Leaving Los Angeles: How a Move to the Midwest Paid Off for the Well Pennies
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is an extension of the exploration in our summer journal of how people and music migrate and mix. For more stories on the theme we’re calling (Im)migration, check out the summer journal here.
* * *
Bryan and Sarah Vanderpool make soft-spoken, big-hearted folk full of lush vocal harmonies and intricate string passages. It’s a sound that translates well to television: their band, the Well Pennies, have had songs featured in The Fosters and Switched at Birth. But in their Des Moines, Iowa, neighborhood, surrounded by neighbors that include a police officer, teacher, and medical professionals, the fact they make music at all is a curiosity. The married couple is part of a growing enclave of creatives in Des Moines that includes visual artists, musicians, and — as Bryan emphatically adds — a coffee shop that that bests industry tastemaker Intelligentsia.
“Keep calling it a flyover state,” he jokes of the often-overlooked location. “We don’t want any more people. They’re flooding in!”
Although they share an enthusiasm for their adopted hometown, The Well Pennies are very much newbies, having made the transition from California to Iowa in May 2015 after buying a house via a Skype video call with Sarah’s parents, who live near the Iowan capital. (The pair shrug off how crazy this seems, noting that their only real housing goal was a basement with enough room for a studio and “good bones.”)
Although they met in Boston, Massachusetts, where both were living at the time, the duo’s real-life La La Land expedition wasn’t without success. During their half decade in Los Angeles, the Well Pennies experienced several career highlights, including finding their backing band (which they still record and tour with), recording their 2015 debut album Endlings (named for the last creature of any species), and seeing their bucolic folk serve as the theme song for Spanish television show Mi Casa es La Tuya, which afforded them a notable fan base in Latin countries. (“We’re dying to tour Spain!” Bryan says enthusiastically.)
But working day jobs to help make ends meet, and suffering from the burnout that comes with attempting to multitask between daily life and “living the dream,” it became obvious that in order to grow as artists they were going to have to move. They had hit a wall, both creatively and financially. They also saw the transition as an opportunity to opt out of the creative rat race.
“When you’re in California, you’re working so hard to just physically be there and pay rent,” Bryan muses. “Survive — the music stuff comes later. You’re so exhausted from that, that when you go to write music all that comes are tired, cynical songs … . The desperation got tiring … also I think when you’re surrounded by that many people who are striving to make it, whatever that may mean, there’s this desperation that exhausts you. Everyone is threatened by you. Because they’re all clamoring for the same spot. Everyone is competition with each other. That got old pretty fast.”
Leaving Los Angeles was something that the couple didn’t takelightly. It was only after asking for advice from friends and family, their band, and even their lawyer (the only person who said they should stay put) that the couple moved to Sarah’s hometown. They chose Des Moines from a list of locations that included Seattle, Boston, and Montana. Not only did the move to the Midwest allow them to realize their dream of homeownership — at a price far lower than the rent on their Northern Los Angeles apartment — but it also freed the Well Pennies to pursue music full time. For them that included teaching lessons, renting out their studio, and unexpectedly snagging a slot opening for Diana Krall on a string of West Coast dates. After gigging for bar patrons, the musicians found the shift to older, more attentive fans refreshing, and they took nightly trips to the merch table to meet the audience.
“The first show we did in Ohio, talk about throwing you off!” Sarah recalls. “We got a standing ovation as openers! In the mic I was like, ‘Oh! Okay! Really? Great! Thank you.’ Classy, Sarah! It was surprising. Who gives standing ovations to openers? That’s what we were dealing with most of the time. It was heavenly.”
The transition has also given them time to work on their sophomore album, Murmurations, due out later this year. While Endlings was an introspective album, Murmurations’ overarching theme is about accepting the person you are, and the larger part you have to play in life. “Figure out who you are, and do it on purpose,” says Sarah, echoing the famous Dolly Parton quote.
The first single from that album, folk anthem “The River,” features the telling line, “Go and do / the river is right in front of you,” words that perfectly pair with where the Well Pennies have found themselves. To hear Bryan and Sarah tell it, they would never have found the career they did without ignoring the fear and jumping in. The Vanderpools are content with where they’ve landed, their neighborhood, and their near all-consuming passion to build up their in-home studio. But to hear them tell it, they never once regretted jumping into life on the West Coast, or leaving it behind to find their next adventure.
“I think everything happens for a reason and at a certain time,” says Sarah. “We felt inclined to go to Los Angeles. We considered moving to New York. No, if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it all the way — to the other side of the coast … . We did the stereotypical thing of throwing it all to the wind and seeing what happens. So, we were there for a time, and we did start to feel a sense of restlessness. Maybe this isn’t feeling right anymore. And then it’s like, it’s time to move onto a new chapter. This just felt right.”