Ashley Stroud is an up and coming cabaret singer. She’s been hailed as a “modern day Josephine Baker”. She came to prominence as a vocalist for Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ). Her jazzy interpretation of Iggy Azalea’s hit Fancy got a huge 7.2million views. Collectively, PMJ has over 40 million views on Youtube.
You’re going to be hearing a lot more from Ashely in the coming years. We spoke to Ashley as she prepares for her new cabaret show in London.
Tell us about your musical background. “I’m originally from Chicago. I grew up singing in church but I was trained by Dr Lena McLin. She’s a legend in Chicago. Almost any vocal powerhouse you can name can be traced back to her. She ran a hard class and she took no BS from any of us. It was such a beautiful space. She’s a musical library. I was ten years old singing Sunday Love by Etta James and she took me seriously. Everything she taught me has never left my body. That church training is really good.”
How did your professional career begin? “I moved to New York on a whim – I was working in a seafood restaurant in Atlanta at the time. I’d just started auditioning and the first job I got was for a show called Sleep No More. The musical director of that show happened to be Scott Bradlee.” He’s the founder of Postmodern Jukebox.
“I was a waitress, a dance instructor, a cleaner, a nanny – anything that paid my bills. But when PMJ went viral I couldn’t go back.”
Were you surprised by the success of PMJ? “When I joined it wasn’t what it is now. I was on the first tour and I don’t think any of us had any clue what was coming. We were just playing around. I never thought this would start a professional career for me. When we went viral we really went viral. We were everywhere and it was jarring. I’d show up at my dance classes and the kids would be like ‘Miss Ashley, what’s going on?’”
Tell us about your upcoming show in London. “Carte Blanche is a showgirl extravaganza. If you’re a fan of PMJ you’ll love this show. We’ve reimagined some very strong women throughout history. So we’ve married Carmen Jones and Cardi B. We’ve brought Roxy Hart into the now. I think it’s really new, very fresh, I’ve never seen anything like it. Bright colours, lots of mashups and some glamour.”
“Neave Harvey is the only one of the showgirls not making her cabaret debut outside the core group. The other two dancers are making their debut. The rest of the cast members are heavy hitters. Cleopantha is in the top 50 burlesque in the world. Zoe Marshall has just finished a run of Pippin at the Sydney Lyric Theatre. These are the girls you want to know! I’m really excited to show people what we can do.”
Are you planning to take this show on the road? “I am! It’s my dream. Coming out of lockdown we need a bit of escapism, a bit of glamour, a bit of fun, and we’re exploring a similar time in history. There were pandemics and economic depression but the follies were born. These glamorous, vaudevillian cabarets came along to give people an escape.”
“I spent my lockdown watching Ziegfeld Girl, Funny Face – I’m a huge Audrey Hepburn fan and I’m a huge Dorothy Dandridge fan. I know Carmen Jones by heart. When you haven’t changed out of one pair of sweatpants in eight days, you want to be a showgirl. I want to be the most glamorous version of myself, even if it only lasts for 90 minutes.”
Alt Cabaret in Sydney. “That show was called Blanc de Blanc Encore. It was my first time in Australia. I had just moved to London and they called me. They knew me from PMJ and asked if I wanted to come to Australia. I was like, um, OK! The run was three months. That show really solidified how much I love cabaret. It’s intimate and anything can happen.”
Will there be an Ashely Stroud album? “Definitely. The ideas have been flowing and I’ve started working with some producers. It’s early days. I definitely want to release something next year that’s fun, dance-y.”
Were you always drawn to jazz? “I grew up loving jazz. At home I heard a lot of R&B, soul and gospel. I don’t know how I found Billie Holiday but when I did that was it. It spoke to me and I fell in love with Sarah Vaughn and Diana Washington. When I got to New York that was the community that first welcomed me: jazz players. I’d go to Fat Cat and I’d go to Smalls all the time. Jazz is always going to be home for me. When I slide into a jazz song it just works.”
“This is my first time speaking publicly as a queer or non-straight woman, so that’s exciting for me. I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment sitting my family down. I’d just say ‘hey mum, I’m going on a date with this girl.’ It’s really exciting for me. I feel confident in myself. I’ve always been in queer spaces. The club I go to most often in London is Heaven. So I know people are wondering! I feel happy to say it even though I’ve never felt the need to sit everyone down and say ‘I am this.’”
“Having grown up in church and hearing what you hear in church, that was an issue. Also feeling like maybe I don’t fit what queer is supposed to look like. I’m married to a man so maybe it’s not what it looks like in terms of dating either. The more artists I see speaking honestly makes me confident to say this is part of my identity but I’m still me. And this part of me fuels a lot of my work.”