AN email nudge dropped into the inbox from the intriguingly named Penny Whispers, with its echo of Ian Fleming’s “Bond girls” or a one-hit-wonder Sixties’ pop ingenue.
“You may not remember me but in 2012 you wrote a review for The York Press on York Settlement Players’ version of ‘Black Potatoes’ and quoted me as ‘one to watch’ – a review I’ve held dear to this day,” it began.
Ah yes, Black Potatoes, a musical by Alan Combes and Steve Cassidy, the one with Irish accents, that ran at Upstage Centre Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, in November 2010 (not 2012!).
The “one to watch” – or “definitely one to watch” as the review said even more emphatically of her performance as young wife Peigi – was one Terri-Ann Prendergast, now one half of the Scarborough duo Penny Whispers.
On March 7, Terri-Ann and Harry Bullen release their third single, Upside Down, the follow-up to December’s “ray of hope” lockdown song Wave and their debut, Stay A While.
Penny for your thoughts, Terri-Ann. Here she answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on her musical past and present, the name Penny Whispers, the impact of Covid lockdowns on musicians, song-writing in 2020/21, album plans and the year ahead.
When did Harry meet Terri-Ann?
“We’re both from sunny Scarborough and we met in 2015, having secured contracts to work on cruise ships, performing to audiences all over the world.
“For the past five years, we’ve been travelling all over the world playing music and have never been in one place for very long. In 2020, we were heading back to the UK to record. We were aiming for London until the pandemic hit and we ended up grounded in Scarborough. It’s been quite nice really as it’s been ages since we were both at home.”
What have you done since your performance theatre student days at York St John? You mention working on cruise ships…
“I’ve done lots of theatre work around Leeds and York, including a stint performing at the York Dungeon! While building up my solo singing career, I performed at some really amazing events including Camp Bestival [at Lulworth Castle, Dorset].
“I worked alongside The Prince’s Trust for a while and had the opportunity to perform at some really wonderful events for them. In 2015, I joined a band – where I met Harry – and we secured some contracts on cruise ships, travelling around the world and playing music.
“I’ve been song-writing the whole time and it was here that Harry and I started to write songs together.”
When did Penny Whispers form and why are the duo called Penny Whispers?
“One night after a gig on the ship, Harry and I had a writing session in our cabin and we sort of haven’t stopped writing since! It’s so great when you find someone to write with who just hears what you hear in your head and the music just starts to flow.
“Since we met in 2015, we’ve written hundreds of songs and officially launched Penny Whispers in 2020. One of our first gigs was at The Hard Rock Cafe in Manchester, which was great.
“We chose ‘Penny Whispers’ as we loved the idea that it sounds like some quaint Victorian service like ‘penny for your thoughts’ or ‘penny for a secret’. Because it’s not person specific – it could be a solo artist, or a whole band – it’s not a title that immediately paints the whole picture. It makes you think about it for a second and decide what it says to you.
“One night after a gig, someone said to us, ‘Are you called ‘Penny Whispers’ because ‘money doesn’t talk’ but pennies whisper?’. We said, ‘No…but that’s really cool; we should’ve thought of that’.
“Pennies also have personal meaning to me because my Nan used to collect pennies in a jar for me and my brothers. She saved up so many 1p coins and we used to sit and count them all up into money bags.
“My Nan’s not here anymore but I still find pennies in the most bizarre places and at very peculiar times. One time I was having a bit of a panic in the toilet before an audition and right there in the toilet bowl was a penny! I like to think of it as Nan looking out for me a little, though I wish she would leave me £5 notes instead!”
Where did you record your self-produced pandemic song Wave?
“Wave was recorded in Harry’s mum’s basement. They turned the space into a recording studio and we recorded the vocals there.
“It’s a duet of emotionally charged harmony that balances tragedy and hope beautifully on the uplifting orchestration of Jon Pattison, co-founder and musical director of Beach Hut Theatre Company in Scarborough. He’s written loads of great material, including scores for many of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
“Harry produced the track after consuming hours of reading and watching YouTube videos. 2020 has given us a lot of time to explore new skills, other than just song-writing. We now aspire to do everything ourselves, 100 per cent DIY independent musicians, multi-tasking from writing and recording to marketing.”
What’s the story behind Wave, a song for these strange, enervating, fearful days?
“2020 has been a tough time for everyone across the globe, especially for creative people, but sometimes out of the darkest places, something good emerges.
“Amid lockdown 2020, we knew we wanted to say something in response to what was happening around us, but we didn’t want it to come solely from our point of view.
“So, we reached out to our followers on social media, asking them how they were coping, and the response was astounding: an influx of words showing shared feelings of loneliness but also, overwhelmingly, a huge undertone of hope.
“We wrote the song as a direct response to the pandemic, taking the messages we received from our followers and turned them into Wave. They truly were the inspiration behind it.
“The reaction has been really positive. Jonathan Cowap, on BBC Radio York, said the song ‘radiated hope’, which is exactly what we wanted it to bring: hope.
“Music has such a powerful way of lifting spirits and this is something everyone can embrace. We received messages telling us that it made people feel less alone when listening to the song and reading the comments we received from our followers.
“It was wonderful to hear that Wave could be a reflection of 2020, not just from our perspective, but from everyone else’s too. After all, we’ve all felt lonely at times throughout this, but we’ve been lonely together and there’s comfort to be taken from that.
“You can see the messages we received by watching the Wave lyric video on our YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/CnqcfeTuqXM, demonstrating the amazing strength of the human spirit to remain positive in these troubling times.”
What have been the challenges of being a musician in Covid times? How has lockdown affected your life as well as your music-making?
“2020 was a really tough year for us. We were only just launching our first single and had a lot of plans mapped out that were completely wiped. We lost all our income and our home too.
“The toughest thing is, not only did we lose our living, but we also lost the very thing that sort of gives us life! Music is everything; it isn’t just our job. We felt like we sort of lost our place in the world a little bit.
“On a positive note, having the time to write and record has been great as we are often so busy. But after a while, inspiration started to dwindle. How can you write about life when it’s just Groundhog Day every day? We did some live-streams too to try keep people’s spirits up but nothing compares to performing live.
“Making Wave really lifted our spirits at a time when we were feeling uninspired.”
What are your plans/hopes for Penny Whispers in 2021?
“All being well, we will be back gigging again by the summer! We’ve been waiting for this moment for so long.
“There’s a fantastic organisation for Yorkshire-based musicians, The Sound of Scarborough, who are creating lots of fantastic opportunities and support for local artists, so we’ll hopefully be doing stuff with them.
“No matter what happens with live performances, we’ve got so much new music to release, so keep an eye on our socials for updates. We want to reach as many people as possible and keep writing songs that people enjoy.”
New single Upside Down: what’s the musical style, theme and release format?
“It’s been described as ‘fierce lively indie rock and pop mixed with some triumphant energy and even a bit of a folk twang to it’.
“It draws on a deep pool of genres that swim together with waves of influence to create an adrenaline-fuelling track! There’s a haunting quality to this song that’s comfortably uncomfortable. It highlights an inner battle that runs throughout us all, as we strive for meaning and deny unstoppable second guessing.
“The lyrics highlight a push/pull vibe that’s present throughout the song: ‘Falling highs and climbing lows, grabbing hold to let you go’. It’s the idea of wanting something badly but then getting it and discovering it’s not what you expected, but you know you can’t walk away, because you’re already drawn in too deep.
“Upside Down is out everywhere on March 7. You can download the track directly from our Bandcamp and this is a great platform for musicians to be directly supported by their fans. The track is set at a certain price, but fans can pay more for it if they wish, and unlike streaming services, artists keep a much higher per cent of the royalties.”
Is an album on its way?
“We’ve talked a lot about release strategy and what is the best way to release our songs. The industry has changed so much in the past ten years and with music being so accessible, albums aren’t consumed in the way they once were.
“As a new band, our plan is to release singles initially, to allow people to get to know us more and get to know our sound.
“That being said, we do have plans for an album in the future.”
And finally, Terri-Ann, do you still perform in musical theatre shows?
“I haven’t done any musical theatre for a few years now; I decided to shelve it temporarily to focus on music, my first love.
“I do miss it, though! I wouldn’t rule it out for the future but for now it’s all about the music. Harry is keen on writing a musical in the future and is forever writing down ideas, so who knows…”