The Handsome Family bring their Wilderness into centre of Sheffield

The Handsome Family are husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks.
The Handsome Family are husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks.
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When husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks first met, she was clutching a tambourine and a bottle of Tequila.

The items – which clinched Brett’s decision that this was the woman for him – would come to underpin the story of Americana’s most successful married songwriting duo, The Handsome Family.

Fuelled with rootsy percussion, banjo, keys and dark, charismatic lyrics, The Handsome Family are a part-Gothic, part folksy tour de force and tomorrow they play a special show at Sheffield City Hall in celebration of their ninth studio album, Wilderness.

And the album is just that: an unforgiving exploration of some of the mysteries of the natural world. Jellyfish, octopi, ants and woodpecker are just some of the subjects to appear in The Handsome Family’s latest album.

Even its sound – which is imbued with Appalachian holler – echoes a natural landscape.

Album opener, Flies, sings of the life that possibly preceded a Walmart. Bears and other wildlife pepper the landscape of the song. It is a lament to a natural Americana.

Eels is a delightful ditty that pays homage to the gilded sea creatures that carve their own pathway in the sea.

Indeed the whole album is an homage to nature, with an apologetic subtext which nods to man's destruction of a wildnerness we no longer know of.

Yet this vast wilderness is in stark contrast to the enclosed, exclusive nature of its creators' relationship. Brett and Rennie work together, live together, tour together, perform together.

Indeed, in one interview Rennie even went so far as to say that going to the bathroom was one of the rare things they do in isolation, during their touring period, that is.

The Handsome Family play Sheffield City Hall on Wednesday. March 18.

The Handsome Family play Sheffield City Hall on Wednesday. March 18.

But they are an effective and efficient team: Rennie writes the lyrics, whereas Brett writes the music.

Brett says: “Rennie will come to me with a set of lyrics at a time and I will re-read them several times so they’re at the front of my brain. And then I carry them around in my head for a while everywhere I go – in the living room, the bathroom, the studio - wherever. People say things like ‘you can learn songwriting in three easy steps...etc’ but really, songwriting is about thinking about a song all the time.

“Once the lyrics are in my mind I’ll write the music, sometimes on guitar, sometimes on piano though I was trained on piano when I was young and I guess I was pretty good at it.”

Ideas can strike Brett at any time.

“Sometimes it can be something as simple as a motif that pops in to your head - it can be just three or four notes and then you’re off,” he says

Being married is, on the whole, a good thing for The Handsome Family’s musical output.

Brett says: “You have an unlimited amount of time to work on your music. We’ll be like ‘should we finish that song now’ but then you can always put things off too.”

Clearly, however, the working practice is successful. Recently, the band’s Far From Any Road was featured on HBOs hit series True Detective.

“We are always asked to play that song live and of course that’s fine,” says Brett. “It’s amazing the producers chose that particular song because it’s off quite a neglected record.

“But we are so lucky the song appeared on the series, because it took a lot of the worries away during our next tour – we could hire a driver instead of doing it ourselves and things like that make a big difference when you’re touring. It means you can play more shows.”

The duo formed in 1993 and inherited the name after a former drummer called Brett ‘handsome’, although Brett believes this was for ‘sarcastic reasons’.

But the name, The Handsome Family, also has echoes of fellow American folk heroes such as the Carter Family.

But for now, The Handsome Family are preparing for their UK show, with a sought-after slot at City Hall.

“It should be good,” says Brett. “At the moment most of the shows we play are full and we are selling more albums at the show.

“Our music is getting into more people’s hands and that’s good.”

The Handsome Family play at City Hall tomorrow, from 7.30pm.

For tickets, visit Sheffield City Hall

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