If you ask Andy Baxter about his band Penny & Sparrow's success, he jokes that it's all thanks to his grandmother sending checks to the right people. While the band has had its fair share of pinch-me moments in the last few months, Baxter and his bandmate Kyle Jahnke just want to stay focused on the task at hand -- creating and playing sincere music.
"To be honest, the mindset is 'keep working,'" Baxter says. "We love this job. The whole time we've been doing this, it's been out of fuel and not out of necessity. We had day jobs before this and know what it was like. It's a beautiful happenstance thing that now we're like, 'I love this. I don't want it to end, so let's keep working and keep going and see what happens.' It sounds nice to be able to say, with all integrity, that we're holding our hands loosely around it."
Baxter's humility is a good reason why the Americana duo is skyrocketing in popularity these days. Penny & Sparrow are selling out shows around the country — including a March 24 show at the Evening Muse — and riding high on the March 11 release of their third full-length album, Let a Lover Drown You. While Baxter knows that working with The Civil Wars' John Paul White and Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes adds some recognition to the album, names will only get you so far.
"I can't point to one thing and say, 'that's why," Baxter says of the attention Penny & Sparrow is getting. "There's nothing that makes sense outside of miraculous things being real. I know there's a certain amount of buzz because of the producer and engineer that we used on this record — I know that will generate a fair amount of energy, but even after that, names alone won't do it unless the music's there. We're flattered and tickled pink that it's occurring."
Baxter and Jahnke were roommates when they started playing music as a hobby. They figured they'd perform around their home state of Texas and just have some fun doing it. Before long, they realized it wasn't just family and friends showing up to gigs and their wives encouraged them to quit their day jobs and "give this music thing a spin." That was a year-and-a-half ago.
If you listen to the band's songs, it's easy to see why so many people can latch on. The music is simple and the lyrics are forthright. That's exactly what the band has been going for since the early days and exactly what resonates with listeners. Penny & Sparrow YouTube videos are innundated with "you touch my soul" comments.
"We do get a fair amount of that," Baxter says. "I don't know if you're like me, but if you ever make anything and get complimented on it, I've still got this 12-year-old insecure kid in me that believes my grandmother paid them to say nice things to me. I wish that feeling was totally gone, now that I'm doing this full-time. In a healthy place and a good state of mind, Kyle and I both get those compliments and we're incredibly thankful."
Baxter says they've always wanted to write songs that people can relate to. He wants them to be as cathartic to the listener as they are for the band and to know that it's happening is the biggest compliment they can get.
"I wanted to say, from the very beginning, difficult or hard and true things that I hadn't heard talked about in this way before," Baxter says. "I wanted to talk about marriage in a tough and beautiful way. I wanted to talk about the type of love that people want — the type of love where one lover looks at the other and says, 'No matter what happens, I'm not leaving. No matter how shitty it gets, I'm not going anywhere.' I want to sing about true, worthwhile topics of conversation using a word bank that I haven't really heard before."
Baxter's not an idealist though. He knows everything under the sun has already been written about love, but says the band isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. "We're just looking at the wheel from a different angle," he says.
He goes on to say that his job as a writer, and Kyle's as a musician, is to curate a whole bunch of art and memories and experiences and put them on display in a way that people would want to listen to. Some of that turns out looking like the page from a diary and some stories are from friends or acquaintances that could be a source of inspiration.
"Yes, these songs are emotional and yes, at one time, connecting with these songs felt really heavy," Baxter says. "Although I'm out of the seasons of shit that some of these songs detailed in my own life or Kyle's life, I know that some people aren't and some people are still neck deep in that stuff."
He says offering counsel through the music when their fans are going through tough times is exactly what fuels his fire to keep going. It's no longer taking a toll on him emotionally, but instead giving the duo more energy to perform.
The band's no-frills approach to performing was captured well on Let a Lover Drown You. Part of that is thanks to producer John Paul White who shared experiences from his own work as half of The Civil Wars.
While Penny & Sparrow used to record parts separately, for this album, they recorded songs live in one room with a few microphones set up to capture it all in a more intimate and live setting. Baxter says the process not only boosted the band's confidence, but created some lasting friendships.
They first met White at a concert in a small venue in Florence, Alabama, where White and his wife were two of the attendees. After the show, White suggested they all work together.
"We thought he was just being sweet," Baxter says. "Lo and behold, he sent us an email two days later that invited us to write with him. We went and wrote with him for seven days and ate a bunch of meals and drank a lot and hung out and wrote a bunch of songs. We brought some to the table that he helped edit and change and we came up with some melodies and words to mess around with. It was a picturesque experience. We couldn't have imagined it or dreamed it up any better."
After that, White offered to help produce the album. Baxter says he's happy to say that he's still able to call White his friend. As for what he brought to the table along with engineer Ben Tanner, Baxter says, "They brought mastery of musicianship, creative bandwith through the roof and a kindness and easy going pace that made it easy for us to be ok with newness, and that was awesome."
Baxter has always been a writer, but he never considered himself to be a great singer. He didn't feel that his voice could match what he'd hear on so many other albums. Over time, however, his insecurity started to fade. His family and bandmate grew more supportive and the band's popularity continues to grow.
"I never thought I'd be getting paid money [to play music]," Baxter says of the band's increasing fan base. "Or maybe my grandmother's now broke or has way more money than she ever let on."