Penny & Sparrow w/ Caroline Spence

Penny and Sparrow

Caroline Spence

The BroadberryRichmondVA
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Penny & Sparrow

“Almost everything changed for us in these last two years,” says Andy Baxter, one half of the acclaimed duo Penny & Sparrow. “It was a painful experience in a lot of ways, but it was also a joyful one.”

Joy and pain walk hand in hand on ‘Finch,’ Penny & Sparrow’s magnificent sixth album. Written during their first major break from the road in years, the record finds the band reckoning with a prolonged period of intense personal transformation, a profound awakening that altered their perceptions of masculinity, sex, religion, divorce, friendship, vanity, purpose, and, perhaps most importantly, self. Deeply vulnerable and boldly cinematic, the resulting songs blur the lines between indie-folk and alt-pop, with dense string arrangements and atmospheric production underpinning soaring melodies and airtight harmonies from Baxter and his longtime musical partner, Kyle Jahnke. It’s a revelatory collection, both for the listener and the performers, one that’s been a lifetime in the making.

“We were both brought up in the conservative South, where you’re instilled with the notion that the straight white Evangelical Christian male perspective is, if not the only, then the most correct view,” Baxter explains. “We didn’t understand how wrong that was until we went out and experienced the world for ourselves.”

“Touring was what really got us outside of that bubble we grew up in,” adds Jahnke. “We met so many people on the road whose lives were so different from ours, and that led to conversation after conversation in the van about the beliefs we’d grown up around and whether they were the sorts of things we wanted to carry with us.”

Texas natives, Baxter and Jahnke first crossed paths at UT Austin, where they developed both a fast friendship and a deeply symbiotic musical connection. Jahnke was a gifted guitarist with an ear for melody, Baxter an erudite lyricist with a mesmerizing voice and crystalline falsetto, and the duo quickly found that their vocals blended together as if they’d been singing in harmony their whole lives. Beginning with 2013’s ‘Tenboom,’ the staunchly DIY pair released a series of critically lauded records that garnered comparisons to the hushed intimacy of Iron & Wine and the adventurous beauty of James Blake, building up a devoted fanbase along the way through relentless touring and word-of-mouth buzz. NPR praised the band’s songwriting as a “delicate dance between heartache and resolve,” while The World Café raved that they’ve “steadily built a sound as attentive to detail as Simon & Garfunkel and as open to the present day as Bon Iver,” and Rolling Stone hailed their catalog as “folk music for Sunday mornings, quiet evenings, and all the fragile moments in between.” In addition to the mountain of glowing reviews, the band also earned high profile fans—including The Civil Wars’ John Paul White, who produced 2015’s ‘Let A Lover Drown You’—and extensive tour dates with everyone from Josh Ritter and Johnnyswim to Drew Holcomb and Delta Rae.

“We toured really hard for a long time, and when we finally decided to take a break, it felt like a chance for the dust to settle and for us to process the evolution we’d been through,” explains Baxter. “It was our first opportunity to experience life in a new skin and explore what happens to your relationship with the people you love when change is introduced.”

Writing the songs that would become ‘Finch,’ Baxter and Jahnke often found themselves grappling with simultaneous feelings of discovery and loss, strength and weakness, birth and death.

“It was difficult to realize that what you grew up believing doesn’t have anything concrete to back it up,” Baxter continues, “but on the other hand, there’s this sense of peace that comes from finding something to believe in that feels genuinely solid in your chest. I’ve learned to love myself more than ever before because of it, and that’s in turn made me a better person to myself and to my wife and my community.”

For the first time in their career, the band decided to write and record the new album remotely in order to spend as much time with their families as possible. Jahnke, who lives in Austin, would capture melodic and harmonic ideas in voice memos and send them off for lyrics to Baxter, who now resides in Florence, AL. When it came time to record, Jahnke laid down his instrumental work in San Antonio with frequent production collaborator Chris Jacobie, while Baxter cut his main vocals at a studio just a mile down the road from his house.

“It was a totally freeing way to make an album,” says Jahnke. “It allowed us to take our time and work when we felt most comfortable, and it also made it easier to trust our instincts. We were each hearing everything the other recorded with fresh ears and no preconceptions, so there wasn’t any second-guessing or deferring to other people in the room. We knew instantly when we got it right and when a song was finished.”

The record opens with the stunning “Long Gone,” a heavyhearted, melancholic gem that the band actually reverse engineered, recording the vocals first and writing a musical bed to go underneath it after. As unusual as the approach was, it exemplified the duo’s willingness to take chances on the album and their desire to push themselves to places they hadn’t yet explored. The waltzing “Bishop,” for instance, finds Baxter pulling lyrical influence equally from Shakespeare and Ray Bradbury, while the stirring “Eloise” doesn’t introduce a single instrument until nearly a minute into the song.

“We weren’t in a rush writing this music, and I think that sense carried over into our willingness to try new things in the studio,” says Jahnke. “At the end of the sessions, we got together in San Antonio to put the finishing touches on everything, and we ended up recording the vocals for that song totally a capella with just a room mic.”

Adventurous as it may be, ‘Finch’ still nails many of the quirky, playful trademarks Penny & Sparrow have come to be loved for. The infectious “Don’t Wanna Be Without Ya” imagines reincarnation as a way to make romance last forever, while the sultry “Recuerda” uses learning a language as a metaphor for falling in love, and the stirring “Gumshoe” aims to see life with the analytical mind of a detective and the childlike wonder of a magician. Perhaps it’s the dreamy “Stockholm,” though, that best captures the heart and soul of the record.

“That song to me feels like the first challenging conversation you have with someone very different than you,” says Baxter. “It’s about recognizing the systems of thought that can trap you and being open to self examination and change.”

In the end, that’s what music offered for Penny & Sparrow, a chance to see things from a new perspective, a chance to open their eyes and their minds and their hearts, a chance to put themselves in the shoes of others and walk through this world with more love and acceptance than they’d ever thought possible. They titled the album ‘Finch’ as a nod to Charles Darwin, who developed his theory of evolution in part by studying the changes that manifested over time in groups of birds that moved to different islands across the Galapagos, and it’s easy to see the connection.

“We changed islands,” reflects Baxter, “and that in turn changed us and our relationships with the people we care about most in some truly beautiful ways.”

The third full-length from Caroline Spence, Mint Condition is an album narrated by people in various states of searching: alone on faraway highways, restless on rooftops in glamorous cities, stubbornly chasing their deepest dreams against all better judgment. With her poetic clarity and precision of detail, the Nashville-based singer/songwriter reveals the risk in setting out on an unconventional path, and subtly makes the case for living your own truth without compromise or fear.

For Spence, the making of Mint Condition was an act of both self-reckoning and discovery. “People tell you to write about what you know, but a lot of the time I write about what I don’t know,” she says. “For me songs are a way to ask questions, and sometimes you end up figuring out the answers.” Despite some moments of self-doubt, Spence telegraphs a quiet self-assurance, a faith that she’ll someday embody the essence of the album’s title phrase—something weathered and delicate yet miraculously intact. “A lot of these songs come from a very tired-and-worn place,” says Spence, lifting a phrase from the title track. “There’s a sense of things not going my way and feeling rattled by that, but knowing deep down that it’s all part of getting to where you need to be.”

Having won numerous songwriting awards from industry mainstays like the Kerrville Folk Festival, Spence has long been regarded as a best-kept secret in her scene, earning admiration from esteemed artists like Miranda Lambert and from her own fellow writers in the Nashville underground. Her debut for Rounder Records, Mint Condition follows Spades and Roses—a 2017 release praised by American Songwriter as “an album of stunning beauty and lasting impact.” In bringing Mint Condition to life, Spence worked with producer Dan Knobler (Lake Street Dive, Erin Rae) and recorded at his Nashville studio Goosehead Palace, landing a guest appearance from Emmylou Harris and enlisting musicians from Spence’s previous projects and live band. “It’s wonderful to step into a room full of people who already know me,” says Spence. “They have this unspoken understanding of my instincts, so it made the whole process really comfortable and collaborative.”

The kinetic energy of that collaboration infuses all of Mint Condition, an album centered on Spence’s crystalline vocals and finespun melodies that soar and drift and sometimes gallop. One of the most anthemic tracks on the record, the sharp-edged yet swinging “Long Haul” delineates the many demands of the musician’s life, including the self-sabotage often required in sustaining passion (“I keep breaking everything I’m fixing, so I can be fixing to do it tomorrow night”). “That song is equal parts pep talk and confession, where I’m so determined to keep going with this way of life but I’m also recognizing how insane that is,” Spence notes.

The sole co-written track on Mint Condition, “Song About a City” finds Spence collaborating with Nashville artist Ashley Ray and illuminating the troubles brought on by a romantic temperament. “Anytime I see a song with a city or a state in the title I’m so drawn to it—I wish I could write a song about some great old town, but I always end up writing about relationships,” she says. “I think it’s because that’s the thing I don’t understand, the thing that makes me pick up the guitar every time: trying to figure out my place in the world with other people.”

On “Angels or Los Angeles,” meanwhile, Spence offers up a cinematic piece of storytelling. With several lyrics mined from church signs and freeway warnings from a solo trip to Joshua Tree, the slow-building story-song puts its own spin on the classic runaway narrative (“It’s like a line in someone else’s love song/Her life, like some cowboy’s cliché”). “It’s not necessarily my story, but it’s not not my story,” Spence points out. “In a way I think that can be said for the entire record.”

An especially personal song, “Sit Here and Love Me” elegantly uncovers the nuances of a very specific emotional experience. “I’m dating someone with an incredibly sunny disposition, and as a person who deals with depression and anxiety, I’ve had to explain all that to him while knowing he might never fully understand it,” says Spence. “That song is my way of saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay—you don’t have to try and fix anything for me. Just be exactly how you are.’” With its graceful piano melodies, “Sit Here and Love Me” gently unfolds in flashes of wisdom and insight (“Please recognize my shadow/This is the same place from where I love you deeply”).

Mint Condition closes out with its breathtaking title track, a song with an enchanted history. “I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom in 2013, at a point when I’d been writing a lot of woe-is-me breakup songs,” Spence recalls. “I gave myself a writing prompt that was something like, ‘Let’s write the opposite of all that; let’s think about the type of life you’d like to look back on when you’re older. Let’s write something good enough for Emmylou Harris to sing.’” Drawing inspiration from her grandmother, Spence then came up with “Mint Condition,” a moment of beautifully bittersweet reflection. Through a few serendipitous twists and turns, Spence eventually recorded the song with Harris herself, their two distinctly textured voices blending to spellbinding effect. “We lost my grandmother recently, and it was really meaningful to me to have her hear that version with Emmylou singing,” says Spence. “Everything came full-circle in this amazing way.”

Spence’s affinity for Harris traces back to when her aunt worked at Asylum Records around the time that Harris recorded Wrecking Ball—an essential part of the soundtrack to Spence’s childhood. Born into an exceptionally music-loving family, the Charlottesville native started writing her own songs at age six and playing out in her hometown at 15. In 2015 she made her full-length debut with Somehow, a self-released effort featuring appearances by Anderson East, Erin Rae, and Andrew Combs (who later recorded one of Spence’s songs). With her debut winning the attention of Miranda Lambert (who posted about Somehow on her social media), Spence went on to deliver Spades and Roses and gain acclaim from outlets like NPR (who noted that the album “occupies that Nashville sound equally at home in honky-tonks and bedrooms”). In 2018—after working as a decidedly independent artist her whole career—Spence shared the early mixes for Mint Condition with Rounder Records, and soon signed with the label. “It feels really natural to come to them with this record, which is such a complete expression of who I am,” says Spence.

Throughout Mint Condition, Spence shows the ever-expanding depth of her musicality, with the album encompassing everything from the full-tilt jangle-pop of “What You Don’t Know” to the stark atmospherics of “Sometimes a Woman Is an Island” to the ghostly folk of “Who Are You.” And on the heart-walloping “Wait on the Wine,” her tender vocals take on an entirely new power. “I wrote that one a few years ago, not ever thinking my voice could pull it off,” says Spence. “But the voice is a muscle, and I’ve put this muscle to work singing all around the country. Now I have that confidence and strength to belt the way I don’t think I could have when I was 23.”

For Spence, that growth comes not only from spending countless hours on the road, but from purposefully preserving her truest intentions as a musician and artist. “At the end of the day, songwriting is what matters most to me and brings me the most joy,” she says. “I’ve worked hard to try to keep that fire going, and to protect that thing that made me want to write in the first place. I’m always just thinking about my 16-year-old self alone in the bedroom, because she knew what she was doing without anyone having to tell her. She’s the one who got me to where I am now.”

Venue Information:

Parking is available in side lot (by Exxon)

No Smoking/Vaping permitted anywhere inside venue

Bags/purses will be checked at the door.

Must have ID for entry

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Children under 3 years old are Free.

Kitchen is open during all hours of operation.

Appropriate clothing required at all times (tops and bottoms covered).

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Venue Information:
The Broadberry
2729 W Broad St
Richmond, VA, 23220