The Well Pennies moved halfway across the country to a new house sight-almost-unseen, believing fortune to be on their side.
True to their name, their wishes were granted.
“Ha, yeah, we were a bit nervous at first,” says Bryan Vanderpool, who, with wife Sarah, formed the Americana duo at the beginning of the decade in Massachusetts before relocating to Los Angeles and, now, Des Moines, Iowa.
“There’s a land grab going on in these growing cities, and houses were selling too fast for us to wait until we moved here,” he explains. “Sarah’s parents went to dozens of houses, phone-in-hand, showing us around until we found this place. We wanted a house that would accommodate our studio build-out, so we had some specific things we were looking for.
“It worked out great, though. Sarah’s dad made sure the plumbing and electrical-type stuff was in good shape and Sarah’s mom made sure it looked nice.”
The tandem (which takes its name from the Tom Waits song “The Fall of Troy”) released a self-titled EP in 2012 and subsequently enjoyed a spotlight on the covers album Beatles Reimagined, on which the pair’s makeover of “All My Lovin’ ” was released alongside remakes by the likes of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. It followed with its debut LP, Endlings, a collection of lushly-produced pop/Americana, in 2015.
On Jan. 25, The Well Pennies release their second LP, Murmurations. Their four-year break between albums included their move to a house that now includes a home studio, where the act records not only itself, but other artists, having settled into a rich Midwest music scene.
Packed (and unpacked), thankfully, in the journey were The Well Pennies’ trademark harmonies and gift for melody, as well as lyrics, often drawn from the natural world, that, even when cautious, inspire.
Summing up the act’s sunny outlook, Bryan sings in the new set’s “The River,” “The walls will tumble, they always do / The rivers rise … and so will you.”
Bryan shared insights ahead of the new album’s release, as Billboard exclusively premieres one of the LP’s most buoyant tracks, “Oh My Blue Sky.”
Why did you name the new album Murmurations?
A murmuration is this amazing display that happens when a flock of starlings create patterns of shapes as they fly together. On its own, the starling is not particularly noteworthy, but just by doing what it instinctively is designed to do, it becomes a part of this miracle of nature. Animals and nature just are what they are and do what they are born to do. And there’s something so liberating in the thought of living like that.
The idea really inspired us to examine ourselves and the kind of artists we are, at our core, and remove any pressure or expectations from ourselves or society of who we should be and to discover what is the actual truth. We’re learning it’s probably a lifelong process.
The title of your last album, Endlings, was similarly nature-themed. That seems to be a big inspiration for you.
Nature is something we care about a great deal and something that we strive to protect as much as we can. Just the imagery alone is inspiring, but also what it often symbolizes. When the world feels chaotic, there’s something so calming about seeing nature continue to do what it does, day after day. Small, uneventful things like hearing birds chirping in the trees, watching squirrels run around, seeing the clouds in the sky. It’s amazing how little moments like that can provide some much-needed relief and simple reminders about what’s important.
In listening to the new album, it was definitely worth the four-year wait. And, it sounds like that was a busy time. Why did you decide to move to Des Moines from Los Angeles, and to your new home recording facilities, Golden Bear Studio?
Practical reasons, for the most part. You can actually afford to be an artist in the Midwest. In Los Angeles, the rent is so expensive that many artists have to work several jobs in order to just live there. We got to the point where the band had to turn down opportunities because we couldn’t afford to keep taking time off from work whenever a gig came up. We wanted to be able to travel more, buy a house and most importantly, build our own recording studio.
Los Angeles is a funny place. It has its pros and cons for working artists, but something we never could get over is the deep-rooted feeling of desperation that hangs over the industry. The art communities in large cities sometimes feel like a game show where there can only be one winner. And that kind of competitiveness doesn’t nurture encouragement and support of each other, whereas smaller cities like Des Moines are becoming destinations for artists looking for that type of welcoming community.
In terms day-to-day life, not just professionally but personally, how does your new locale compare to Los Angeles and, before that, back east? More open space? More peaceful? Less crazy drivers?
We’ve always pursued music in big cities and it’s amazing just how much something like traffic or finding parking can control your life! Now, we have the energy to do the things we wished we could do more of back in Los Angeles. Chefs, designers and artists of all kinds are moving out here for the same reasons we did, so it’s growing really fast.
The big-city exodus has created a melting pot of amazing restaurants, music venues, art galleries and boutiques, with half the expenses. Really, the biggest difference day-to-day is that in Des Moines we only have one Trader Joe’s instead of a dozen.
And then, because we’re surrounded by farmland, we can take a drive 15 minutes out of town and be surrounded by nothing but big sky and rolling hills. This is starting to sound like a tourism promo …
As a DYI, indie act, you seem to be maximizing opportunities with the home studio, where other acts can record (and even sleep over!) How is that going?
We love it. We’ve always been very interested in the technical aspect of recording, so it made sense for us to transition into recording our own material. It also became another way for us to make a living as artists.
We’re premiering the joyful, try-not-to-handclap-along-you-can’t “Oh My Blue Sky” from Murmurations. What background can you give about the song? Was it inspired at all by your move?
Definitely. Iowa has wide open prairies where you can see the sky for miles all around you. And the sky, for us, is always symbolic of possibilities and hope. We often write songs to cheer ourselves up. The song was written as an encouragement for when we’re feeling discouraged or worried or just struggling while we try to figure out who we are and what place we have in the world.
Depending on the news or whatever is going on in everyone’s lives, it can be difficult to find something positive to hold on to. Sometimes something small like seeing a pretty sky reminds us that there’s life and light all around us.