Of all the new Americana acts on the scene – particularly the ones we caught at SXSW this year – duo Penny & Sparrow are perhaps the most refreshing. Formed as the accidental result of a grad school hobby, the best friend duo write beautiful, gentle, slow-burning songs that masterfully straddle the line between happy and sad. We chat with the Texan pair about getting started, working with John Paul White and how voice memos play into their songwriting.
What’s your typical songwriting process?
Andy: Usually Kyle does a large percentage of the melody and a bird’s eye view of the instrumentation and I do most of the words. The melody usually comes first. He hums it into the Voice Memos app on his iPhone, even if it’s all over syllabically, and he’ll send that to me and I’ll play it on loop for a while, either on guitar or through headphones. Then I’ll ask, “What was this like to you when you were writing it? Was it a hurtful song? A happy song?” From there, I just kinda take it and run with it and fill in the blanks mad-lib style to create whatever the sentence was I think he was trying to say. Sometimes, even when he just sends me a voice memo of random syllables, he’ll accidentally say a word in the middle and I’ll just leave it in or build the song around it because usually it sings pretty.
How long have you been writing songs together?
Kyle: Four years, just about.
How’d you get started working together musically?
Andy: We lived in a room together in a big house in college with a bunch of other guys. We started randomly playing and singing together randomly as a hobby, and there was another buddy of ours who gave us the band name because we stole it from his blog. It all just kinda started with us playing covers for our buddies because we thought they sounded good. We just kind of kept going from there.
How long had you been doing music individually prior to that?
Kyle: Prior to that, we were doing it for zero years. When I wrote the first song I ever wrote, I was still learning guitar. At the time I was still in science, studying biology and working in a lab. I was doing grad school papers and just wanted to learn an instrument out of boredom. Andy was kinda good at singing so we’d just cover stuff. I don’t know why we wrote a song. I don’t know if we’ll ever remember why it was. I just know we started doing it and it was fun.
Andy: I think once his mom got him a recording rig that plugged into his laptop, we thought, “oh, let’s try this out, it could be fun.” We never thought we would make a career out of it. It was just a hobby we had while he had some spare time in grad school.
Can you tell me about the first song you ever wrote?
Kyle: The first song we wrote is really slow, but I remember thinking, “Man, I am just hacking away at this guitar.” It was a song called “Creature”. We just did it on that little recording rig in Andy’s apartment behind an orphanage, so you can hear little kids screaming in the background of it.
Andy: In retrospect, it seems like it was intentional aesthetic decision, but we just didn’t have any money or enough mics to edit it out.
Kyle: The songwriting was mainly me coming to him with the chorus saying, “Hey, this sounds kinda nice.” I was still enjoying learning all these new shapes of chords, so it was just fun to put them all together in a way that I wanted to instead of through a cover song. Andy had always written, so I guess I kind of came in-
Andy: Although true, you can’t call what I did writing. I wrote really shitty bro country when I was in college – like, real bad – and it still exists on Myspace because I didn’t create the account.
Kyle: It’s so great.
Andy: It’s real bad.
Kyle: It’s fantastic that it exists.
Andy: It’s like a shitty, junior varsity Jason Mraz. There’s zero redemptive quality.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Kyle: Simon and Garfunkel. John Denver. Who else do we listen to a lot?
Andy: My favorite writer is Anais Mitchell.
Kyle: Anything Justin Vernon does. I think that was kind of the start for us – we heard one of his recordings and were like, “Oh, we could make something that sounds like this.”
If you could co-write or collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?
Kyle: Paul McCartney. He’s the hero of heroes.
Andy: I think, just because I know it would make me happy, I’d say Anais Mitchell, which I’m hoping might happen someday.
What do you think your proudest moment as a songwriter has been so far?
Andy: If I could nail it down to a specific thing, we got to work with John Paul White on this last record – he helped us produce it. We got to sit down with him at a lake house, and I remember there was a specific moment where we’d played him a song we’d written and he seemed like he was impressed at what he was hearing. When you get to see someone you respect so much kind of share this glance with you, it’s like, “Shit, that was good.” I was floored and thought maybe we could actually really do this. Like maybe we were good after all.
Which song of yours have fans reacted to the most?
Kyle: “Gold” seems like one that all of the fans have been holding onto lately. It’s surprisingly quiet when we play that song. You can tell people are connecting really well with it, which is a really fun feeling. I feel like we’re in a time period of things being really flashy and produced so it’s cool to show up on a stage and play very quiet guitar and have people actually listen. It gives me a little bit of faith that music hasn’t turned into a caricature of itself. That song gives me a little hope that everything doesn’t have to be about shock and awe.
Andy: There’s not a lot of veneer in it, but there can’t really be a lot of veneer in two guys in suits standing, playing guitar and singing.
What song on the record are you the most proud of?
Andy: Mine would probably be “Bourbon,” just for the sake of the lyrics. There are some moments in there where I’m really proud of what was written – proud of the sentences, proud of the metaphor. I think it’s probably one of the best examples of my work where I feel like I was doing a really good job. Being able to step back from it and say, “I haven’t heard that before,” that made me happy. I know everything under the sun has been done, but in that one moment I was like, “I think I did it. I think I landed it.”
Kyle: For me, I would probably say “Catalogue.” On this album, I was kind of into the mindset of writing songs that people thought were simple, where they might listen and think it’s easy but I know it’s difficult to play. I know I did a really good job on that one. It sounds like a song that had already been written, which to me is really great thing.