
found Honey Moon to be incredibly whimsical, and after seeing you at
Schubas last spring, I gather very much inspired by the nature around
you in Albuquerque.  Can you speak a little to your creative process?

RS: Try and try and then try some more. If all that fails then I go out in the yard and start whacking at the weeds.

VC: What is special about playing Old Town School of Folk Music?

RS: Can’t
imagine a better venue for music playing or music listening. It’s a
treat all around. I also took my first singing lessons from the Old
Town so I’m very thankful for their existence on many levels.

VC: What
do you like to do most when you come back to play Chicago, any specific
restaurants you just have to eat at or places you have to stop by?

RS: We
lived in Chicago for twelve years so just about everywhere we go and do
we have layers and layers of memory. The first time I visited an old
woman ran up to me and screamed, “You jag off!” It’s been one of my
favorite cities ever since.

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