Match made in heaven

You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family.

ANNOYING ROMANTIC types are always pulling out the phrase, "So and So are made for each other." I suppose it means the referenced couple is so perfect that they were predestined, chosen a long, long time ago, maybe even cosmically connected. It's a nice sentiment and all, but it's pretty dumb.

Handsome Family

OK Hotel, Friday, June 23

But even a cynic like me has a hard time denying that the sentiment applies to Rennie and Brett Sparks, the husband and wife team behind the Handsome Family. Their disarmingly gothic and sometimes hilarious take on classic country-and-western and folk styles—showcased on four albums for the Carrot Top label—has won them the attention of musicians such as the Mekons and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who've invited them on tours, as well as a growing legion of fans. Simply put, the Sparks are master storytellers. I hit record and the tales begin.

So how did you start playing songs together?

Brett Sparks: We were together about five years before we collaborated, musically.

Rennie Sparks: I was happily scribbling in my corner, I could've just stayed in my lonely room by myself, but he wanted a bass player for his goofy band. He was like, "Any monkey can play bass, and since I don't have a monkey around. . . ." The bass came first, the lyrics came only after he was trying to rhyme "Baby" with "Baby."

B: I don't really like writing lyrics.

R: I never really wanted to write lyrics for a rock band, I mean, I've always loved music. . .

B: No, no, Rennie always says music sucks. She hates music.

In a manner that lovingly implies the words, "Cut the crap," Rennie describes how she divides history by the release of Harry Smith's Folk Anthology: There is "Before" people understood folk music and murder ballads and "After" people became familiar with the idea of songs as stories.

R: The important thing with folk music, too, is not just that the lyrics are really good, but also, like when you listen to rock 'n' roll, you kinda have the impression that the singer is the song. It's all about some crazy, cool person singing their crazy, cool song.

B: Crazy, sexy, cool.

R: Right, I left that out. But yeah, it can just be a story, and the singer can just be the storyteller. Which is cool, because you don't really look good in leather pants, Brett.

B: That's true. Lederhosen, on the other hand, are very flattering on me.

R: That's true.

B: I have gorgeous knees.

Aside from gorgeous knees, the Handsome Family's 1996 release, Milk and Scissors, and 1998's Through the Trees referenced Brett's hospitalization, his bout with a mental disorder, and Rennie's reaction to that difficult time. I wanted to know what events prompted the band's latest record.

What was going on in your lives while you were writing In the Air?

B: There wasn't any major catastrophe.

R: Only good things. We had these shitty apartment windows. . . .

B: You and your goddamn windows!

R: Look at them, they're wonderful! We had these shitty windows that you couldn't look out, and some city official came by and told our landlord he had to change them. So now I can see! If you stand here and look out just normally, you see this ugly city, but if you lay down on the bed and look out, all you see is sky.

Brett describes the large, 20- by 15-foot panes of glass and the couple's loft apartment in Chicago.

R: When I wrote the other lyrics, I was writing suicide notes more often than not. I didn't have windows!

B: Oh, you and your windows. You really are nuts!

R: Shut up, I am not. With Through the Trees, I was feeling really fragile. I felt like the world was a really dark and bloodthirsty place and it was really hard to find a place where you felt safe. But at the same time, it's also really beautiful. Now I'm feeling a little less at odds with the world.

What about the idea that couples shouldn't work together?

R: That's so silly. If you can't work together, you probably shouldn't be married. I just think it's odd that people can't spend time with someone that they married.

B: There are always hassles. People break into your car, you miss ferries. . . .

R: Yeah, but it's always my fault.

B: Yeah, at least there's no argument about whose fault it is. . . .

R: The main thing is, you're not sacrificing your life when you go out on the road, I mean, to a certain extent—like you only have three pairs of pants—but you don't have to leave your family at home.

B: You have three pairs of pants?! You bitch!

Somewhere in a lineage with country legends Johnny and June Carter Cash, pop heroes John and Yoko, and punk anti-icons Sid and Nancy, there is Brett and Rennie: A musical couple so right, you figure they were just made for each other.

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