Australian singing star and 2024 Adelaide Fringe ambassador Prinnie Stevens returns to the festival this year with the second instalment of her hit cabaret-style show Lady Sings the Blues.
Lady Sings the Blues Volume 2 honours another selection of music’s most talented and tormented female singers over the generations, including Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Whitney Houston and Tina Turner.
Stevens, who rose to national fame as a contestant on The Voice, channels the pain, struggle and resilience of these famous female singers who shaped the music industry for generations.
In telling their stories, she says she has reflected on her own path in the music industry, which began around age nine when she was performing in public and auditioning for major musicals. As a student at Sydney’s Brent Street Performing Arts school in Sydney, Stevens’ star was on the rise early and she was signed to Sony Music at just 13.
“I didn’t come from a performing background. My mother is from Tonga and moved to Australia in her 20s,” Stevens says.
“So singing and dancing was just something you did with the family. You didn’t pay for classes or make it a career, so I very much paved my own way.”
By her teens, Stevens was a musical theatre star and her credits over the years have included the Australian premiere of Rent: The Musical at 17, The Bodyguard, Hair, Thriller LIVE (in which she made her West End debut five years ago) and Oh What A Night! (which scored her a Helpmann Award nomination).
She also lived and worked in the United States for several years, gigging alongside stars such as Mary J Blige and Chaka Khan.
Yet despite the big names and success, Stevens says she felt a growing need to claim her own identity and step more into her own space as a female performer. It was her appearance on reality-TV talent show The Voice in 2012 – when she finished in coach Joel Madden’s top four – that was the turning point.
“Coming up in this industry in the ’90s, I mean I was a signed pop singer when I was 13 and we were not given a voice. I was told what to sing, how to stand, how to talk, what to wear, what songs to sing, how to sing them. I’ve lived that whole thing.
“I actually moved back from America and went straight into The Voice because it was like me breaking through and getting out of being a girl in a girl group and going, you know, this is what I want to say, this is what I want to sing.
“That’s been a very slow journey to now find my voice, but I am so much more unfiltered now – the captain of my ship.
“I’ve booked out the entire year myself with Lady Sings the Blues, a show I have produced and created and perform, so this is about my mental health. It’s about inspiring my girls, my nieces, my community.
“Being in a community where men are very much dominant and as women we’re very much told that we’re meant to just have babies and cook and clean and be nice, you know, to be seen but not heard. Like, I didn’t even really talk when I first started out in this industry; I really struggled.
“But this show is a celebration of all of that I have achieved, told through the stories of these amazing women.”
Lady Sings the Blues Volume 2, to be presented at The Kingfisher in Fringe hub Gluttony, features hits such as Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”, a selection of Tina Turner’s tunes including “Simply the Best”, Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” and Billie Holiday’s “Summertime”.
“The thing that I’m adamant about doing in the show is honouring these women but it’s not about being obscure or finding a song that nobody knows,” Stevens says.
“It’s about celebrating them, and the audience going, ‘Oh, I love this song. I remember this song’. It’s playing on the nostalgia and the happiness these songs bring. It’s not about being quirky in finding a new song.
“You want the audience to go on that ride with you and feel a part of it the entire way.
“That is the beauty of the show in that it evokes thought and it makes you want to go home and listen to all the women who have inspired you. It’s a show that could go on for eons but Volume Two is just bringing in more of the incredible women who have shaped history and lived through so much but were expected to be these perfect beings.”
Stevens first performed Lady Sings the Blues at the 2021 Adelaide Fringe, but says there were so many inspiring women she didn’t get to honour that she felt the need to create this new stage show.
“I mean, these women just went through so much crap that as soon as I start singing the songs, and especially because I talk about their lives beforehand, that myself and the audience, we all get a moment to reflect on these women and the incredible things they did.
“For example, in the first version of the show, I talked about Ella Fitzgerald and about how she came to Australia the first time but was denied access to the plane because authorities didn’t believe that her first-class tickets were hers. But then I also talk about her bright, iconic voice that is so inspiring and happy and joyous.
“So as soon as you tell their stories and then the song starts, a song like ‘Funny Valentine’, it doesn’t take much to kind of get into their shoes. After telling their stories and celebrating them or reflecting on their pain or suffering and all they’ve been through, you feel it within the room. It’s taxing but it’s so very rewarding.”
Stevens always uses local musicians when performing in Adelaide. She will be joined by Nick Sinclair on double bass and Dave McEvoy on grand piano for Lady Sings the Blues Volume 2.
“It’s all very scaled back, which gives the show a very raw element,” she says.
“I’m trying to be more real because in the past I’ve been told to put on this facade of being a performer. Whereas nowadays, being a performer and a human is just the same thing and that’s a hard concept to come to terms with but I’m learning and it’s actually very freeing.
“I’m not doing it because I think it’s going to serve me, you know, financially, but I do see that the next generation have got it right in so many ways… they are very open with what they say and what they do. I definitely think there’s a happy medium somewhere.
“I’ve actually really enjoyed being more open on my socials and not feeling like I have to be perfect all the time, which is what I definitely touch on in Lady Sings the Blues, in that they were all meant to be so perfect.”
Stevens is one of three Adelaide Fringe ambassadors for 2024, alongside fellow cabaret singer Isaac Humphries and chef Adam Liaw. She says she can’t wait to share the honour with the wider community as well as her own family: American basketballer husband Patrick Sanders, and daughters, Sania, 18, and Hope, 5, who are coming to Adelaide for the festival.
“I can’t wait for them to experience it because if you’ve ever had to explain Adelaide Fringe to someone that’s never been, they just have no idea. So the trick is just book the tickets, come on over and experience it all. I just know they are going to fall in love with it.
“I’m very much about finding things that are on brand with what I do, so I’m also making it my business to get out and get more in touch with the community, especially the Indigenous community, and getting around to more younger women, and using the time and the platform of Fringe Ambassador to be able to make the festival more accessible to those who wouldn’t usually have access to it.
“So for past Fringe Festivals it was always very much just about my show but this time it’s not just about my show, it’s about waving the flag and encouraging all people to come and get involved. Part of my role is also to encourage Sydneysiders to come and experience all that Fringe has to offer.”
The popular RnB performer says she is also passionate about telling “black and brown stories unfiltered”, and Lady Sings the Blues Volume 2 enables her to do this with pure, raw emotion.
“I’m definitely advised by a lot of incredible mentors but I think it’s very important that these stories are told straight through the eyes and straight out of the mouth of someone who has lived it.
“I spent a lot of years singing Aretha songs and singing Billie Holiday and all these different artists and being told by other people that hadn’t lived it or walked in those shoes, how to perform it. I’m older now and wiser and very adamant about the fact that these stories have to be told from a space of authenticity.
“Even my promotional poster for Lady Sings the Blues, the image is so well put together in a very 1920s way, which is how a lot of these women were portrayed. But I think part of the trauma they lived is that they had to be perfect in the eyes of the world, and I even touch on people like Amy Winehouse in my show, and Whitney Houston – women who were totally unravelling behind the scenes. It’s just tragic stories of these women but what we’ve been left with is their incredible gift of music. It’s very profound.”
As well as Lady Sings the Blues Volume 2, Stevens will also appear alongside her friend and former Fringe Ambassador Kween Kong as a co-host of Fringe show Black Puddin, described as a “drag and dine event like no other” featuring drag, burlesque, circus acts and more.
Prinnie Stevens will present Lady Sings the Blues Volume 2 in Gluttony from February 16-25. Black Puddin will be at Mamacita from February 16 until March 17.
This story is part of a series of articles being produced by InReview with the support of Adelaide Fringe.
Read more 2024 Adelaide Fringe stories here.
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