To be clear: The name Penny & Sparrow doesn’t pertain to some unorthodox research that relates to ornithology. Nor is it a handle adapted by a lithe, lighthearted female duo with a Pollyanna-like perspective.
In fact, Penny & Sparrow is the unlikely handle shared by a pair of college chums and musical partners — Kyle Jahnke (guitar, vocals) and Andy Baxter (vocals) — whose similarity to Simon & Garfunkel and other folkie duos reflects a clear archival influence. Yet with five albums to their credit — including their recently released effort, curiously titled “Finch” — the two men have etched their own impression in today’s musical firmament.
Even so, their blend of soft-hued harmonies, humor and pensive musings finds Penny & Sparrow remaining faithful to a certain coffee house pastiche. Jahnke readily acknowledges that fact.
“We started in college,” he said, speaking by phone before another stop on their current tour. “We discovered songs by Damien Rice, Ryan Adams — anything that had easy parts for me to learn on guitar — and that’s kind of how it got going. As it evolved, there was clearly some similarity to Simon & Garfunkel by virtue of the fact our shows featured only vocals and guitar. We gradually acquired other influences as well, but to say we weren’t influenced by Simon & Garfunkel would be a lie. The fact that they were one of the first guitar-vocal duos is not a small thing.”
Indeed, the two eschew any full band backup during their live performances, relying instead on their singular, stripped-down approach. Given today’s fast-paced world and preference for noise over nuance, it might seem a formidable challenge to get their songs across, especially when they find themselves in less-than-intimate environs.
“I think if we tried to compete, we’d be out there with lots of musicians on stage, and it would be way too loud to get it right,” Jahnke said. “I feel we’d just get lost. I do think that people can really engage with just two people with a guitar and vocals. For some people it may not be something they’re interested in going and watching, but for other people, it offers something different and memorable. For better or for worse, it may not always be somebody’s favorite thing, but our hope is that at least the music comes through.”
Fortunately, they have found favor — quite a bit in fact — with those who come to their shows.
“We have really, really quiet audiences,” Jahnke said. “It’s really, really cool and it’s a great thing to be part of. We’re very grateful for that.”
As for their unusual handle, Jahnke said the explanation is quite simple.
“Me and Andy were just starting to play gigs, and at the time, we were going by sports names because we weren’t like an official band,” he said. “We were just two dudes playing mostly for fundraisers. So we’d be on stage going, ‘Hey, we’re the Utah Jazz’ or ‘Hey, we’re the Dallas Cowboys.’ ... We thought that was pretty funny. But one of our friends took it a lot more seriously and wanted to put the name out there to promote us to make it look more official for his fundraiser.
“So he came to us and said, ‘Hey guys, you cannot be a sports name for my event. Come up with anything else, but it cannot be a sports team.’ We had another roommate who was a poet and short story writer who wrote under the pen name Penny and Sparrow. We loved that name and thought it was very cool. Since we were very stressed out over a name, we asked him if we could use it. We didn’t really even know if it would stick.”
Jahnke also admitted that the name does create some confusion.
“I’m sure it happens a lot more than we realize,” he said. “I think having the ampersand in the middle kind of helps, but it would have been just as easy going by Kyle and Andy. It would have been a lot more understandable. But Penny & Sparrow is a lot more Google searchable than Kyle and Andy.”
Still, despite their self-effacing attitude, there is a decidedly somber element in their music. That’s especially evident on the new album, which the pair has described as a reflection of a newfound outlook and attitude that’s a clear contrast to the lessons learned early on.
“We grew up in the evangelical South,” Jahnke said. “That comes with a mindset you don’t even know you have. It’s just the way you grew up. So once we got out and toured, we realized we were raised in a bubble. The more people we met, the more our belief systems shifted. It was a shift in our world views, a shift in our faith, a shift in the way we put things together. It became an accelerated process.
“We have a lot of time in the van and that gives us a lot of time to talk. We like talking about things. We’re both fascinated by it. The painful part is realizing now that you’re a different person, and with a lot of your family and friends, that may be a difficult thing to go through. We don’t want to let anybody down, but we also want to embrace change by being who we are.”
In fact, the path they’ve taken professionally seems something of anomaly as well. Jahnke doesn’t disagree.
“We weren’t expecting to be a band as a career,” he said. “I’m very grateful for it. In the music business it’s hard to gain any success. It was pretty amazing when we’d go to places like Portland and Seattle and New York City and there would actual people there who knew our stuff. It was really wild , and still is actually. I can’t believe anybody would want to go and see two people on stage with just a guitar.”