In Europe, though, they're treated differently. Whether The Handsome Family sells out a venue or barely draws a baker's dozen, Rennie and Brett always get paid and have a place to stay. It's partially because of common hospitality. It's also because, especially in England and Ireland, the literary quality of their music is more appreciated. There folk tales and the murder ballads of yesteryear are still alive; they haven't been eclipsed by TV, movies and popular culture. "Especially in Ireland, they're very much into poetry and music and the two combined," Rennie says. "To them the most important thing that anybody could do is to write poetry and music. And then here it's like, 'Be a doctor or a lawyer.' So what we're doing over there seems even more important to people, which is really nice."
That combination of writing and music is key to The Handsome Family. Rennie pens the lyrics: tiny, rhyming stories that read like single moments, snapshots filled with stark images, cinematic drama and enough ambiguity to keep her audience intrigued. She had been writing fiction for years, and it just kept getting shorter and shorter. She and Brett had been married about five years before they tried collaborating together. Her only music experience was playing bassoon in the school symphonic orchestra; he had been in several bands ranging from metal to punk to rockabilly, but he had always played his own songs or covered ones by other people. Their roles in The Handsome Family are distinct most of the time. Once the lyrics are written, the direction of the song is in Brett's hands.
"It always surprises me how they end up," Rennie says. "And it's nice to think that you don't know everything about your own song. That there's some mystery to it. Like I don't really know what all of it means. That's a nice feeling. I like that usually I'll have some sort of melody in my head, and he'll do something completely different with it. It ends up being more interesting than either one of us would do on our own. And I don't think we'd keep doing it if it wasn't interesting to both of us."
Save for Rennie's backing vocals and Autoharp parts, Brett writes all the music. The result combines his rich voice, which is often compared to Johnny Cash, with music performed on guitars, keyboards, washboards, garbage cans, pots and pans and whatever else is lying around the house or he can create with a computer. The sound has been called alt-country, roots rock and trad (short for "traditional"). Whatever the label, The Handsome Family produces organic songs, sometimes sparse, other times constructed like symphonies with more sounds and parts than two ears can process in the three minutes it takes to listen. It's no surprise that Brett is classically trained, a self-proclaimed music nerd who thinks about things like instrument pairings. Instead, the real surprise is that The Handsome Family's albums, which sound warm, worn and lived in, are performed, recorded and mixed in the Sparks' living room on Brett's personal computer, modern technology used to create songs that sound like they belong on unscratched 78s by old-time country bands.
"I use a computer, a Mac G3 and ProTools software, which is kind of like the industry standard," Brett says. "And I use a variety of other mixers and analog stuff to go into the computer to kind of warm it all up. But I don't record the way most bands do in an artificial construction kind of thing. I record a demo into the computer and then stack stuff on top of it. Tons and tons of tracks that I'll just selectively delete or mute or bring up higher in the mix until I get something I like. And then I'll go back and just record everything at full fidelity. It's like putting a puzzle together instead of just sitting a band down and miking everything and banging out the basic tracks. It just seems like a really natural way to work for me. It just grew out of me doing four-track recording in my teens."
But the goal of The Handsome Family has never been to sound just like an almost forgotten country band or to write songs compared to what a musical by Edgar Allan Poe might sound like. Rennie writes her stories--oftentimes in her head as they drive from town to town on tour--to help make sense of a world where women drive their cars into frozen lakes, killing themselves and their kids, which is the story behind "The Snow White Diner," the opening track of Twilight. Brett takes these words, using his classical training to write songs played live by two people and a pre-recorded percussion track that are more complex than some quintets play. And they'll keep doing it as long as it interests them. It doesn't matter if the guys in Wilco like them (though they do) or if they get huge in Europe (they might).