Songs That Fall from the Sky

Meet the Handsome Family: The story of the band that forgot time

Perhaps not surprisingly, she proved to be a nervous child, acutely observant—a writer and a reader first, as far as passions went. "When I was about five," she says, "I used to think about myself, in my head, what I looked like. And I would imagine an old man with a really long white beard, and then I'd look in the mirror and I was this little girl. I would always feel like I looked haggard and depressed and dark, and people would pinch my cheek and say, you look so cute! Inner and outer have always been a problem for me."

The problem, she means, is distinguishing inner and outer, self and world, knowing where one stops and the other starts. This is the most recurring theme when she talks about songs she's written, how feelings and things and states of being that are supposed to be solidly, logically at odds with each other just start to melt and merge when she tries to sort them out. Funny and somber. Happy and sad. Sacred and profane. Love and death. ("They go hand in hand. There is a certain death that comes in when you fall into someone's arms. You disappear a little bit, or you become a different person. It's not a bad thing.")

Not to mention forests and big-box retail stores: These things, too, are really the same in a sense, according to Rennie. "I've been noticing that when you go into these giant warehouse stores, it's really like a hunting trip," she says. "It's replaced the experience of the wilderness for us. I think we still kind of long for this sense of the lone hunter with his gun out in the woods, trying to find a deer. These stores fill a wordless need that we still have. We are just the same as we ever were. Daniel Boone is shopping at Wal-Mart now. Instead of deer, he's looking for cheap shoes.

"For a lot of Americans right now, parking lots are the only place that they're ever outside. It's kind of like our forest, the only time when we're ever walking through the world."

Rennie's penchant for glimpsing intimations of history and myth out of the corner of her eye is one of the things that drew her to folk/traditional music in the first place, after Brett brought home the Anthology of American Folk Music. (Of Harry Smith, she says simply, "He gave us a past we didn't have before.")

"I think if you take murder ballads as some kind of sick obsession with death," she declares, "that's missing the essential truth behind them." It's the most emphatic-sounding thing she has had to say in a couple of hours' worth of conversation. "They're not, to me, about voyeurism, like people slowing down when they pass a car crash. If you trace the songs back, you find that they go back to these pre-Christian Pagan chants that are about fertility, about harvest, about connection to nature. People used to spread blood on the fields so crops would grow. They're at that level. A lot of them are blood rituals to connect you to the world.

"I think the emotional upheaval, the tragic element of them, is in a way just what Aristotle used to say about tragedy: It's a catharsis because it makes you feel suddenly alive and connected. It's a great release. I think that's what these ancient rituals were about, too. Some Native Americans used to act out their bad dreams. The whole family would get involved in acting out the parts of the bad dream, and it would somehow make people feel a lot better. It's a nice way to deal with mental problems, by thinking they're group problems and trying to help each other. When you bottle these things up, it never works out."

V. WHERE SONGS COME FROM, THE MYSTERY REVEALED

One point the demi-legend of Rennie the Mad Genius serves to obscure is how hard the Handsome Family work at writing songs and recording them. The process always begins with her lyrics, which are rewritten constantly as they're composed and then again when they're made into songs, and the number of syllables per line has to be made to match the number of beats per line. In addition to writing the music, Brett handles every detail of the recording, from placing the mics to the mixdown of the eventual master. "Recording is the one thing I enjoy most about having a career in music," he says. "I like it more than playing out, I like it more than writing songs. I really like to record. It's my hobby. It's my video game. So I like to put a lot of time and energy and playfulness into it." (Since they moved to Albuquerque in 2001—Brett grew up in the area—he has had a converted garage for a studio. In the Chicago apartment, he recorded the Handsome Family in the living room.)

"You never leave things at the demo," Rennie says. "You always add layers and layers of stuff, because you like to."

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