BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
The Handsome Family is a small one: Just two people, Brett and Rennie Sparks, a married couple that started making music in Chicago where they were part of a then-flourishing roots music scene in the mid-1990’s. This weekend they return to play the Hideout Block Party, the annual street festival hosted by the music room they called home for many years.
“Chicago was essential to our sound,” Brett Sparks says. “Basically, we’re still a Chicago band.”
The couple now lives in New Mexico, a less stressful environment, they say, than the gritty stretch of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park where they once lived atop a third floor walk-up, long before the neighborhood was populated by the financial services crowd and weekend suburbanites. With a recording studio in their garage and a wide-open sky above their heads, their current desert home gives them more space to make music and a more pleasant home to return to after touring overseas.
Which is where they will travel all October — Mostly sold-out shows across Europe. The lovely but dark country music the Handsome Family makes, in which animals often appear doing nefarious things and humans fare not much better — Europeans have always been big fans. However this year, the shows have sold tickets far in advance, which Brett attributes to “the show.”
That is, the acclaimed HBO detective series “True Detective.” Last year, the Sparks received an email telling them their song, “Far From Any Road,” from their 2003 album “Singing Bones,” was going to be used in “a cop show.” It ended up becoming the show’s opening theme.
“I was like, ‘that’s cool’. I kind of thought it was either a joke or it was something that was going to fall through. Your life as a musician is just basically a series of rugs being pulled from under you,” he says. “So we blew it off.”
Then came the check. “Dollar signs,” he remembers. “They sent out a link to the trailer and it looked pretty cool … I was really amazed. It wasn’t a cop show, it was a really good show. Exceptionally good. I was very gratified to be even involved in a little way.”
The Handsome Family deserves the recognition and more. No other band of the last 20 years has created such a singular surrealist world in their songs. With Rennie writing the words and Brett the music, their collaboration represents the apex of musical storytelling, wrung with needle-perfect lyrical details, cased in lovely melodies, and sung with profound vocal harmonies. Underpinning the music is what can be found in folk songs heard from early last century: Apocalyptic humor and everyday pain wrought without pretense.
Rennie Sparks says she writes lyrics, often not knowing what they mean until Brett sings them. “It surprises me with his phrases and the things he emphasizes. They bring things out in the song that didn’t even occur to me,” she says. “It’s interesting how he takes over the song.”
They also sing together: “Singing harmonies with someone you love, there’s a strange connection that doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
When he sings, Brett Sparks bring to the music significant weight — he is a baritone — but also, and very strangely, vulnerability and beauty. “I just really like to sing. I think it’s the most essential and pure form of human expression. Anything else, you’re taking a step away from your body,” he says. “It’s so much like language, but it’s so different and there’s so much you can do with it.”
Mystery is what drives the couple. Rennie says she writes often, but “most of it is garbage.” Then she waits and a song arrives from “that strange, hidden swamp in my brain that suddenly wakes up … It’s a mysterious process, that’s why it’s also exciting.”
When they started making music in 1993, the Handsome Family became part of the alt-country scene that revolved primarily around Lounge Ax, the former Lincoln Park rock club, and later the Hideout. Even though many of the bands didn’t sound alike, the scene thrived for so many years in Chicago because it felt like an outpost of creativity outside more legitimate homes of country music.
Chicago “was kind of like an alternative Austin in a way,” says Brett. “It felt more authentic and not disingenuous. I always thought it was more motivated by music and there was an enormous audience.”
Rennie says that because there were so many bands, the bar was raised, making the idea of playing music as a full-time endeavor a real possibility.
“It made me want to work harder. People in Chicago, they really listen carefully. They now the difference when something is really crappy. So if you are just doing a band for fun, you’ll stop doing it after awhile, because it’s a lot of work,” she says. “It’s not easy, so it winnows away the people who don’t need to do it.”
The city’s dark urban environment, “where nothing is alive at all, maybe a pigeon” also helped her songwriting. “That got me thinking about forests a lot. I was always thinking about dense forests while in Chicago,” she says. “I built a forest in my head and started populating it with stories.”
Besides “True Detective,” the Handsome Family also received wider recognition when Andrew Bird, another former Chicagoan, released a full album of their songs this year. Brett says next on the docket for the Sparks will be a five-song EP that will feature just guitar, banjo and vocals.
“Not edited, not Pro-Tooled. With the last couple of records I’ve gone completely too far. When you have unlimited possibilities, that is where you’ll go,” he says. “And now I want to pull back.”