The Handsome Family

The Handsome Family

Enter the dark forest of The Handsome Family and let the beautiful branches surround you. This is haunting music in the most wonderful way— brilliant, emotionally-charged and totally unique. The Handsome Family is a 20-year songwriting collaboration between husband and wife, Brett (music) and Rennie Sparks (words). May 2013 brings the release of The Handsome Family’s “Wilderness.” Their lyrics and music are very intense, highly descriptive and full of meticulously-researched narrative and exhilarating musical re-imaginings of everything from Appalachian holler, psychedelic rock, Tin Pan Alley and medieval ballad. Of course you don’t have to be a music historian to love these songs. They are full of romantic longing for nature’s mysterious beauty and the tiny wonders of everyday life. They pair sweet melody with sad harmony, love poetry with dark beats. This is music that makes you shiver and cry, but also makes you happy to be alive.
The Handsome Family’s music and lyricism has always attracted intellectual and devoted fans. Their songs are frequently covered by many notable artists including Jeff Tweedy, Andrew Bird, Kelly Hogan and Christy Moore. Their work has garnered praise from Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, and an unnamed singer on American Idol.
The band has appeared in the movie I’m Your Man, a tribute to Leonard Cohen and Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, a back roads travelogue of arcane Americana music. They have appeared on numerous Irish TV shows as well as Jools’ Hollands’ Later.
A live review by Mike Ritchie in The Scotsman noted, “There’s a lot of smiling at this gig, on and off stage. That might surprise many people who have only read about the duo’s penchant for songs riddled with darkness, death and the macabre. But Rennie Sparks and her husband, Brett, are funny live…through their chit-chat, the song introductions and the banter with the audience…this sell-out show was a knockabout celebration of the deadpan, a real joy… Rennie’s words plus Brett’s music and strong, mellow vocals create a magical potion of grim fairytales in a rock and blues pot with grinning unavoidable.”

"We are the elders of our minds," sings Sean Rowe on "Gas Station Rose," the track that ushers in his fourth album, New Lore, with plaintive plucks of guitar and steady drips of piano that fall in like rain. It's a sparse and beautiful moment, anchored by Rowe's unparalleled voice - so full of gravely soul, aged and edged by years on the road, as a father and husband, as a creative force always looking for the next rhyme. And, so integral to the man that he is, one that is constantly absorbing nature. It wasn't the easiest journey to get to the ten vulnerable songs that comprise New Lore (out April 7th care of Anti-) – it took a label change, a trip to Memphis and some support from unexpected places – but what resulted is a roadmap for a gentle heart in modern times, in a world where the best oracle isn’t within a computer, but within ourselves.

Though Rowe has often made his hometown of Troy, New York and its surrounding areas his creative base, New Lore brought a new environment, and a new producer. Appropriate to his love of folk-blues legends like Howlin' Wolf, he ventured to Sam Phillips Recording studio in Memphis to work with Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price). They tapped into the history of the legendary space to hone a sound that is at once rich and stark, putting Rowe's deep and dynamic rage at the forefront. Because if high notes can shatter windows, Rowe's low and guttural ones can meld sand into glass.

"I was looking for a specific sound and part of that was the rawness, the element of risk that Sam Phillips took with his artists," Rowe says. "Since I was a kid I was really drawn to that music. I wasn't really listening to music my peers were: I was really into old soul music, and music coming out of Memphis. It's been in my work maybe in more subtle ways than now, but it's always been in there."

The songs on New Lore were often built to let Rowe's voice come through in its most stirring capacity: from the wrenching ode to parenthood "I'll Follow Your Trail" to the naturalistic "The Very First Snow," instrumentals are layered carefully and artfully over the vocals, finding footing in Rowe's sly and idiosyncratic guitar style. Much of what came was a result of Rowe going into the studio with a more relaxed approach – no preproduction was done, no demos finished. Rowe and Ross-Spang embraced an organic style that is so representative of how the singer-songwriter leads his life, and that is one of always fighting to flow gently with the earth, not against it.

"We were looking for perfect imperfection," Rowe says. "If we fucked up and it was cool, then I wanted that in there. You let it happen and you don't polish it too much."


New Lore also ushered in a career shift – this time, after several years on Anti-, Rowe launched his own label, Three Rivers Records, and will release his LP as a collaboration with the Anti- family. He also embraced a new way of funding his work, using a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to make the Memphis dreams a reality, and embarked on a series of house shows to reconnect with his fans at the most basic, intimate level.

"I kept asking myself, 'What would be cool? What would be something different?,'" Rowe says. "That's what led me to house shows, and to the Kickstarter and to just take chances. Those chances are what led me to early rock and roll in the first place – that's all about taking chances. I had no idea what to expect, but I could tell as it got more momentum that people really wanted to see it happen."

Rowe also found himself on another unexpected wave – his unreleased song "To Leave Something Behind" found life in Ben Affleck's film The Accountant, exposing the mystique of his music to an even wider audience. Written five years ago in London, it echoes some of the themes that half a decade later surfaced again in New Lore: the things in life we pass down to our children, the ideas we learn from our elders, the shadows we leave behind when we are gone. The first single, "Gas Station Rose," is about two people trying to navigate that together. "That's the conflict to the story," Rowe says. "They want to stick it out, but they know it's incredibly hard to keep shit together. Conflict makes for a great song."

So does opening yourself up to vulnerability: New Lore is formed from that tenderness, exposed like an open wound but one asking for healing, not to linger in pain. Like "Promise of You," with a gospel swing inspired by Ketty Lester's classic "Love Letters" and the piano-driven "I Can't Make a Living From Holding You," Rowe speaks to the reality of loving and leaving, a constant dilemma for a man who builds half of himself on tour playing to strangers and half of himself tucking his children in at night. Home is process, not a destination, and New Lore is a roadmap there – perfectly imperfect, raw and real.

"My music isn’t glossy or shiny," Rowe says. "But it's true."

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