It all began one day in a bar. Brett Sparks was waiting for a friend when Rennie showed up and he was smitten by this raven haired woman. They got married in 1989 and indulging their passion for music, they released their debut album Odessa in 1995. The Handsome Family were born.
The Handsome Family play the Róisín Dubh on Saturday June 6 at 9pm. The husband and wife team of Brett (vocals, guitar ) and Rennie Sparks (bass, vocals ) are regular visitors to this city and even 2007’s cryptosporidum crisis has not deterred them from making a return visit this year.
“The last time we were in Galway we couldn’t drink the water or else we’d develop this horrible plague like illness,” Rennie tells me over the phone from London. “I like Irish audiences. You sing one chorus for them and you’re good to go. That’s really sweet. I don’t like people who clap out of time. That I can do without, but they mean well.”
At the Róisín Dubh the duo will perform songs from their new album Honeymoon, released last month on Independent Records. The album’s theme is love and is the duo’s way of celebrating their 20 years of marriage. How does it feel to have reached their ‘platinum’ anniversary?
“I feel old,” laughs Rennie. “I got married when I was a child! We were married for a long time before we collaborated on any music. I was always writing lyrics and Brett music. Art can be a lonely thing to pursue, you might write or paint on your own, but what keeps us together is writing songs together and singing harmonies. For me that’s very romantic.”
How did Brett and Rennie meet? “He was waiting for another lady and I got there fist,” says Rennie, with no little pride in her voice. “By the time she showed up it was too late. He was smitten.”
So after 20 years together and seven previous albums, the pair mark it all with Honeymoon, a laid back collection of country ballads, with enough indie quirks and surreal lyrics to keep it in that beguilingly strange side of Americana that is very much The Handsome Family’s own.
However a honeymoon is traditionally the start of a marriage, not a mid-point. So why this title?
“I like the words ‘honey’ and ‘moon’,” explains Rennie. “In pagan times it originally meant a period of making love under the moon and drinking honey wine. I wouldn’t mind living in a place where they do that.”
One of the album’s stand out tracks is ‘The Loneliness Of Magnets’, where a couple, though separated temporarily by distance, know when to make contact as soon as one thinks of the other. The song was inspired by Rennie’s love of reading about science.
“I like reading about history and science. I like reading about insects and Constantinople. I don’t know why. It’s just the way I came into this earth,” she says. “For ‘The Loneliness Of Magnets’ I was reading about bird migration. No one knows how they migrate and know where they are going. No one understands the magnetic poles - which has something to do with bird migration - and that they can switch, north goes south and south north. The magnetic pull never ebbs. It’s a constant. It’s like gravity and all these other invisible forces keep our plant from crumbling. That tension is what keeps it solid.”
The album, like all of their previous recordings was made at the Sparks’ studio, a converted garage at the back of their house in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Albuquerque has possibly the oddest reason for being such a well known town. In the Bugs Bunny cartoons, when Bugs is going on holidays, he burrows underground to his destination. However he usually goes in the wrong direction and on realising this always says: “I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”
“That’s what most people know about Albuquerque,” sighs Rennie. “It’s a lot of brown dirt and blue sky.”
It’s been 20 years of good marriage and 16 years of good music from the Sparks. Does Rennie see herself and Brett still making music into the next 20 years?
“We’re lucky to be doing this for a living,” says Rennie, “I’ll keep doing it if people come to see us and I enjoy writing songs but anything can happen in 20 years. There could be a plague or a fire storm could attack our farm. How will people have evolved by then? We could be disembodies brains in jars sending telepathic signals to each other. Humans may be gone and the squirrels have taken over.”
Aside from music, Rennie is also a keen painter (her work can be viewed at www.handsomefamily.com/paintingintro html ). “I paint in my pyjamas at home,” she says. “I do a lot of commissioned work and portraits of children and animals.”
While Brett Sparks, music, and art are Rennie’s great passions, she also has another, far odder, obsession, and it’s to do with cats.
“My greatest extravagance is my cat whisker collection,” she says. “I’ve been working on it for a long time. I have several different jars containing the whiskers of several different cats. One day I’ll have enough to make a cat whisker cape and heads will turn when I walk down the street.”
Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.