A Pint with… Penny for the Workhouse!

Having seen Penny For The Workhouse live a couple of times, and each time having been knocked out by their material and their performance, I thought it would be worthwhile meeting them and trying to find out what makes them tick, and where their intriguing songs come from.


I meet the band in a gloriously unspoilt pub in London’s West End. When they arrive however, guitarist Tom Connor is not with them. Unfortunately he has been detained at work and will not be joining us. Never mind. Instead of talking to him we shall talk about him!

PftW Int 3 We buy drinks and adjourn to an upstairs lounge, where I unleash the first of my fiendishly probing questions…
Carabas: Welcome Penny For The Workhouse! How did the band form?
Mel: I was gigging on my own, writing songs, and I knew Nathan and Jess. I’d never been great on guitar. I picked up the guitar later in life, about 21. I teamed up with Nathan and we started doing duet stuff, playing at acoustic nights. Nathan was writing too so we started doing both

our songs, then we though “aah, this is boring, acoustic, we want a full band.” I knew Jess, and knew she was a great bassist. We’d known Tom for years so got him in as the drummer. Tom was here, there and everywhere with his theatre work, so we met Sam and he came in as the drummer. He initially stood in for Tom when he wasn’t available, but we realised that Sam was so good that he should be our full-time drummer, and Tom wanted to be on guitar, so that all worked out nicely.

C: Where did the band’s name come from?

Jess: We were originally called The Workhouse, and that was because Mel absolutely loves Oliver Twist. One of the first things we ever did was You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two. So we put a few things out on Youtube, gigs we’d recorded, things like that, and then we were contacted by a band called The Workhouse, and they weren’t happy with us. They said “we’ve had some success” and told us that they were big in Japan!

Nathan: They said that there was a conflict of interest between the two of us. CPP - PftW - Coins and Cards
J: They insisted that we change our name. We were in the middle of recording our very first EP, and we obviously needed a name to put on the EP. We liked The Workhouse, and wanted to keep that, so we were just throwing ideas around. Someone came up with Penny For The Guy, which was quite an old-fashioned thing, then Penny Black.

N: We had loads of ideas. The workhouse in Oliver was called Cleveland, and was on Cleveland Street. So we had this idea of Cleveland Street Runners. Then we thought: we were called The Workhouse, let’s keep that and merge it with Penny For The Guy, so we became Penny For The Workhouse. Sometimes it comes out as Penny For The Workhorse…

M: …And people seem to think I’m called Penny. Even when I email promoters and sign it ‘Mel’, they still write back: “Dear Penny”……. It does come out quite high on Google though.

PftW 2 (scaled) N: The name is important though. I remember listening to bands and you’d instantly associate their name with a particular style of music. And to be honest we were never going to be like The Vines or The Strokes with that ‘to the point’ indie vibe. There’s a bit more of a ‘story-telling’ vibe with us, and I think that’s reflected in the name.
(Live at the Finsbury)

C: Let’s talk about your own material now, your original material. How does the compositional process work? Do you all write separately, or do you write together?

M: Me and Nathe write the songs. We tend to write them apart don’t we?

N: It changed. This is all down to time and living in opposite ends of London. For the first EP the whole band got together and translated a lot of Mel’s solo songs, then a couple of mine that I’d managed to get finished at that point. Then Walk With You we actually wrote kind of together….

M. Yeah, it was your song, but I wrote the choruses.

N. Yeah, I said “I know what I want the chords to be but I haven’t got a chorus”. There’s a punk band called Blink 182. On their album before last they experimented with writing separately. They would tell each other the subject of the song, then they’d go into separate rooms and one would write the verse, and the other would write the chorus, then they’d put them together. And that’s why with this song the verse and the chorus have a different feel to each other. They have the same subject matter but written about in a different style.

M. That’s like Giant Slayer as well. I’d written the verses and had them for a long time, and couldn’t think of anything, then you came up with the chorus.

N. Yeah, I think when we first started it was very much like we’d get together and help each other out. And then when the band got more established, we realised that a song didn’t have to be finished. We could just bring it in and all four or five of us would chip in. That’s why when you listen to the later stuff there’s more happening on the bass, there’s more happening on the drums that there possibly wasn’t in the earlier stuff. So now we can bring in a song and say: “well I’ve got a chord that works, and the words are finished”, and then maybe finish the song in a three hour session.

M. Yeah, that’s what we’re doing with our newest one now, which we haven’t played yet, called Soho Circus. I’d had some ideas for that, and I was really stuck. As I said before, I’m not the greatest guitarist, I’m not the greatest recorder, I just play what I know. I could hear in my head what I wanted the chord progression to be, but I couldn’t find it on the guitar, so I went to the boys, to Nathan and Tom, and said “look, can you work it out”.

N. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think that anyone has to be an exceptional guitarist to write a great song. More to the point is the name, and the music we produce, it’s more of an ensemble thing. Like let’s make it work, let’s get the song finished.

M. It’s all very separate as well. I would never come along with a bass line for example. I had an idea for Kilburn High Rd., but Jess writes her own bass lines, Sam writes whatever happens on the drums, and if it’s my song the boys write their solo bits on guitar. So even though I come along with a finished acoustic song, it never ends up sounding anything like that.

N. You keep mixing up the way that you do a song as well. Like the way that we wrote Walk With You and the way that we wrote Kilburn High Rd is different to the way that we wrote Giant Slayer and the way that we wrote the latest one. It keeps it kind of fresh. I know that a lot of people like a format to the way that they work, but with us like…

M. …it’s whatever it takes to get it finished basically. PftW Int 2
C. So it’s kind of more organic?
N. Yeah. A song like Soho Circus, we’re really looking forward to playing it, because even listening to a rough recording there are so many changes to it. You don’t really notice, but there are so many changes. It’s worth it because we could never have done that, if me and Mel had just been writing together.We’d have finished that song, and then just brought it to the band.

M. There’s a method to the madness somewhere!!!

C. As a band, or individually, what do you listen to, and who would you say your influences are?

M. There are so many things with all of us. I grew up in a household where loads of sixties music was played. My Dad is a promoter and an author, and he’s still a mod to this day. So I grew up around all that, old R&B, even going back to old rock’n’roll stuff like the Beach Boys. Then when I moved to London in my early 20s it was all Babyshambles and The Libertines. All sort of punky rock. I’m a massive fan of Pete Doherty. I don’t care if he’s a druggy. I’m not interested in that. As a lyricist he’s amazing. Then I love Britpop as well. I love Blur, they’re a massive band for me. We all like American pop punk stuff as well. We’re very influenced by that aren’t we?

N. With me, my Mum and Dad had no taste whatsoever. Not that they had no taste, but it was so mainstream. My Dad, in his 20s and 30s liked The Bee Gees and The Human League, and then suddenly, at the age of 50 was like “oh, I quite fancy a Guns’n’Roses album.” I went: OK – fine!!! For me when I was growing up I thought “I need to cling onto something. I need to find out what it is I listen to”, and that did use to be punk, but now I would say that it’s more classic rock and folk. I think as well, living in London there’s music hall stuff, and being fans of Oliver, and how fashionable it is to be retro, we thought “well let’s be ultra retro – let’s listen to music hall and country stuff”. That’s part of the tradition of folk, like Flogging Molly, that story-telling tradition.

C. What about you Sam?

Sam: When I was younger I was really into Sum 41, but when I was learning to play the drums I’d listen to loads of jazz music, big bands, swing and all that sort of stuff. But if there was a person that I tried to copy it’d be Travis Barker out of Blink 182. He’s got the fast drumming, the complicated fiddly bits, which works to my disadvantage in lots of ways! (Much laughter all round). I either go too fast or try to put too much into it, it confuses me, confuses everyone else (more laughter), and also the audience when we’re playing!! I love the Arctic Monkeys too, absolutely love them.

N. That’s the thing, pop punk and indie for our generation is what the Sex Pistols were for people in the 1970s, it was like ‘how can we be in a cool band and put in as little effort as possible?’ Make songs with simple chords, and luckily for us that was still kind of popular. Like with pop punk, if I can play three chords, I can form a band. So I think for a young kid you’re going to be drawn to the simpler stuff first, then as you get a bit older you get into possibly more complex stuff.

J. I don’t know where to begin with what influences me, because growing up I listened to a lot of rock’n’roll, like Elvis, Roy Orbison I was a massive fan of, and early Beatles. We didn’t have any Beatles albums after Help!, so it was all the early stuff. When I started to develop my own musical taste I rebelled a lot against my parents. I was really into Blur, and in fact it was Alex James who first influenced me to get a bass guitar, and learn to play bass. So yeah, I was really into them but then I started to get massively into metal. I was a proper metalhead when I was younger. Then at the same time, the first band I was in was a Glenn Miller style swing band. So I was listening to everything from Glenn Miller to System Of A Down.

C. So all pretty varied then?!!

M. Yeah. I think that helps our music as well. It makes us very difficult to pigeon-hole.

N. I think that’s important with a band coming up, people say that you’ve got to find your sound, but with us finding it’s been a blessing in disguise!

M. People ask us what music we like and I say ‘well, a bit of everything. It depends what mood I’m in!’

C. Some of your songs are specifically about London (Kilburn High Rd for example). Do you feel that your songs reflect the London of today, or a bygone London? PftW 5 (scaled)
M. I think they maybe reflect the London that I wish was today, I dunno! In part it is today. I live near Kilburn High Road, and it was literally just full of nutters, and it’s great fun to watch. I’d be on the bus, on the way to work with my husband, and I’d be thinking ‘I have to write a song about that, I have to’ because it was just always there. That’s how I finally got that idea. But then I suppose there are other things that I wish it was still like maybe, I don’t know. Maybe it is still like that!
C. Below the surface!
M. Yeah. There’s a lot of things I hate about London, and there are a lot of things that I love about London.

C. Do you wish that you could go into a pub and find a guy playing the ‘old joanna’ and everybody having a sing-song?

M. Yeah. I’m quite romantic like that.

N. If you sing a song about London, it’s almost as if the music is how it used to be, and the lyrics are about how it is now. Whereas if you wrote a song about how it (London) is, and the music was modern, it would sound somehow fickle. When people listen to those old tales and stories, some listen because they’re interested, and some listen because the music’s quirky. That’s what you’ve got to do to get them to listen.

M. I suppose a lot of the time it’s how you see it through your eyes. I mean I see it differently to someone who lives and works in Canary Wharf.

C. That’s not really London is it?

M. No. That’s not proper London.

C. That neatly bring us to the next question. In Young Professionals you say that you’re “making war on young professionals”. How have they offended you?

PftW Int 1 M. Ah……I’m going to sound like an arse now! (much laughter). I’ve got nothing against young professionals – good luck to them!!! I think though that there’s a lot of people who fall into that situation because they feel that they should. By 30 they should have a good job, they should have two kids and a mortgage, and that’s the kind of thinking that I stand against. Also my family has always said to me “you don’t have to be like that”, and I’m not. That’s why I don’t want to sound like a complete arse because I don’t know what it’s like to be one of those people, but I get the impression when they’re moody on the tube, they’re pushing and shoving and it’s all important

that they get into work, I think “oh, they’re probably the same age as me” and they just don’t look like they have very much fun! (laughter).

N. I know it’s your (Mel’s) song, but whenever I’m playing that particular part, I feel like I’m the voice of the majority.

M. There’s more people of our age like us living in London than there are like them.

N. Yeah, I feel like I’m the voice of authority saying I’m waging war on young professionals, because they’re not like all the other people. Then again if you were going to Jobseekers or filling in your rent agreement, you would still class yourself as a young professional, because you’re working full time or whatever. So it can be viewed in more than one way.

M. And it’s kind of waging war on everything that they wanna be in life.

N. Well, it’s like most of us have been self-employed, but we would still write on a rent agreement ‘young professionals’.

M. It’s like when they say ‘we want young professionals’ they mean ‘employed people’.

C. So really you’re waging war on people doing what society expects them to do?

M. Yeah. They’re just not living their life to the full. I’m sure some of them do, because with some people that’s what they want in life. They just want to have a good job, get paid lots of money and go on holiday or whatever.

J. When you’re working full time Monday to Friday you’re only really living on Saturday and Sunday. Literally they’re spending everything they’ve earned that week going out and getting pissed!

C. Another song, I don’t think you played it last time, you played it when I saw you in Kilburn: King George pts 1 and 2. I viewed that as an anti-war song. Was that influenced by the conflicts that the UK has been involved in for the last decade-and-a-half?

N. I think what it was, King George pt 1 was written when I was at university and watching a lot of Sharpe. And it was this idea that there were kind of these chosen men and that they were fighting for a cause, and it was kind of sentimental. It was way before we had gone to war in Iraq. It was just mainly about people fighting for the King’s shilling and not really knowing what they were fighting for, like all war! The people that fight are never the people who really know what’s going on, but it was mainly about these characters in Sharpe. You’ve made it sound quite epic now, I feel a bit…… I feel awful now because what you’ve said is a really good reason to write a song!!! (much laughter).

C. I’m not going to put words into your mouth!!! (laughter)

N. The thing is again is it’s the storytelling aspect. I think it is perhaps an inadvertent reaction because the war in Iraq was on the news all the time, and it was a thing that we shouldn’t have done. Although the TV show moved me more to write a song than the war in Iraq! (laughter)

C. That song is quite musically complex, as is Giant Slayer, with different sections in different tempos. Do you think that there’s a prog-folk element to your music? CPP - PftW - Jack the Gunslinger
M. Yeah, I think so. When we put our second EP on iTunes, they classified us as contemporary folk, so I guess there is! Yeah!
N. Again it’s that thing, because most of the changes…

M. We try and make it sound like the story. Like with King George, in the chorus there’s the military drums, and with Giant Slayer we tried to make it sound like a giant was coming in.

N. And most of the changes are actually from my back catalogue of playing loads of pop-punk songs. Not necessarily the chords that they use, but the rhythm and the pace. So I guess that in terms of going for a folky kind of song using the pop-punk chords would qualify as being progressive folk. Because you either have the punk-folk or you have folk, or you have punk rock.

M. It’s definitely got a bit of a punk element.

C. So effectively you’re mixing genres?

N. Yeah. Because Tom knows a lot of rhythm ‘n’ blues stuff, and I suppose not a lot of people are doing that necessarily. If you do folk then you do punk it up a little bit. It’s easy to do a cover of a classic song, because you just make it faster. Like what we did with Pick a Pocket was take stuff away as well. Because otherwise it would still be an enjoyable song, but it would pretty much be on the same level the whole way through. Whereas if you take stuff away, or…..

M. And it’s a musical theatre song, so we did have to make it cool! (laughter)

C. There’s also an occasional flavour of Americana in your music, like in Willow Tree for example. Was that a conscious thing?

N. Yeah. I really like Johnny Cash, I really do. I remember when I discovered him, I just bought thirteen albums in one go! I think the first song influenced by that was Jack the Gunslinger which was kind of country, and that happened completely by accident. And then Willow Tree, I was listening to Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around, and I thought: OK let’s have a riff where people really go ‘that’s country!’ Luckily for me it’s easy to play, and it’s got that feel to it.

C. It’s interesting, and I think that this is one of the good things about your band, if you go and see a Penny For The Workhouse gig, you’re not going to get bored, because there’s so many different facets.

M. It’s probably so we don’t get bored! (laughs)

C. If you were to describe your music yourselves, in a nutshell, how would you describe it? I mean in Kilburn High Road you describe it as “rock ‘n’ roll with a dash of folk”.

M. Yeah, yeah, that’s it. That’s why we used to say ‘folk ‘n’ roll’ although…

J. We’ve kind of moved on from that a little bit.

M. There’s other bands that have used that phrase who are folkier than us, but folk ‘n’ roll does make sense because, I think it was our mate Gaz, who said we tell stories like a folk band, but we rock ‘n’ roll with it, so we mash it together.

PftW 1 (scaled) N. I think that it’s the kind of music that you’re formatively influenced by, and the law of averages tends to be that that’s rock ‘n’ roll. But it is with a dash of folk. But even The Beatles, I remember seeing an interview with Paul McCartney, he said with Eleanor Rigby they thought: ‘let’s tell a story’. Because so many of their songs were about love, they didn’t want to write a song that was connected to them as people. They wanted to write a song about somebody else.
M. I like stories. I’m a people watcher so I think that stories just come naturally to me from watching people I guess, and that kind of storytelling just tends to be put in a folk bracket.

C. There was another song I was curious about: “No-one Parties Like It’s 1954 Anymore”. Why 1954?

N. My mum was born in 1954, although the song used to be called 1955. I wrote it when I was at uni. I was listening to a lot of Libertines. There’s a song called What Katy Did. It’s that classic major to minor to minor back to major kind of thing; and it was that jaunty 1940s / 1950s sat round a piano…

C. That kind of feel…..

N. Yeah, like Knees Up Mother Brown kind of stuff, which is why it says ‘Mr Brown’ in there. Then Tom said to me: “why have you put 55, when 54 would rhyme with the word that you’ve ended the line with!”(laughter) And I thought that would work as it’s not about an absolutely specific time, more of a time that evokes a certain feeling.

S. So you were saying ‘no-one parties like it’s 1955 anymore”? (laughter)

C. I must confess I was wondering whether it was because that’s when rationing ended?

N. God! You’re so awful!!! (laughter)

M. Deep down he’s really intelligent but he hasn’t realised it yet!!! (laughter)

N. It’s all subconscious!!! (laughter) It’s not necessarily about rationing, but it’s about a time when life was worse, but people were still having a good time. The whole point is that nowadays people are getting hung up on stuff like…. the election. Y’know, I don’t want a Tory government, but does complaining about it really have to consume your life? It’s like people watching re-runs of the 1980s going “we could have that! We could do that again”. No we couldn’t! Come on – we’ve got iPads now!!! I do not know what it was like!!! No-one’s picketing, no-one’s marching, they’re all busy charging their routers!!!

J. It was simpler in the old days.

N. Yeah, exactly. It was harder, but people had a good bloody time, and that’s what it’s about.

C. You’ve received a commendation from Paul Weller. How do you feel about that?

J. That for me is one of the greatest things in the world, because I was obsessed with Paul Weller when I was growing up, absolutely 100%. I loved him, I loved Ocean Colour Scene, I loved The Jam, anything Paul Weller had ever done. That pretty much defines me from the ages of about 14 to 17. That was pretty much all I ever listened to. So hearing Paul Weller had listened to us and he really liked it, that blew me away! It really did – I’m still grinning now!!!

C. You’ve recently released a live EP: Sneaky Peekers. Tell me about that. CPP - PftW - Sneaky Peekers
M. Sneaker Peekers was recorded at the Sound Lab in Essex completely live. So what you hear on that is exactly what we recorded. There’s no messing about with it.
S. You can actually hear it on the first track when there’s crackling from a lead.

M. But people do mess about with recordings. There’s no autotune, there’s nothing like that. I think it actually sounds better than our other EPs.

C. It’s not in front of an audience though?

N. No. Basically, the first EP, those were our first songs, so we lumped them together. Then the second EP, they were songs that were kind of all linked together. I mean, we have loads of songs but we just haven’t had the money to record them all on an album. Then with Sneaky Peekers we thought let’s get our most popular songs, ones we haven’t recorded and do them live. Most of it is our latest stuff, although now there’s even newer stuff. We were lucky enough to play at The Fiddler’s Elbow, and they recorded the whole set for us.

M. So there is an entire live set that we could potentially release in some form.

N. But with Sneaky Peekers we had these songs, and we really liked them, they had a really good feel, so we went to Sound Lab to do it, in a studio but live….

M. And we’ve got videos to match them as well on Youtube.

C. Do you see yourselves recording an album? Is that your next project?

J. Hopefully by the end of the year.

M. We’ll probably go back to Sound Lab. We’ve already had quotes from them which are quite reasonable, but just doing the vocals separately so we can get a bit more clarity.

S. All the music will sound the same standard as the live EP, cos we feel that there’s a lot more energy. Especially when we’re playing live in general, I think it sounds so much better than some of the early recordings.

M. Some of the recordings have let us down, because they’re a bit too….

S. They’re just too crisp. We were in separate rooms, like I would record the drums, then Jess would record, then Nathe would record the rhythm, then Mel would record the acoustic, then Tom would record the twiddly bits, then vocals on top. So I’ve finished recording three days ago, and we’re just getting on to the vocals!

M. It was too neat and tidy. It needed a bit of that energy.

S. It just needed a bit of…… the duff note here and there. Me hitting the rim on the drum or something. D’you know what I mean?

C. Yeah. To make it sound real.

S. Yeah. Exactly.

N. The good thing about Sneaky Peekers, because that was a live EP, we know that if we do an album, we can combine the two worlds. Because that’s what we want. We want the music to be live, then have plenty of time to spend on the vocals.

M. Hopefully by the end of the year. That’s the plan. It’s just money. So we’re trying to do any gigs we can to earn a little bit of money.

C. Speaking of which, when’s your next gig? PftW Int 4
M. Well, we’ll be making our first festival appearance!!! We’ll be playing the Livestock Festival at Longdon, near Tewkesbury in Worcestershire, on Saturday 1st August. Prior to that we’re playing at the Pack and Carriage in Camden on 18th July, and the Alleycat in Denmark Street on 28th July.
C. Penny For The Workhouse – thank you very much!


And with that, they melt into the night. A bit like Clint Eastwood disappearing into the haze at the end of Pale Rider. Penny For The Workhouse make exciting music which engages your feet and your brain. If you haven’t heard them before, I suggest you do so pronto!!! Our Profile of the band (with all their links) isn’t a bad place to start…

Then, why not see them at the gigs mentioned above? Enjoy!!!

Mark Kelly