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Q&A: Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family

| July 22, 2013

Illinois Entertainer: We seem to share an obsession with beards. It doesn’t go unnoticed that your husband and the other half of The Handsome Family, Brett Sparks, sports some righteous facial hair. What’s the fascination for you?
Rennie Sparks:
It’s time that we ladies talk about this a little more openly, I think. We can come out of the closet about this. Some ladies don’t like beards, but some ladies have a fondness for them. Nothing wrong with that. You want what you can’t have, I guess, too. If men could grow tails and horns I’d like ’em even better, but I like the beard pretty good too.

IE: When talking about The Handsome Family’s splendid animal-as-allegory latest release, Wilderness, you mention, as the band’s lyricist, that there were a lot of things that you wanted to write about, but couldn’t. What were those things and what was preventing you?
The one thing I always talk about is jellyfish. It’s hard to sing the word jellyfish. No matter how hard I’ve tried to write a lyric that involved the word jellyfish, it just doesn’t sound good. Some things just aren’t meant to be sung. Brett insists that he could sing the word jellyfish and give it some grace, but I just can’t hear it. It’s just not made to be sung. Not every word in the English language has lent itself to it. So there’s a lot of things like that that just didn’t seem like things that could be sung. And there’s something inherently silly just about hearing the word jelly in jellyfish that’s so alien to my opinion of jellyfish so I just didn’t want to even attempt it if I couldn’t express what I had to say about the dignity of jellyfish. Amazing creatures, jellyfish. I’m obsessed with the immortal jellyfish. Do you know about this one jellyfish that seems to live forever?

IE: No. Do tell!
Most jellyfish don’t live very long, but this one jellyfish they’re studying now, it appears that when it reaches sexual maturity and it mates, it then goes backwards and it goes back to an infantile state and it starts over again. So it gets older and younger and older and younger and it never dies. Unless something happens to it, unless something eats it, it can just live forever.

IE: That’s amazing. On one hand it seems cool, and on the other it seems like punishment, like as soon as you mate, you’re back to being a baby.
[Laughs] I don’t know. Yeah, what is it like spending all eternity as a jellyfish. But there’s so much to say! So I would still like to get that jellyfish song written, but I don’t know. Science hasn’t caught up with my dream just yet.

IE: Every song title on Wilderness uses the name of a creature in the Animal Kingdom. Why do you think animals serve as better stand-ins for human foibles?
I just think it’s important to remind ourselves that we are animals, and we’re just one species on a planet with other species and that we’re no different than the rest even though we insist we are. I think if you asked termites or ants who’s running the planet, they would immediately say the termites or the ants. It’s just our perspective that makes us feel like we’re running things here. And peoples say, “Oh, our footprint is all over the world.” And yes, our footprint is on a lot of the world, but all we’re really doing is destroying our own habitat. I think the rest of the earth will be fine if we want to continue destroying our habitat. And some other species do it too. I think it’s really healthy and I think gives you a nicer perspective on the human experience to remind yourself we’re just animals. It’s O.K.

IE: Do you think listeners can accept the deep themes you explore on Wilderness more easily when they’re presented in this fable-like way?
There’s no way I think humans in general can understand anything without putting our own spin on it. We’re not able to see the world the way it is, so I don’t even try, because we can’t look at a weeping willow tree and not think it looks a little sad. No matter how many times you tell yourself it’s probably not sad, we still see it that way. So I think that’s just what humans do. We tell stories about everything the second we look at them. It makes perfect sense to me that when we talk about the natural world it should be colored with dreams. ‘Cause we’re kind of always dreaming a little bit.

IE: When you play at Millennium Park (on July 22), you’ll be playing outdoors, so you’ll be singing to and for both your human audience and all of these creatures that get top billing on the album.
Yeah, I’m hoping we attract some big moths or something or bats. We used to live on Concord Place in Wicker Park and at night there would be so many bats flying around our street. It was so wonderful. So I’m hoping a few of those come down to see us.

IE: Talk about perspective! That’s an interesting way to look at it. I would have moved away from a flock of bats.
They’re amazing! They’re blind, but they fly perfectly. It’s just fascinating to me. And they are eating insects. They’re not doing anything nefarious like planning bank robberies. They’re just eating insects in the pleasant twilight.

IE: I’m glad you brought up that you used to live in Wicker Park because I think we still claim you as our own even though you and Brett moved to New Mexico.
We’re just in far Chicagoland, that’s all. [They say] as you move further and further out in the suburbs, you’re in far Chicagoland. We can still get WGN on the right cable channels. We’re just in a really far suburb.

IE: On the flipside, can you talk about how living in New Mexico has shaped your music since you departed from Chicago?
I have a driveway now, which, to me, is like, I’ll never get used to the luxury of a driveway after living so many years in Chicago on busy streets. It is like so decadent almost to just pull the car out and park it and, at my leisure, get out with whatever I have in my bag. A driveway does change a lot of things. It’s taken my stress level down, waaayy down! I used to have to double park and it was such a huge ordeal just getting groceries where we lived in Chicago. Maybe that was part of the fun of it all, but I think it’s a little easier out here for us and just quieter. Not much goes on except sky is big and beautiful everyday. So it’s a good place to collect your thoughts.

IE: If only you knew earlier that a mere driveway was the secret to life’s happiness.
I know. I could have saved myself so many bills in therapy and medications. I just needed a driveway; that was really it.

IE: In the great piece you wrote for the New York Times about songwriting, the one thing that stood out was this line about a song not having to be true, it just has to feel true.
I stand by that. Just like we were saying about humans, we don’t really know what truth is. But we know when something feels true and when it doesn’t feel true. Emotional truths are way more important to us. We’re emotional creatures and there’s nothing wrong with just getting in touch with that. Your heart wants what your heart wants and you know it when you’re there.

IE: How has that mission statement served you as a songwriter?
Songwriting is such a tricky business. There’s no light that goes off or bell that rings when you’ve got a song finished. It’s very hard to tell sometimes what you’re doing when you’re doing it, so, I think, a song has to feel like it’s saying something that I didn’t know. It has to feel like it’s bigger than my thoughts, and then I feel like it’s very exciting, but if I feel I know exactly where the song came from and what miserable corner of my brain it trickled out of, then it’s not interesting to me. I think that’s why we write songs, why we make art is to feel connected to something bigger. So songs have to feel emotionally bigger than me. And I think, not that necessarily there’s like hidden realms that I’m tapping into, but just that the conscious part of our brains are really small and limited places that, I think the purpose of art is to get us past those little senses.

IE: You also touch on real-life personalities on Wilderness, like Stephen Foster and Mary Sweeney. What was it about their stories that drew you to them?
I’m drawn to a certain kind of catastrophe maybe. Like I was saying with everything, I don’t really know what Mary Sweeney was like and I don’t know what Stephen Foster was like, but I can imagine myself through their stories what it felt like to be them. And especially just because you can trace their actions. With Stephen Foster you can trace his songs, which I’m so obsessed with the fact that Stephen Foster songs should not be very good. They should be terrible because of what he was writing – he was writing sentimental ballads for parlors and he was writing goofy, cartoony minstrel songs for minstrel tents, so none of that should be good. It should be over the top in many different directions, but his songs are so good and they’re just mysteriously good, so I can’t stop thinking about him. And I think also, at the same time, he was such a miserable person and such a failure at his own life, and yet he seemed to be able to connect with these huge human truths in his songs that he couldn’t seem to connect with in his everyday experience. And it’s so amazing to me and tragic and also so true that we’re not who we are in our songs. The songs are far bigger than the person sometimes – a good song. He’s definitely an example of that. What he knew about the human experience, about pain and loneliness and all the important issues that plague our hearts was just vast. But, I think, what he knew about it for himself personally was very little because he just couldn’t live a normal life. He died at 37, and it’s true what I said in the song, he died at 37, he was a miserable drunk, he was penniless. And it’s just unbelievable to me that this guy who has written all of these songs that are still the songs everybody knows in America was so miserable and alone. And never really got to feel his songs the way other people felt them. Like a song like “Beautiful Dreamer” is such a wonderful experience to listen to, but I don’t think it made him very happy.

IE: Would you rather be happy or write a great song known for the ages?
Be happy! [laughs]. Sometimes we don’t get to choose what we get, I guess. I think he wanted to be happy, but I don’t think he could. I think maybe for little fleeting moments he was happy. Maybe that’s what I’m interested in: How songwriting, they must have given him moments, little brief seconds of joy that were fleeting, but still what kept him going for a long time.

IE: Also in the New York Times, you painted this picture of Brett living with your lyrics as he molds the music and how they follow him to dinner and while he’s watching TV, like they are an imaginary friend. What is it like to be an observer to that process?
I think he’s maybe more in touch with that unknowable part of our brain that does the hard word of creativity because I think he knows – like I can be watching TV, I can be looking at the Internet, but as long as I’ve got the song lyrics next me that something else is brewing and in a way I feel like sometimes keeping your conscious mind busy is a good way to get some work done. Sometimes when I can’t write songs, I’ll go build a fence or do yard work because just being distracted somehow gets the work done. Because the part of us that writes songs is the part of us that we don’t have any conscious contact with. It’s just working and then suddenly it just sends you a little message like, “Finished! Here!” And you grab at it before it slips away again back into the deep dark seas of the unconscious world. So I think on some natural level he knows that. I let him percolate and he usually percolates in a good way. Something comes of it that is always really surprising to me. It’s always very exciting to work on a song with him because it ends up being every more mysterious when he’s done with it. And I know he’s getting somewhere when he starts talking about his song instead of my song.

The Handsome Family appears at Millennium Park on July 22 as part of the city’s summer Downtown Sound series.

— Janine Schaults

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