When: 7.30pm on Wednesday 22 February 2017
Where: Royal Northern College of Music, 124 Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9RD
We’re delighted to be bringing The Handsome Family back – for their first Manchester show in two years.
Rennie Sparks disappeared one afternoon while waiting for a flight at O’Hare. A middle-aged businessman, McDonald’s bag in one hand, rolling-bag handle in the other – walked up to Rennie and, without pause, turned and sat down on her lap. A second later his French fries and rolling bag were on the floor and he was sputtering apologies, insisting he’d seen an empty chair.
Rennie often has trouble with automatic faucets ignoring her waving hands, but this unexpected airport invisibility was in 2014, the year the TV show True Detective used her song, Far From Any Road, as its opening theme. This was the year The Handsome Family (aka husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks) became visible to millions. Even as she was getting sat on by strangers, Youtube counts for The Handsome Family’s ‘hit’ song climbed from two million to ten million, twenty million and more. The song was in the top 10 in US and UK Spotify charts and spent months in iTunes top 100 in countries as far-flung as Vietnam, South Africa and the Ukraine.
Millions of viewers ‘broke the internet’ watching the final episode of True Detective S1, but Rennie and Brett watched in their little house in Albuquerque, NM, feeling oddly alone. The Handsome Family were now known around the globe for a song they’d written 12 years earlier about fire ants and desert plants, a song now linked forever to a show about cops in a psychic swamp. The Sparks were arguably famous now, but at the same time unknown. They were not their famous song nor was their famous song written for the show that made it famous. All these disconnections, though, are fine when you’re a writer of songs.
For almost as long as they’ve been married (26 years) Brett and Rennie have written songs together (Brett, music; Rennie, words). Their finished work is never fully one or the other’s, but lives in unseen space between them. William Burroughs claimed he walked busy streets without being seen, simply by seeing everyone else first. This is similar to the Sparks’ approach to songwriting and why Rennie embraces her power to vanish. You have to willingly disappear in order to write lyrics for someone else’s voice, or to write music for someone else’s words. Invisible songwriters are happiest when their songs outshine them, leaving their creators unseen in the dust.
The Sparks have released 10 albums since 1995’s Odessa. Their songs have been covered by countless Youtubers and well-known artists like Jeff Tweedy, Amanda Palmer, Cerys Matthews, Christy Moore and Andrew Bird (who released an entire record of HF covers). Guns ’N’ Roses used Far From Any Road as stage entrance music for a South American tour, and both Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr are fans. Decades into their careers, after winning the TV theme-show jackpot – the Sparks still find their greatest reward in disappearing into new songs.
And so in the strange light of 2014 they began again to write. 2016 brings the release of Unseen – 10 songs by a couple both world-famous and happily invisible. Each song on the record has a guiding colour – gold, silver, green, red, white. Rennie is also a painter known for her vivid and surprising use of colour, and she finds herself painting even when her brushes are made of words. The stories of Unseen are mostly inspired by real events – Gold began when a bunch of twenty-dollar bills blew in Brett’s face in a parking-lot dust storm. Gentlemen is a tribute to William Crookes who built the first vacuum tube in 1875, hoping to detect spirits from unseen dimensions. And Tiny Tina – Rennie still hasn’t seen that little horse.
Unseen is about the light that emanates from things we can’t see – behind The Red Door, in the empty hands of blackjack losers (The Silver Light), and amidst desert bones bleaching in the sun (King of Dust).
Since 2001 Brett has made their albums in a converted garage at the back of their house. He recorded Unseen on a Mac and played most of the parts at night, with only hawk moths listening. There were guest musicians: David Gutierrez, mandolin on Tiny Tina and dobro on The Silver Light; Alex MacMahon, guitar on The Silver Light, baritone guitar and pedal steel on Gold; and Jason Toth, drums throughout (except Green Willow Valley). Rennie wrote all the lyrics. She sang and played banjo and autoharp, but didn’t bother to write down on which songs.
The Sparks’ music is steeped in the western gothic of New Mexico life. The unseen is powerful here. Nothing rusts, but entire oceans have disappeared. Ski masks mean robberies, but in the slow dive of the sun, enormous bugs awaken in thorny yards and unseen sirens and coyotes cry out to the purple sky. Just about anywhere you stand there’s been some blood drawn.
In 2016 The Handsome Family continue to sell out venues worldwide that they couldn’t have filled before TV fame. Live, Brett (guitar/vocals) and Rennie (banjo/bass/vocals) are joined by drummer Jason Toth (worldwide) and multi-instrumentalist Alex MacMahon (USA). Their shows are full of humour and chit-chat. The Sparks’ aren’t afraid to reveal their ordinary humanness. The invisible couple is also very happy to be seen.
Unseen, the new album from The Handsome Family, will be released 16 September on Loose. Available on 180g green vinyl, CD and download.
Tour support comes from Courtney Marie Andrews. At just 16 years old, Courtney Marie Andrews left home in Arizona for her first tour. For a decade or so since, Courtney’s been a session and backup singer and guitarist for nearly 40 artists, from Jimmy Eat World to Damien Jurado. She never stopped writing her own material, though. Picking up admirers like Jurado and Ryan Adams along the way, she has quietly earned a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter.
With plans to settle down for a bit and focus on her own songs, Courtney moved to the Northwest in 2011 to record her last full-length record, On My Page. However, the record had hardly been released before she was on the road again performing other artists’ songs, eventually leading her overseas to play guitar and sing with Belgian star Milow. At the tour’s end, though, the other session players joined her to record her 2014 EP Leuven Letters in one take.
It was during this time that Courtney also wrote many of the songs on Honest Life. She found herself realising the impact of growing up on the road and this constant reconciling between her and other’s art and identity. Honest Life will be available on 180g turquoise LP, CD and digitally in January 2017.
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