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Artist on Artist: Andrew Bird talks to Brett and Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family

"As songwriters, we have three and a half minutes. What can you do in that time? Let's bring up some crazy things to talk about."



Andrew Bird has a well-deserved reputation for fastidious craftsmanship and quirky songwriting—every sound and syllable in his art-pop ditties feels carefully chosen and freighted with significance. The Evanston native was a young violin prodigy, schooled in the Suzuki method, and once he turned his attention to original songs in the late 90s, his sponge­like brain made almost every style and approach accessible to him. He soon sharpened his focus, and since the mid-aughts he's enjoyed great success. Though Bird is essentially writing pop music, he draws deeply from the well of Americana—the same source that Brett and Rennie Sparks, aka the Handsome Family, have plumbed to help create their rich repertoire of gothic country songs. The couple formed the band in 1993, when they still lived in Chicago, and in 2001 they decamped to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they've continued to make excellent records—Brett delivers Rennie's witty, morbid, poetic lyrics in a droll baritone that redoubles their power. The Handsome Family recently got an overdue shot of mainstream attention after their song "Far From Any Road" was used as the theme for the HBO series True Detective; they play their next Chicago show on Friday, September 5, as part of the first day of the Hideout Block Party & A.V. Fest.

Earlier this summer Bird paid homage to the Handsome Family with the self-released album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of . . . , whose ten tracks are all covers of the Sparkses' best tunes. For this week's Artist on Artist, he had a three-sided conversation with Brett and Rennie; he and his current working band, the Hands of Glory, perform at the Chicago Theatre on Saturday. Peter Margasak

Andrew Bird: Your songs have kind of saved my—I don't want to say they saved my life, but they've kept me from losing my mind sometimes. This record [Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of . . . ] came at a good time. Doing my own songs, it makes me less present for people in my life, you know what I mean?

Rennie Sparks: Yeah, I really do.

AB: And I needed to be present. Someone very close to me has been ill, and I've got a three-year-old. I didn't want to retreat into my own thoughts so much. So [working with your songs] allowed me to go deep enough to access the things that are really satisfying about songwriting and the process, but I was still able to be there for everybody.

Brett Sparks: You didn't have to get totally absorbed in this tunnel vision that you kind of have to develop when you write. You have to reduce yourself to this kind of weird dream state or something.

AB: I'd accumulated so many of your songs, I think it was actually blocking anything I thought I could write. It was good for that to be blocked for a while, but then as soon as the album was done, it's like it opened up the floodgates. I'm writing like crazy now.

RS: That's great.

AB: It's like that every time I feel a little like, "Who am I, what am I doing, what do I sound like?" I learn one of your songs. "Far From Any Road," that's the most recent one. And it's just so reliable. Any one of your songs.

RS: I feel like after you finish a song, all the magic that surrounded you while you were working on it dissipates, and you can't really ever get access to it fully. So I think that's what you've been giving us. Some of these songs we had to stop playing because we just couldn't hear them anymore.

BS: "Tin Foil" I really like now, and God, it's been a long time since I've thought about that song, much less thought about playing it.

RS: You've given it back to us, which is lovely.

AB: I had a kind of frightening thing happen when I was finishing my last record, where Randy Newman decided to stop by and hear some mixes. And I'd met him before, but yeah, it was just, "By the way, Randy Newman's gonna stop by."

But he was having a crisis. He's like 70 years old or something, and he's having a creative crisis. He's like, "I hear these songs I wrote 30 years ago, and I'm like, 'How did I do that?'" It was kind of reassuring that he's still—

RS: But you know, your first ten songs are probably the easiest you're ever gonna write, because after that, you have so many things you've already expressed. You can't repeat yourself. That's why we're fortunate—we wrote a lot of crappy songs when we first started.

So did you help Randy Newman? Did he feel better after he left? Now I'm worried about him!

AB: He's OK. He made some funny comment—he was going on, and there was this pause about his self-doubt, and he was like, "And then you're dead."

BS: Yeah, well. He wouldn't be wrong.

AB: It was something. He listened to a song I'd done, I think it was "Lazy Projector" from the last record, and he said, "Yeah, it sounds like two different songs." He heard it right away, that it really was two different songs.

BS: When John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] were actually writing together, a lot of times, they would swap out the bridges—Paul would write a song and John would write the bridge. So you get these fucking crazy bridges. It's wonderful. It's like—

AB: Exquisite corpse. Which is what I think is cool about you guys' division of labor, which I've always kind of envied.

BS: The weird thing to me is that more people don't do it. Like, I know people personally that say, "Ehh, I'm not really like a word guy. I'm not really a lyricist. So, you know, I just focus on the music." And then, of course, they have shitty lyrics.

AB: I was thinking about how conversations lead me to write songs. It's not all an internal process. So are you talking to Brett, like "What do you think about this?" And just the overall theme of the song?

RS: I'll say something like, "I was thinking about writing a song about that guy in the bar who told me he threw battery acid on a whore's legs." And he'll just say, "That's a terrible idea for a song!" And then I'll go, "Oh, OK." [Laughter.]

BS: At least she has some kind of filter. If you write a song about Vikings sacking Constantinople—well, enjoy your relationship with your new musician friend, because I'm not fucking writing it. [Laughter.]

RS: Sometimes I just need someone to say, "That's terrible."

BS: Then she'll sneak it in gradually, and I'm like, "Oh, this is that Viking song!"

RS: It's not like I get rid of the idea, but then I have to hide it more deeply.

BS: Andrew, we hardly ever speak to each other at all. This is the longest we've ever—

RS: Not about songwriting!

BS: It's almost a 50/50 division of labor. Over the years I've learned that when I make value judgments about the lyrics, it's probably a mistake. Like, I didn't like "Weightless Again." I thought it was so weird and gray and ambiguous. I was just like, "I don't know how the hell I'm ever going to set this." It took me months to get anywhere with it, to find that germ. But when I did . . .

AB: That's the one you guys do every night.

BS: It's the one everybody likes!

AB: I tried to do "Weightless" and couldn't. Even though the idea of this record is that I'm doing your songs, people can't get past the fact that they think the person singing the song has written it and therefore lived it. And that one, I was like, "I don't know if I can quite back this up." Then "Drunk by Noon" I was on the fence about, but I love the song so much.

RS: I have trouble singing that song, because I don't feel like that anymore.

AB: The cancer line is such a punch in the gut.

BS: It's a kick in the balls, yeah. [Editor's note: The lyric in the Handsome Family's version of the song is "And sometimes I can't wait to come down with cancer / At least then I'll get to watch TV all day."]

AB: I've been doing that one.

RS: I wrote that in such a bad place that I regret writing it, but so many people who've had cancer and recovered love that song—they just like somebody talking about what it does to you. It's really boring having cancer, in a way.

BS: One of our best friends died of cancer here last year. He was a great songwriter. And all he did was watch fucking TV.

RS: There must be songs of yours that you don't want to sing anymore.

AB: Yeah, I'm trying to think. It could be the ones that have the most chance of being successful. The vise starts to turn on it, and it gets really boxed in right away.

BS: Sometimes things need a break. You give it a rest for a year or so, and then it feels good to come back and do it. Like, I saw you do that live thing out in the forest for "Dear Old Greenland." And it's cool, because it's like, "I don't remember you doing that song."

AB: Yeah, when I was working on your songs, I was trying to find songs of mine that complemented them. Doing this record, I've assembled a whole new band, the Hands of Glory, with Tift Merritt. When I first met Tift, we started playing your songs together.

BS: Wow, that's very nice.

AB: Her input on "Drunk by Noon" was—because she's from North Carolina, she says we cannot sing the line "drunk by noon" together. You can't have three people singing that, 'cause you're just rednecks when you do that. My impulse was, "Oh, it's the chorus. We should all be singing together."

RS: There's a certain kind of person who finds that song really funny.

AB: The reason that the cancer line delivers such a sucker punch is that the song starts off as a weird, surreal cartoon—there's the poodle and the cowboy. Then something like that is just, "Whoa." It brings it down to this reality. It's kind of like your big-littles, like "Cathedrals."

RS: It's part of my illness. [Laughter.] But it does remind me of our friend—when he was dying, he kept saying, "I'm Cancer Boy!" Like he was a big superhero. But he had a brain tumor. It's weird humor that people make, in horrible situations.

AB: I'm fascinated with that subject, 'cause I feel like as songwriters, we have three and a half minutes. What can you do in that time? You can't develop characters. You can't create much of a narrative arc. So let's bring up some crazy things to talk about that we don't generally seem to be talking about.

RS: That's one thing that a song can do. Even if it doesn't spell it out, it can at least allude to things that are very difficult to speak about.

AB: Sometimes we get a hard time for our subject matter being—

RS: Listening only to happy songs won't keep you happy. It's not that simple.

BS: We never set out to be the poster children for everything dismal. [Laughter.] It just kind of happened.

AB: I remember when I was on tour with you guys in the UK years ago—and then we just did that tour last fall—and hearing your songs, no matter how dark they are, they're still comforting.

BS: We do so much better in the UK and Europe, because people actually get the fact that "Drunk by Noon" is a drinking song and an antidrinking song at the same time.

RS: What do the British say when the king dies? "The king is dead. Long live the king." They're used to this kind of thing. Out of every tragedy there's a new beginning. People who've been bombed to shit have a different perspective, maybe, than Americans who have wars far away.

BS: It's changing in America, but there are a lot of people like, "I don't understand it. This is confusing me. What does this mean?"

RS: Like this one guy, he said, "I've got a full-time job; I've got three kids. I don't know what the song means. I don't have time for this."

AB: I feel like we live in the modern Sparta—it's a warrior-culture sort of thing.

RS: Introspection is not what America's about. We're about doing! Action! Filling your day up with lots of activities checked off your list.

AB: Can you blame anybody? People want their pop music to do a certain thing. They have different needs from pop than we do.

RS: Yeah, but they're well provided for. We don't have to worry about those people. But it's the people that aren't well fed by those songs that I feel like maybe we're writing for.

AB: I'm less concerned or uptight about bad music than I used to be. When I was in college, I was hanging around with a lot of opera singers, and they're studying this centuries-old art of singing this particular repertoire. But when they went out to party, they would go to Coyote Ugly-type places and dance on the bar. [Laughter.]

One question I had for you, Brett—you once admitted to me that you had a degree in . . . early music, right?

BS: I got an undergraduate degree from UNM, the University of New Mexico. Just your general kind of music degree. I focused on history and just kind of crazy, nondirectional liberal education. I took film and literature. I took whatever I wanted to, basically.

I liked Baroque music a lot. I started singing opera. I started playing harpsichord and doing that basso continuo stuff. It's like an upside-down jazz chart, where you get the bass line and the numbers above it to tell you what the chords are. I could never do it live. It's really hard, but there are people who can read it in real time.

AB: I can hear it in my head.

BS: So then I went to grad school, and that's where I met Rennie. The good teachers were teaching Renaissance and medieval music, like Johannes Ockeghem—I did a whole class on him. He was this weird Flemish composer of vocal polyphony. He wrote masses, basically. I learned how to read neumes, from those weird illuminated manuscripts.

At the same time I was really into modern classical stuff, like percussion music and John Cage and Harry Partch. Which definitely are related in my mind.

AB: When you jumped to being in the Handsome Family, were you thinking, "Oh, country music is just the best way to deliver lyrics"?

BS: I was thinking about that. At the same time that I was studying early music, I was getting into Elvis, like the Sun sessions stuff. I was into the Cramps and a lot of punk rock, like the Ramones. It had energy and it was interesting. Country music is just—the songs are just good. If you're interested in songwriting, it eventually comes back to Tin Pan Alley, classical music, and country and folk.

There's still that thing that gets you up in the morning. 'Maybe I can write the song that gets America singing the same song together.'—Andrew Bird

AB: When I met you guys back in '97, '98, I was a little more of a purist. And I was like, "Why don't they play with more traditional instruments? Wouldn't it be nice to hear it all recorded acoustic, with Gibson instruments and everything?" And now, I appreciate that you didn't do that.

RS: But there's an argument to be made. Somebody once came up to me when we played in Cleveland and said, "I know you're making fun of something, but I'm not quite sure what it is." There's something about us—we don't like to do things the correct way, somehow. [Laughter.]

AB: There's plenty of preservationists out there.

RS: There's something important about that. Like, when you were doing Bowl of Fire and people would show up and want to dance. The swing period—saddle shoes and poodle skirts. And I felt like some of these people were just missing 90 percent of what you were doing. And I wanted to slap them, even though they were great dancers.

AB: But there's this feeling of, you know, what's the point? Like, why does anyone need me to do this? They did it pretty well 70 years ago. What purpose am I serving? You've got more to offer than just being an accessory to someone's lifestyle.

BS: I guess this is why I watched the "Dear Old Greenland" video over and over again, because that was a really exciting moment, like when I first heard Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I just love hearing that kind of music, but with a bonus of intelligence. There's this new guy, Sturgill Simpson. He's really good. And I listen to him and I'm like, man, somebody could really blow this shit out. Like, take what they're calling Americana, and just take it out. I've tried it, but I'm just not smart enough to do it. When I heard you doing that thing, I got really excited.

AB: That happened with "Don't Be Scared," where I was like, "This song could be huge." Maybe I'm fooling myself to think that either of us can really tap into the mainstream, but there's still that thing that gets you up in the morning. "Maybe I can write the song that gets America singing the same song together." So that song popped into my head, and I actually thought it was one of those grandiose Radiohead ballads. [Editor's note: "Don't Be Scared" appears on the 2000 Handsome Family album In the Air, and Bird covered it on 2003's Weather Systems.]

BS: I wonder what the inspiration for that song was. I think it was just a strummer—I definitely wasn't going for Radiohead. But I know what you mean. Because it's got that big kind of blossom at the end.

AB: I think that's one of your more subtle songs. It took a while to get under my skin—this story of this guy who's alone, looking out the window at these birds. I pictured some guy in a small city in Ohio.

RS: That's so weird. I wrote those first lines in Ohio. In Columbus.

AB: And then the phone rings just once, late at night, with this reassuring voice. It's saying, like, you're alone, but you're connected to the whole natural world and the universe.

RS: Big and little.

AB: And I've been doing that song almost every night for the last 12 years.

RS: You've expanded it in such interesting way. It's a great gift. It's like someone showed us a new doorway in our own house.

AB: I sometimes get neurotic and feel like I'm co-opting your—

RS: No, no. I feel like you're teaching us about our music. Isn't that what you want from songs? I want songs to be bigger than me.

AB: I'm very grateful for you guys.

RS: Back at you.

BS: Thanks, man. Can I ask you something? You said, back at the beginning, that this has uncorked you and you've started to write again. What kind of stuff are you writing?

AB: I keep running into this problem more and more these days, where I start to know what the song is about, and that's when writing gets really hard. Up till that point, it's a breeze. I'm writing this song where the chorus is "capital crimes." I liked the way it sounded. I didn't know why I was saying "capital crimes." It was just a space filler. The thing with a space filler is, then I start to build everything around it. "Capital crimes. Nickels and dimes, across the floor."

Guys on death row who get the IQ test, if the score's below 81 or something, they get to live, and if it's above 81, they die. It's just one more thing pointing to the absurdity of an institution that's taking lives. And I didn't realize I was writing about that when I wrote "capital crimes." And now I'm dealing with how not to be clunky and heavy. [Editor's note: The U.S. Supreme Court recently invalidated this use of such cutoff scores.]

RS: Sometimes you have to throw out the one part that feels like where the song is anchored. Sometimes you have to unmoor it.

BS: Like the Viking aspect? [Laughter.]

RS: I look forward to hearing your new music. I'm sure I'll be inspired by it. We could all use a little uncorking.

BS: You doing that big show at the Chicago Theatre? Sorry we couldn't.

AB: This whole record and this whole summer wasn't supposed to be that ambitious. And now I've played 35 shows. I wasn't supposed to be on tour! The new band is taking on a life of its own.

RS: People are loving the shows.

AB: It's just a singing band. It's all about singing. And that feels good.

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