Writer: Larry Erickson
Photographer: Piper Ferguson
Sarah and Bryan Vanderpool have chased their dreams as performance and recording musicians from coast to coast—Boston to Los Angeles—before settling in Des Moines.
Having made a name for themselves as the Well Pennies, and with music-industry contacts secure, leaving L.A. for a smaller city’s lower cost of living made sense to them. The choice was easy: Des Moines is Sarah’s hometown, and Bryan has family in Nebraska as well as his hometown of Boston.
Three years in Los Angeles was a vital career step, they agree. “We needed to conquer a big city to establish ourselves,” Bryan says. “You need a resume of achievements before they consider you legitimate.” While there, the pair wrote music for TV shows, including “True Blood” and “Separated at Birth.” But they needed to work retail jobs to cover the costs of living and producing music on the coast.
They’ve been together seven years, four as the Well Pennies. Sarah had started her career in San Francisco, after graduating from the onetime Grandview Park Baptist School in Des Moines. Then she found her way to Boston, where Bryan was performing as a drummer while studying engineering at Northeastern University.
An injury brought them together in Boston. “I hurt my wrist and couldn’t play guitar or piano,” Sarah says, and a big Easter performance was looming that weekend. She knew Bryan casually and ran into him at a coffeehouse where she was explaining her plight to friends. Bryan agreed to back her up instrumentally.
It went well, as did some further shared performances. Then came the big discovery: “We could work together and write together,” Sarah says, seemingly still amazed. Unlike so many creative teams, they were both comfortable with what Sarah calls an “easy collaboration.”
Bryan flashes a quick grin of agreement. “It felt very effortless,” he says.
Now in their 30s, they’ve developed a following around the country, but their music is even more popular abroad. “We have a huge fan base overseas,” Bryan says. “Spain is our biggest country,” followed by Italy and Japan.
In their comfortable home on the north side of Des Moines, the Vanderpools have developed a sophisticated, soundproof studio with all the equipment needed to create marketable recordings. Commuting to work has never been easier.
They record and perform their own songs, but readily cover classics in several musical styles. Their album “Beatles Reimagined” is particularly effective, bringing a bright, upbeat quality (with a trace of melancholy in the harmonies) to such songs as “All My Loving,” which Billboard magazine described as “a highly praised Beatles cover.”
Their own style has been hard to pigeonhole. “We were always too country for rock and too rocky for country,” Sarah says. But at its core, she adds, their niche is “whimsical, hopeful music.”
That’s where their passion is: sharing the joy of music and lifting the spirits of those who listen. “We want people to be affected by our music, to have a healing effect,” Sarah says. “The world is so heavy, so nasty sometimes. And we’re suckers for beauty.”
In defense of beauty, Bryan jumps in, cautiously critical of songwriters whose lyrics are just repetitions of words and phrases—the “baby, baby, baby” school of lyrical poetry. “It’s just noise,” he says. “Who are the new Dylans? The next Prince? I don’t want to lose that.”
So one course they’ve set off on is performing concerts around the country with local high school musicians, giving youths a chance to perform with pros. It started in Alaska and included a concert here, at the Des Moines Social Club, with musicians from Valley High School last year.
“It’s protecting the arts,” Bryan says, “and giving kids a chance to see new opportunities in music.” It’s tossing more pennies into the well.