23 May The Waltons they ain’t
They met over a tambourine and a bottle of tequila … now Brett and Rennie Sparks have made an album celebrating 20 years of marriage. They talk music and married life to Amy Fleming
Who would you rather work with than someone you love?” asks Rennie Sparks, plainly. When she puts it like that, placing all your eggs – creative, professional and personal – in one basket sounds like a no-brainer. “Maybe,” adds her husband Brett, smirking, “before everyone gets married, they should be forced to write a song together, to make a record and go on tour together.” If you can do all that without falling out, you can safely assume that you are a highly compatible couple.
There can be no doubt that Brett and Rennie get on well. They have been married for 20 years and in a band together – the Handsome Family – for 16. Brett composes the music and sings lyrics written by Rennie, while Rennie accompanies him with soft backing vocals and by playing bass, banjo or autoharp.
Their relationship has withstood countless tours of America and Europe, often just them and their equipment jiggling along in a rickety van, and this month sees the release of their eighth album, Honey Moon. Made to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, its prevailing theme is romantic love – which, if you are familiar with their back catalogue, is something of a break with tradition. Previous Handsome Family records have, as Brett puts it, “a really high body count”. The eerie worlds they conjure up tend to be haunted, tangled woods of which you get a surreal insect’s-eye view – everything is magnified. Characteristically macabre song titles include Winnebago Skeletons, Bury Me Here, Weightless Again and My Ghost, a yarn inspired by Brett’s stay on a psychiatric ward following a breakdown. The Waltons they ain’t.
Both have a history of mental illness. Brett is regularly troubled by severe bouts of depression, while Rennie went through a particularly bad time a few years ago, when they still lived in Chicago. Since moving to sunnier climes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, however, things have improved.
Asked if their mental health problems helped to draw them together – them against the world – Rennie says not. “The funny thing was that when we got married, both of us were thinking we’d married an extremely sane person who would be the yin to their crazy yang. In the end, we do tend to take turns being crazy. Perhaps being around someone breaking down makes you stand tall.” Contrary to the cliche that taking psychiatric drugs suppresses people’s artistic sides, she adds, being on medication “has helped us to remain creative and remain married”.
Was becoming parents ever part of their plan? “We never ruled out children,” says Rennie, “but mental illness on both sides and a lot of travelling makes it seem like procreating would be extremely selfish and short-sighted.”
While the Sparkses seem keen to avoid trite comparisons between their new love songs and their own relationship, Honey Moon’s track list, with titles such as My Friend, Little Sparrows and A Thousand Diamond Rings, feels just as representative of the apparently sweet-natured couple sat in front of me as their previous, doom-laden works.
The couple first met at university in New York state where he studied music history and she philosophy. Brett was waiting in the student union for another date to show up when Rennie appeared. “You can never say no to a woman with a tambourine and a bottle of tequila, and that’s what Rennie was, basically,” he recalls, misty-eyed. “Surprisingly, some people can,” Rennie laughs. They got married when he was 25 and she was 23. Aside from their day jobs, Rennie enjoyed writing creepy short stories (a paperback collection of which, Evil, is sold at Handsome Family shows), and Brett enjoyed making music, but they didn’t join creative forces for some time.
“We never thought about collaborating at all for the first five years,” says Rennie. “It was only when we moved to Chicago and didn’t really know anyone and he wanted to put a band together that I said I could maybe play bass and help him out a little bit. It didn’t start off as a grand scheme – it was just something fun to do on the weekends.”
But even when they had day jobs, they ended up working together. When Brett’s “really cool job” as a fact-checker for an encyclopaedia came to an abrupt end (the company fell victim to the internet), he ended up proofreading the standardised school tests for which Rennie was designing the layouts. “I did this for years and was very quiet,” she recalls, “but every once in a while I’d disappear on tour for a month, and one day I came in and one of my bosses was holding up a picture of me in Rolling Stone magazine and she was really angry and said: ‘Can you explain this?’ You’d think she’d be happy for me.”
“‘You do other things?’ – that was the exact terminology, too,” says Brett. “That was kind of the beginning of the end of our employment.” The couple have been able to live off music for 10 years now. They still work hard, says Rennie, “but we do a lot of it in our pyjamas”. Brett tugs at her trouserleg: “Are those mine?”
Unusually for a full-time band, they don’t have a manager to help them make big decisions, negotiate record deals and plan touring schedules. I wonder if one of them is more managerial than the other. Rennie comes across as the more grown up of the two, so my money is on her. “She’s definitely more managerial,” says Brett.
“Yeah, I suppose I am,” says Rennie.
You might expect that in order to stay sane the pair would need to draw boundaries between work and domesticity. “No,” they say in unison, “it’s all blurred.” Rennie continues: “We came home from one tour after about a month and I remember thinking, as he walked into another room, that I hadn’t been apart from him except when either of us had gone to the bathroom, for an entire month.” Brett nods emphatically. They both do this a lot when the other is talking.
“We’ve been off [the road] for three months or something, so we’ve had a more normal existence lately,” he says, “but soon it’s all going to revert back to – ” Rennie jumps in: “Seeing a lot of each other?”
“To craziness – to being on the road and sleeping in motel rooms and stuff like that,” Brett grins.
It isn’t so very unusual for couples to dream of quitting the rat race and starting some creative endeavour together, only to put it off indefinitely for fear of inflicting an unbearable strain on their relationship. Doesn’t the Sparkses’ lifestyle make maintaining equilibrium more challenging? Brett looks to Rennie, who says, “It sort of makes it easier because so many things in our lives are entwined … that it’d be difficult to untangle it all if we had to. So we’re forced to reconcile if we have arguments. It’s much easier to work it out than to untangle this mess we’ve made.”
“I only really think about it when someone asks me, ‘How do you work with your wife?'” says Brett. “Which is probably a good thing, because to me it doesn’t seem anything weird or abnormal.”
Being married, says Rennie, even makes the creative process smoother. They can be critical of each other “without it turning into a huge fight, because we know how to speak to each other. We do have fights over songs where we disagree vehemently, and sometimes those songs get thrown out because we can’t ever decide anything, but for the most part, even if at first you say, ‘I can’t believe you don’t like that line in that song’, after a while we talk about it and the fact that we’re married probably helps.”
“We don’t have to pussyfoot around people’s feelings,” adds Brett. “We can just say, ‘This line is too long’, or ‘Why doesn’t this rhyme?’ or ‘The oboe doesn’t sound right’, but when you play in a band with other people, from personal experience, you have to couch your criticisms in a lot of niceties, and that’s kind of a waste of time.”
So key is their marriage to their band’s dynamic that they even chose a band name to reflect their relationship. They were, says Brett, “harking back to the family groups of the 1930s and suchlike. You know, like the Carter Family, the Von Trapp Family Singers … and [rolling his eyes] now she’s going to say the Manson Family.”