Nature Girl: An Interview with the Handsome Family

The Handsome Family
Carrot Top

Twenty years and ten albums into The Handsome Family’s career, no band better-evokes what Greil Marcus called — in a famous phrase relating to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music — ‘the old, weird America.’ Indeed, Marcus himself turned his attention specifically to the Handsome’s five years after the afore-quoted Invisible Republic, in a subsequent piece written for Granta: “No one has taken up Smith’s offering more fully and with a more complete sense of the necessary oddness of the shared voice than the still little-known Handsome Family. A husband and wife duo whose lyrics, in their everyday surrealism have no parallel in contemporary writing, [and that] mine the deep veins of fatalism in the Appalachian voice.”

The essay finishes with a reference to “Winnebago Skeletons” from their Milk and Scissors album, in which Brett Sparks sings about the: “fish in my stomach, a thousand years old.” The song is an extraordinary piece of work; a fine example of neo-surrealist poetry in which the narrator describes his mental disintegration using flashes of sickly imagery taken from the objective world. More than that though, it also instinctively taps into the paradigm in traditional American music which uses the natural world to communicate the absurder end of human experience. (Or, to quote Marcus yet again: “The wish for mastery running up against forces no one can understand.”) “I wish I was a mole in the ground…”; “The Coo Coo is a pretty bird…”; “Blues jumped a rabbit, run him one solid mile…”

The band’s new album Wilderness consists of nothing but songs containing images from nature, either as metaphor, or with creatures deployed almost as avatars for extremes of feeling. It begins with “Flies”, in which the apparent significance of human history is inverted via a fly’s eye-view of Custer’s corpse. In the penultimate track meanwhile, nature has its revenge on the song’s spider-killing protagonist — sending an army of imaginary creepy-crawlies to rob her of her sleep before leaving her to “crawl” and “slither” Gregor Samsa-like underneath the “rotting trees.”

Speaking to Rennie Sparks over the phone in the home she shares with her husband in Albuquerque, I’m slightly disappointed to find that Brett is sitting this one out. In interviews, the pair often come-off like a entertaining, sometimes-teasing, double-act, so I was rather looking forward to experiencing the Handsome Family dynamic first-hand. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried — Brett’s listening nearby, interjecting commentary when necessary, and spontaneous outbursts when moved. (“Married for 300 years and he still laughs at my jokes…”) Rennie — who writes the lyrics, while Brett takes care of the music — meanwhile, is funny, thoughtful, and above all, as apparently unguarded as anyone I’ve ever interviewed.

* * *

Are you an animal person? Do you have any pets?

Yes — I have a lot of stray cats that have found me. Brett jokes that there’s markings on the front gate like the ones hobos used to mark peoples’ houses in the Depression — ‘This woman will feed you and take you in if you just get to the cat door.’ Whether that makes me an animal person, I don’t know. The cats don’t seem to care how we feel one way or another — they just make themselves at home. Every once in a while we wake up and there’s a cat I’ve never seen before in the bed with us.

A friend of mine always says that you don’t choose cats, they choose you…

Yeah. Though I read a study recently about a virus you can get from handling cat litter that evidently makes you want to be around them. They did this experiment with rats, who were apparently drawn to the cats. Cat lovers may just be infected with this virus, which would make a lot of sense.

Why do you think the natural world is so effective when writing about the more abstract end of human experience?

I don’t know. Animals’ incorporation into poetic language is definitely an example of human beings bringing their own meaning to the natural world, though. None of us have objective eyes — we judge everything the second we look at it. With a song like “Owls” [in which a man thinks the imaginary owls that live in his house are stealing his anti-depressants] there is an emotional truth to it, even if it doesn’t necessarily make rational sense. Who’s to say that the animals don’t do the same with us? The cats are definitely laying some heavy meaning on me — they think I’m a patsy.

Speaking more broadly, it seems silly to me to write about the world and not mention animals — it’s an obvious subject, since we’re animals and we live on a planet full of other species. To be fair, every other song I’ve ever written has got animals in it. They may not always be that obvious, but they’re usually in there somewhere. The world is so intricately mysterious — I’m so thankful that the more I know the less I know. Have you heard of the immortal jellyfish?

There’s an immortal jellyfish?

There is. Most jellyfish don’t live for very long, but as soon as this one reaches maturity and mates, it regresses and starts over again [its Wikipedia name is Turritopsis nutricula]. It keeps getting older and younger, again and again. There were a lot of things I wanted to write about on Wilderness but couldn’t — I think jellyfish would be a really hard word to sing, for instance — so I put them in the book instead.

Why have you chosen these animals in particular? There’s a lot of slithering and crawling…

I find it fascinating that humans have such strange opinions of certain creatures — like cockroaches and snakes are bad but cats are good. The more I found out about cockroaches, the more I realised there’s really no reason not to like them.

I was reading Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle where she talks about her vision of the mansions of paradise, outside of which are creatures slithering in the mud. I thought — how sad! What’s wrong with all the slithering things? It seems strange we should have heaven without frogs and worms and creepy-crawly things, just because we’re uncomfortable with them. I wanted to talk about things from a different perspective.

Do you have an environmental agenda?

That’s what people want to know — are you trying to save the planet? My message is the planet doesn’t care. The only thing we’re saving when we’re trying to save the world is our own habitat, which is fine. I’m all for saving my species, but the planet will be fine either way.

There’s a book by English academic John Gray called Straw Dogs, where he suggests that humans are basically plague animals. Thinking of something like the song “Flies”, would you say that’s fair enough?

We do seem to want to expand exponentially, without ever seeming to be satisfied with our habitat as it is, but that’s probably the prime directive of any species. Termites are the same way — they can’t stand anything that’s not termite-made, so all they want to do is make the world over into a huge termite cathedral for the glory of their termite queen. When it comes to human beings it’s like Thoreau said — the mark of a man is his ability to leave things alone.

Termite mounds are pretty beautiful if you’ve ever seen one. If I could fit into one, I would definitely live in a termite mound. Science may catch up with my dream one day.

Changing the subject slightly, would it be fair to say that the music has gone darker again following Honey Moon?

I’m not sure — whether it’s gone darker or not would probably be for other people to say. I try to make everything I do feel real, so I write songs that have a little happiness and a little sadness; a little beauty and a little ugliness. I think it might be a Rorschach test, and you focus on is the thing that means the most to you.

We have a reputation for being bleak or whatever, but I think that’s because people become disconcerted when you remind them that we’re all mortal. I think they may even be insulted — but the only way you can enjoy life is by admitting that it ends. It’s juvenile to expect your art never to mention mortality.

Is there still lingering resentment in the US that you don’t necessarily identify yourself according to a single genre?

We haven’t been embraced by Nashville yet, it’s true. But, you know, what can you do? I feel very American and I feel very connected to American folk traditions and country music, even if the feeling’s not always mutual. People mix us up with [’90s teen sensation] Hanson. I used to tell people that we were their parents.

Are you happy to see yourself as part of ‘the old, weird America’?

I didn’t know that we were until Greil Marcus told me, but yes I am. I feel very connected to those old folk songs — which really go back to the British Isles as well. Funny thing is, when we put a quote up to that effect on our Facebook page, somebody from Appalachia said [puts on angry voice] “Y’all ain’t even from Appalachia are you!” as if I’m not allowed to be anywhere near the word if I don’t live there. Once again, America slammed the door in my face. [laughs]

But, you know, that’s part of the American experience too — the best people in America are the outsiders. This poor kid defending his Appalachian honor. What am I going to do to it that’s not already been done? The whole thing’s been strip-mined.

Over here, we just see American music as American music — probably exemplified in something like The Band…

That’s what I think too. My husband loves The Band.

What’s your relationship with Brett in terms of songwriting?

The lyrics always come first and then the music afterwards. Brett’s really good at using the music to serve the words — that’s really his agenda. With something like “Owls” we wanted something in a George Jones style. It’s kind of a Nashville drinking song but with pills. As a country, we’re going to need some songs about anti-depressants at some point, I think.

You mentioned St Teresa already. Do you still think that Hildegard von Bingen is the greatest songwriter ever?

Despite what I’ve read about her being anti-Semitic, I think Hildegard von Bingen’s work is beautiful. I love any kind of ecstatic writing where the relationship with god is almost sexual in its intensity. It’s a connection to the infinite that seems to be what we all aspire to.

Does that reflect a belief system on your part?

There is a certain, odd, sense of mystery that fills me when I consider the infinite, definitely. I don’t necessarily call it god, but I do think of it as something special that deserves pause and consideration.

In our country, we have Creationists that talk about how the beautiful things in our world — like termite mounds — couldn’t have happened by accident. I don’t see things in the same way, because to me those things are all about intention and want — a spider builds a web because it has to. If you’re going to look for something holy, you have to look in a still body of water or the darkness at the bottom of the ocean. It’s not found in any creature that has a need.