When we released our session with Penny & Sparrow a few weeks back, we swore to you that Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke weren't just a couple of sad sacks, pedaling devastating acoustic music that pretty much rips the heart right out of the chest. They do all of that, by the way. But Andy and Kyle happen to be two of the most thoughtful and hilarious fellows we've ever encountered.
The band recently released their stunning new album, Let A Lover Drown You, which was produced by ex-Civil Wars singer John Paul White and features other production work from the Alabama Shakes' Ben Tanner. It's an album that was meticulously cared for over the course of its creation. "Every single lyric, note, and production element was considered for a long time," Andy told our crew. "There was no nervous creation. All of it was based on joy...based on this is the record we would want to listen to. This is the record we would want to hear."
In conversation, the duo take us through their roots as a duo at the University of Texas, their creative process, the lyrical intent of their music, and the overall feel of the album ("just a bunch of bangers...EDM"). They reference T.S. Elliot, tell the tale of the unfortunate blogger they had to kill for the name Penny & Sparrow, proclaim their mutual physical attraction for each other, and hint at possibly/maybe creeping on the elusive J.P. White.
that, although we can explain it one way, it's not really our song once people hear it. And so I like thinking that people connect with it in a way that they need to. And then in between, hopefully, there's levity enough that it's not just soul crushing every time we play a song. There's laughter in between songs, if you come and see us live and then, if not, then-- - We're just sad, just a lot of sad music. - But we're not, watch this interview, you'll see. If we're growing old, let us speak. Marrow carried underground. Shade and sin you settle down. If we got awhile - My name is Andy Baxter and I sing in the music band Penny & Sparrow. - My name is Kyle Jahnke and I also sing, but also play guitar, in the music band Penny & Sparrow. - I know that music is subjective. I know that people who like certain things, hate others, and that's not always a clear cut deal. I know that we care about everything that we do. I know that every single lyric and note production element was thought through, considered for a long time. There was no nervous creation. Like all of it was based on joy. Based on this is what I, the record I would want to listen to, this is the record we would want to hear. No, the world is never right. I came here for the fight. Measure out a life - When we work together, for each song process looks a lot like me coming to Andy with mainly just gibberish. I'll just play a progression and say total nonsense and hum a melody that I think is good until Andy puts words to it. - I think lyrically, we try and say things that are difficult or not often thought through. And we try to say them in a way that's a word bank that we haven't heard used often. We're going to do a song called "Each to Each. " The roots of which were found in a T. S. Eliot poem, a love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. And it's just one line that ripped me up and I really dug it. Says, "Measured out your life in coffee spoons. " And I thought about how life has taken a ton of pictures, like little bitty vignettes, like how you can't remember some really, really heavy things that happened to you in life, but you can remember what color blouse she was wearing or what you had to drink that night. So, I want to talk about the bird's-eye view and the nitty gritty of a romance after a long, long, long life. You love life. We can take our time. Hmmm - We met right at the end of college. We both went to the University of Texas. Andy did not have a place to live, he was intermittently homeless. - True statement. - Picked him up off the street. So he moved into my room and I was learning guitar at the time. And he is not very good at singing and so we worked on his singing lessons. And I don't really remember why we started writing songs. - The musical attraction began with the physical attraction that I have for Kyle. He's a very good-looking gentleman. If one of us was going to be on the cover of Tiger Beat, it would not be me. I look like your uncle who knows the planet Hoth well and collects shit from it. And I do, and that's fine. But, so, I was like, "Damn, he's good looking, I wonder if I could market that somehow in a grand scheme and maybe work in music. " And he agreed. I duped him. We stole the name from our roommate at the time. Like Kyle said, I moved into his room and it was me and Kyle and our buddy, Jake. And Jake wrote a blog that had screenplays on it, short stories, poems, stuff like that. And it was called Penny & Sparrow. And when it came time for us to actually play our first legit gig, we needed a real name. We were going by-- - Utah Jazz. - Sports teams, like, "Hey, we are the Dallas Cowboys," because we thought that shit was funny, and so-- - It didn't go over that well, though. - Yeah. We laughed, regardless. When we needed an actual name, we were like, "We don't have one. Can we borrow your blog name?" And he's like, "Sure. " And then once we-- - No, we killed it. And so, we own it outright. - He was for awhile. - Yeah, but the killing stopped all bitterness. He had reluctantly, not even reluctantly, he was great about it. He's awesome and so he let us have the name. - Yeah. - Being in short, I guess there's a feeling in the record that asks you or anyone who is going to give it an honest listen to take every lover you've ever had in your life and put it in a vial and study it. And judge it by as an honest of a rubric as you can. And when you do that, it, hopefully, will give you a few answers to your life. Like what type of love do I put myself in proximity to? What type of love do I deserve? Am I neck deep in an abusive, shitty relationship that I don't need to be in? What kind of love do I want? And so, throughout the whole record you're looking at a slide of individual different snapshots of loves in your life and hopefully at the end of it, you're a bit closer to getting the love that gives a damn about you and that you deserve. And so that's why we wrote it, is little bitty snapshots of that. - Yeah, just a one light-hearted album. - Yeah. It's really, it's pretty surface level. - Just a bunch of bangers. Just EDM. - Bunch of bangers. I won't bend down with such a hate. Well, at least, at least not anymore. Put away that look. I've gathered and thrown away every touch you took. And I won't be tasting you because I've been hell to hell since I left, oh, I know. I've been hell to hell - We moved to Alabama originally just because we knew we were going to record there. We got a cool opportunity to work with a producer that was a hero of ours. And so we moved right down the street from him, consequently, which is a little bit creepy at the beginning. - For him. - Yeah, for him. But he's kind enough to be our friend. And so, upon doing so, we feel in love with the little city. It's right next to Muscle Shoals, it's a place called Florence, Alabama. It's two hours from Nashville, 30 minutes from the Tennessee boarder. And I don't think we knew that we wanted to live in a tiny, tiny, tiny ass city until we lived in one and then fell in love with it. Put away that look. I've gathered and thrown away every touch you took. And I won't be tasting you I mean, it was a golden opportunity. I mean he would, John Paul in particular, would have been on a list of people, four years ago, that if you had said, "Hey, if you could sing with anybody..." I mean, Glen Hansard, Sam Beam, John Paul, those would have been the names on a very short list. And-- - Unless he's watching this and then he's a lot farther down the list. Just don't want his head to get to big. - Hate that dude. But if he's not, then we really respect him and we think he's great. And the coolest part about working with him, aside from the fact that they're creative geniuses and they work so hard, so hard. Yeah, the pace of life is slower in Florence, but that does not stop the hours getting clocked in. They spend so much time working and they're so good at their jobs - I think they taught us a lot about how to write songs. We are still, we're still new, I have been playing the guitar for like five years. And so this is all relatively new. And I think that John and Ben have shown us to focus on songs first and then worry about the production afterwards. And then, if you do that, it's funny how simplistic stuff may sound, but how little everything really needs. - But the best part aside from all the creative stuff that both of them brought to the table is that we get to call them friend. We know their families, they know our families. We enjoy them. If music got taken away forever, I would be, we would consider ourselves lucky just to know them as people. And so, that's a really cool deal. It just doesn't hurt that they're great at music. No plans to let myself be tossed away, but this muscle
Austin-made singer-songwriter duo Penny & Sparrow dwells in the spaces left between contradictions and opposing forces. In fact, its where theyre most at home. As the title of their latest album, Let A Lover Drown You, suggests, they know intimately the ideas of using pain as a barometer of passion and giving as a means of gaining.
Opposites themselves, vocalist Andy Baxter (lover of books and climate-controlled coffee shops) and composer Kyle Jahnke (seeker of adventure, preferably outdoors), sacrificed most semblances of comfort and certainty in their lives to take their self-released recordings they made after meeting as University of Texas roommates to the next level: full-time, D.I.Y., coast-to-coast touring.
Their gorgeous, almost luminescent harmonies paired with cutting, contemplative songs, inspired by a musical grab bag of Simon and Garfunkel, Slim Whitman, The Swell Season, Bon Iver, even Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, earned the duo a nationwide legion of fans; many bordering on, if not, obsessed. Just ask their wives who tour manage them.
But until recently, Kyle and Andy thought of their respective talents, words and melody, as elements on separate continents that they fit togetherAndys voice and lyrics an audible sunbeam appearing in a dark and dusty room; Kyles lean, yet lush arrangements following unpredictable paths with acrobatic flourishes layered over grounded grooves.
But it was in writing and recording Let A Lover Drown You they let those roles bleed into each other. With the help of producers John Paul White (The Civil Wars) and Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes), they slashed unnecessary phrasing and stripped their songs down to their core.
The process was terrifying and raw, says Kyle. This time, we werent afraid to voice our opinions. Lyrically, I got to hear things from Andy and tell him whether I believed him or not I mean, I know him so well now that the other day he came in the room with a smile on his face, and I asked him 'Whats wrong?
As they stepped into a room with just two chairs and a mic (a departure from the headphones and click tracks they used to record their two previous albums), there were few places to hide disagreement or flaws. But, they slowly fell in love with the peccadilloes they once hid; discord created harmony. Like the albums title, Andy and Kyle were exploring the notion of struggle as something worth feeling on behalf of a greater object.
This title to us is a reminder that loving and dying are tied up, says Andy. Its the cover page for an album that studies who we love, how they love us back, and how much we give up along the way.
The thoughtful attention paid to each individual line and even the smallest instrumental placement makes the songs on Let a Lover Drown You so much more multi-dimensional and virile than the ubiquitous singer-songwriter folk. If foot-stomping, hand-clapping, raw-edged Americana feels like a well-worn, favorite flannel shirt, Penny & Sparrow are a made-to-measure Billy Reid suit.
We thought of the live takes of these songs like skeletons, says Kyle. We would find the right one and then ask ourselves what skinsstrings, filters, percussionwould fit best on top.
That refined sound paired with finely honed lyrics is apparent from the thundering opening arc of Finery, showcasing the full range of their prismatic harmonies over a sweeping arrangement then leading into the enveloping Catalogue, one of many tracks that features a guest performance by bassist David Hood of the legendary Swampers from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a twin city of their new hometown of Florence, Alabama where they recorded the album. Appearances by Tanner on keyboards and White with vocals dot the rest of the album.
Throughout Let a Lover Down You, Andy and Kyle lyrically explore commitment, choice, and conflict. A favorite novel, Red Rising, where the protagonist loses his wife and turns toward darkness inspired the quietly arresting Gold. It was a vehicle to discuss our willingness to change because of love, says Andy. Will we like what were made into? Will the process be painful? Am I being made better? These questions are fascinating to us.
In Bourbon, they capture what its like to stand at those familiar fork-in-the-road moments within an understated, elegant orchestration, while the haunting Bon Temps came from an oral history Andy gathered talking with a family friend who survived Hurricane Katrina. Maybe, the most charismatic track on the album, Unfold, equal parts staggering and seductive, offers the albums most satisfying vocal sections.
While the weight their music carries may imply that Andy and Kyle are weighed down with serious demeanors, it belies their most endearing quality.
We try to be the same people regardless of whether were playing for 14 people or thousands, says Andy. We joke the same at home and on stage, and try to root out any degree of being disingenuous. Really, we just like to be the same humans no matter where we are.
Whether through their jovial on-stage banter or the palpable humanity of their songs, that ability to make listeners feel as if theyre speaking to them, to relate to lifes contradictions and struggles with compassion and humor, is the true force behind Penny & Sparrow and why their music resonates so deeply.