To haunt, to startle: Austin’s Penny and Sparrow

There’s something incredibly haunting about Austin’s Penny and Sparrow. Maybe it’s the bold, oft heartbreaking honesty behind the lyrics they write. Maybe it’s the union of two voices that sound destined to harmonize with one another. Maybe it’s the fact that these guys are so scary good with little but a guitar and a couple sets of vocal chords—and the thought that they don’t need anything else to make sincere, effortlessly stunning music. 

Whatever it is that sends shivers down your spine, it works. Weaving beautifully crafted melodies and gorgeous harmonies with acoustic instrumentation, Penny and Sparrow’s Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke produce a raw, strikingly honest sound that feels just as authentic through headphones as it does live. It’s art stripped down to its very core. Bare-boned and human. And for that, it’s unbelievably refreshing.

Though both originally from different parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, as Penny and Sparrow the duo originates from Austin, a city whose intense support and wealth of live music provides a natural environment for musicians exploring and honing their artistic talents. And, perhaps, challenges in standing out in a city where, well, everyone is exploring their artistic talents.

The pair protests though, that becoming a band was more of a happy accident, really, than a struggle. After meeting at the University of Texas, where Andy and Kyle were roommates, the two began their musical endeavor as a hobby rather than a career pursuit. After recording their first song, “Creature,” with a microphone and a laptop in a small apartment, the duo began writing and playing more seriously in 2011, building a fan base from friends and locals—meanwhile entertaining full-time jobs outside of their artistic interests. “We’ve always been doing our own thing,” says Andy. “By the time we realized this thing was more than a hobby, we said hey, let’s make this a career. I hate to say it, but we kind of stumbled upon it.”

An EP and two full-length records later, it’s clear that this path is one the two were meant to stumble upon. After an impressive 2013 debut with Tenboom, Penny and Sparrow released an even more stirring sophomore record this past spring, and perhaps one of the best folk albums you’ll hear this year. Earnest storytelling, told through echoing, goosebump-inducing vocals and cascading melodies: Struggle Pretty proves that being remarkable isn’t always that complicated.

Though backed by thoughtful instrumentation, the album is ultimately brought to life by the duo’s God-given chops, and their harmonic genius. Songs like “Serial Doubter,” “Reeth,” and “To Haunt, To Startle” explore the vast depths of the pair’s vocal finesse, which when layered with strings and percussion call to mind the atmospheric and simultaneously lo-fi tones of artists like Bon Iver and Milo Greene.

Better yet, with Struggle Pretty the duo has managed to produce an incredibly well-crafted album, yet one that feels as organic as if it’s streaming live from your living room. Well, not by coincidence, the duo actually wrote and recorded the album almost entirely in the East Austin house they once shared. Listen to “Honest Wage,” a highlight off the LP, and you’ll actually hear random house noise in the background—the clanging of pots and pans, the clinking of silverware, the murmur of voices—making the music, the story, feel all the more personal, all the more real. Like you’re intruding on some heartache you weren’t privy to, but can relate to all the same.

Since releasing their latest album, the duo has been touring around the U.S., wowing audiences and many times moving crowd-goers to silence with their unusually low-key set up—often, just two dudes and two guitars. As the guys are set to perform at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival—possibly one of the largest venues they’ve performed at thus far, and in their cherished home base of Austin, Texas, nonetheless—Andy and Kyle are determined to stay true to providing just as intimate an experience for audiences on a grand stage as they do on a small one. “Intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to do anything with the size of a stage,” says Andy. “It’s less contrived by the venue, more by the art itself.”

As the pair plans for several upcoming tours and looks to the possibility of producing a third album, the duo affirms that growth shouldn’t necessarily mean changing who they are as artists, nor how they perform. “We don’t want to try to be something we’re not,” Kyle adds. “We don’t stray too far from who we are, because it’s been working.”

Penny and Sparrow are on tour this fall with Judah and the Lion and Drew Holcomb. For a list of tour dates, check out their website, and be sure to catch them during weekend two of ACL.

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