By Brent Thompson
Folk and R&B don’t cross paths very often, but Penny & Sparrow effectively blends the two genres together on its latest release, Finch. Over the course of the album’s 11 tracks, the duo (Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke) layers in soulful textures while retaining its musical identity. On Sunday, October 6, Penny & Sparrow will perform at Saturn with Caroline Spence opening the 8 p.m. show. Recently, Baxter spoke with us by phone as the band traveled from New York City to Pittsburgh.
Birmingham Stages: Andy, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to your return to Birmingham.
Andy Baxter: Looking forward to coming back to Birmingham. We just did an in-store at Seasick [Records] and it was great.
Birmingham Stages: You must be pleased by the great response that Finch has received.
Baxter: We have been excited about that. It’s been nice to have so many people say such nice things. It’s been good.
Birmingham Stages: How did the album’s material take shape?
Baxter: All of these songs were new songs – they hadn’t been lingering from old songs. Some of the melodic ideas might have been, but for the most part they were all created during the season of writing after [2017 release] Wendigo. We wrote songs out of that surplus and then pieced them all together and didn’t really know what they were all about until we looked at them from a bird’s-eye view after we wrote them and recorded them. So it was after we’d written everything that we said, “Oh, I guess the songs are about change.” That’s how we came up with the name Finch – a nod to Darwin’s finches and the evolutionary changes of the Galapagos Islands. That was what the album sort of came to be.
Birmingham Stages: Does 11th-hour tweaking take place even after you enter the recording studio?
Baxter: Oh, I think that there’s a fair amount of 11th-hour tweaking. There were two songs where we did the majority of the work – they weren’t going to make the record – in the last two days of the studio and they came to fruition. So, that’s a great example of 11th-hour tweaking.
Birmingham Stages: How does your band’s songwriting process work? Is there a typical pattern?
Baxter: Typically, Kyle comes up with melodies first. He creates it and sends me a voice memo of him singing random words and gibberish to the melody that he has made up. I start piecing together words and playing mad libs to the melodies that he has sent. From there, we just do the editing process back-and-forth. This record has been one that we wrote totally separate – he wrote the melodies in Texas and I wrote words in Alabama and we would cross-reference and cross-edit when we came together in the studio.
Birmingham Stages: Are you able to write while you’re on the road?
Baxter: We do on occasion. Kyle’s been working on melodies and he’ll try out ideas when we warm-up and soundcheck and get my random feedback. We haven’t recorded on the road in a while other than little voice memo ideas.
Birmingham Stages: Where are you and Kyle based these days?
Baxter: I live in Florence, AL and Kyle is in Waco, TX. I’m originally from Ft. Worth and Kyle’s from Dallas. We met in college – we both went to the University of Texas in Austin.
Birmingham Stages: What prompted your move to Alabama?
Baxter: We moved there to co-write and work with John Paul White on a record and that’s what brought us to the Shoals originally. We just made friends there and wanted to stay.
Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about the current musical climate in the age of Spotify, iTunes, satellite radio and other modern outlets?
Baxter: I think that technological advancements are unavoidable so you either learn how to deal with it, adapt to it and use it to your ability or it leaves you behind. For us, it’s done a lot of good – there are so many avenues to get music in the hands of people that never would have heard it. But this is a really strange time because it’s evolving so quickly. It’s about paying attention to what temperature the water is and making sure you know how to swim in it.
Birmingham Stages: It seems that even if artists can self-record and self-release albums, they still have to get out and tour behind them. Separating yourselves in the live setting is one of the strengths of your band.
Baxter: I appreciate that. That’s the way we’ve wanted to separate ourselves. When we get asked about advice for upcoming artists, we say there’s no substitute for playing shows. Go sing for people and play the same show if it’s in front of 6, 60 or 600.
Penny & Sparrow will perform at Saturn on Sunday, October 6. Caroline Spence will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $17 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.