Harmonizing husband-and-wife duo the Well Pennies broke through with a highly-praised Beatles cover. Now, as it preps its new album Endlings, due Tuesday (Jan. 27), the pair is finding creative ways to stand out in the complicated, but potentially high-ceiling, independent artist landscape.
The Boston-formed, Los Angeles-based twosome – Bryan and Sarah Vanderpool – covered the Fab Four’s 1964 classic “All My Loving” for the 2013 album Beatles Reimagined, reworking the high-energy hit as a gentle ballad. The arrangement brings the song’s lyrics to the forefront, making for a more intimate take than the hallowed original.
(The set, whose partial proceeds have benefited music- and youth-based charities, also includes Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, who’ve scored two No. 1s on Billboard‘s Folk Albums chart: Here in 2012 and their self-titled set in 2013.)
Ahead of the self-release of Endlings, Bryan Vanderpool discusses independent artists’ challenges – and rewards – the emphasis the Well Pennies are placing on album artwork and the potential minefield a husband and wife can face as a recording act (not to worry, he promises on the last point).
Billboard: Uh-oh … a husband and wife working together as a duo … Is it ever difficult, or does that personal union help the creative and professional process?
BV: Ha! It certainly does sound like a recipe for disaster. In fact, neither of us ever had great experiences collaborating until we met each other. But, in our particular case, it’s only helped and nurtured the creative process. We’ve learned to play off each other’s strengths.
It’s not always a smooth process, but if an idea makes it past both our very opinionated filters, then we know we’re on the right track.
Billboard: Business-wise, what is your take on the realities of being an independent recording artist today?
BV: It’s certainly not easy. On the upside, the digital age has ushered in countless opportunities for independent artists to create. It’s hard to say if 25 years ago we would’ve had the opportunity to make the same record at the level at which it was recorded, where in this day and age we can buy a symphony system, rent a few high-end microphones and pre-amps and we’ve got a mini-Abbey Road in our garage.
On the downside, that same technology has turned everyone into an artist and filled the world with so much noise that it’s becoming harder to cut through. The same is true about the listener who really has to dig through the dirt to find something truly great.
We believe that streaming services are the future of the music industry. Spotify has been one of the best things ever to happen to our career. In recent years, they’ve turned into an easy target for frustrated independent artists to rally behind, but we look at it differently. Streaming services are helping those listeners, the ones we were just talking about, find something that moves them.
We see every stream as someone who may not have found us before.
Billboard: You first gained notable press with your cover of “All My Loving.” It must be somewhat daunting to cover the Beatles.
BV: It was very scary covering the Beatles! Our intention was to respectfully interpret the song through our own musical lens. The original was beautiful and perfect and that’s a pretty terrifying thing to take on. But, it can be an interesting experiment to take something so familiar and alter it. The result can be surprising; you may notice lyrics you didn’t before or melodies or rhythm, only because the original is so embedded in your mind, and rightfully so, that you hear it on auto-pilot.
Billboard: Please tell us about the new video for Endlings track “Wide Open Sky” (above) and how you came to work with Asakura Kouhei, not only for the album art but also for this clip. Is it actually a video of him creating the album’s actual cover, or a recreation? In a digital era, it’s commendable that you’re strongly valuing music’s artwork.
BV: It was very important to us to have an artist create an original work for the album cover. In the digital age, it sometimes feels like we’re losing our humanity a little. We wanted an artist to create something with his or her hands. Once we saw Kouhei’s art, we instantly knew we wanted to work with him. We were so relieved that he agreed to join the project. In fact, we had become so obsessed with the idea that we had no other alternatives … We gave him some tracks to listen to and left it for him to paint what came to mind.
We were very inspired by the ’70s during the process, too. We have parents that remember getting a new record and reveling in the album art and reading the liner notes and lyrics as they listened to the entire album from start to finish. We’re trying to bring back that experience with this project.
And yes – this video is Kouhei actually creating the album cover from start to finish. We had this crazy idea for the music video and we pitched it to Kouhei knowing it would be an ambitious undertaking. But, he loved the idea and turned in 160G of HD footage he shot with a GoPro hanging above his desk. It took a long time but we sped it up to 50 times faster and edited it down to four-and-a-half minutes. We wanted people to see all the work and craftsmanship that go into something like this painting.
I wish we could’ve shown more footage, like him building the frame and sketching the animals, but it would’ve been a 90-minute music video!
Billboard: The cover art surely plays into the title of the new album, Endlings. Can you explain its meaning?
BV: The album concept and title was originally inspired by an early photograph of Benjamin, a Tasmanian tiger who was the very last of his species, an “endling.” He was also our only request to Kouhei to include in the video, since it inspired the concept of the album. The photograph haunted us. It looked like he was screaming out for someone to hear him. It really got us thinking about life and the things that are becoming harder and harder to find. Not only are we all concerned about the environment and endangered animals, but there are also other things that we can’t always measure, like human connection and artistry, which are becoming rarities.
How often do we get lost in our phones when there’s an amazing world of experiences all around us? How often do we get frustrated at music and art and their lack of feeling and depth? This album is about protecting what’s important and about seeking the good and beauty in life and the world around us.
Billboard: This is the second video from Endlings, following “Drive.” Both songs boast the best of pop/folk songwriting and recording: addictive melodies, thought-provoking lyrics and warm, rich instrumentation. What are the origins of the songs?
BV: “Drive” is a song about love. It was originally inspired by an extra-long road trip we took from Boston to Los Angeles when we first moved out to California. You learn a lot about each other when you’re stuck in a car together for that long. You’ll either never speak again or fall even more in love. Thankfully ours was the latter!
Also, driving has always been a big part of our creative process. Sometimes, when we’re not feeling very creative or inspired, we’ll go out for a drive around L.A. and take it in without the distraction of phones or radio. Just that human connection we were talking about …
“Wide Open Sky” is about finding beauty in everything. We were sitting near our living room window having a very unproductive writing session when all of a sudden these hummingbirds came out of nowhere and flew right up to our screen. It was like they were coming up to listen to us play our instruments. It felt like one of those moments that we needed to pay attention to.
For about an hour, they were our writing companions and we were inspired by their joyfulness and serenity. We read somewhere that hummingbirds symbolize the constant search for beauty in the world. So, we scrapped whatever lyrics we had and ended up writing a song about seeking the good and beauty in the world, even amid difficulty and hardship.
Billboard: Speaking of beginnings … how did you decide on the Well Pennies as your name? It’s endearing and sounds so hopeful.
BV: The origin comes from the Tom Waits song “The Fall of Troy.” People may think that he tends to write songs that are anything but endearing and hopeful, but the last few lines of that song go, “My legs ache, my heart is sore, the well is full of pennies.” You could take those lyrics two ways: as someone who has decided to just give up, or someone who is going to choose to hope and believe that something better is possible.
We love the idea of something like an old, dirty penny attached to something as beautiful as a hope or a wish. It seemed fitting.