Palm Springs resident Steve Knill wasn't always ready to show off his singing chops to crowds, but he hasn't been able to stop the last few years, whether on national television or on the local stage.
After appearing on the 17th season of "The Voice" — during which coach and Grammy Award winner Kelly Clarkson turned her chair for the singer but was sent home in the next stage — Knill has gone on to perform in San Francisco and Palm Springs, as well as online, reaching audiences worldwide.
Now he's about to make his musical stage debut in Desert Theatreworks' production of "Jimmy Buffett's Escape to Margaritaville." In the musical-comedy, which features hits from Buffett's song catalogue, Knill portrays Tully, a "womanizer" who works at a tropical resort and falls for a guest. The show will run March 10 through April 2 in Indio.
Knill spoke with The Desert Sun about his love of music, his time on "The Voice" and what audiences can expect from his theater debut.
DS: What drew you to music? Did you pick up an instrument when you were little, or did it always interest you?
SK: It never really interested me until I got out of high school. I grew up without a lot of friends, and I always listened to music. I love to sing, I had a thing for singing and I liked it, but I was too scared to do it in public. I would always play the radio really loud and sing to Stevie Wonder or whoever, but when my parents got home, I would turn off the radio real fast. I wasn't out at the time either, so I just held it in until I was just out of high school and the rest is history.
DS: I'm assuming during middle school or high school you weren't part of your school's choir?
SK: No. I did a couple of things with my church when I was in a youth group when I was 7, 8 or 9. I played the drum for the "Little Drummer Boy" for the Christmas concert, but I didn't have any singing parts or anything like that.
DS: They didn't know what they had in terms of talent!
SK: I didn't know what I had either. I didn't really start singing in front of people until I was 21 or 22. A friend of mine heard me sing once and was like, 'Dude, you're really good, we should go to karaoke.' So we started doing that and then every time I would sing karaoke, people were telling me, 'Wow, you need to do something.'
DS: What was it like singing in front of people that first time?
SK: The first couple times I sang I was really nervous. Sometimes you go to karaoke and you hear somebody singing and people make fun, you can see people visually making fun of people, like covering their ears. That never happened to me. I always got super positive feedback, so it became addicting. Singing is a good addiction to have. I like to sing in public now to get reactions from people, I guess that's kind of a self-centered thing, but I like to see what people's reactions are.
DS: Tell me a little bit about your time on "The Voice."
SK: I auditioned for "The Voice" seven or eight times before I actually got on. When I lived in Phoenix, I would drive to LA and audition, once I did it when I was in LA and then I moved to San Francisco and just sent in auditions online. I literally said on Facebook the last time I auditioned, 'I just submitted an audition, this is the last audition I'm ever going to do for the show.' And then I ended up making it that season.
DS: Was it your last time because you auditioned so many times before and you were over the rejections?
SK: Kind of watching the show every single season and I started to feel, OK, there's no way I'm not as good, if better, than a lot of these people. They're picking some weird contestants, as far as vocally, and it's just like, how is that guy better than me? But I started realizing that it's not about my talents. There's so many people that were talented in my season that didn't even make it as far as I did. I figured it out that I'm more of a character that they're casting versus a person. They're not thinking of me as this guy is not good enough, he's just not what we're looking for at the moment.
DS: Once you did get on the show, what happened? Kelly Clarkson was your mentor, right?
SK: Yeah, that's who turned around for me.
DS: Was that who you were hoping for? Did you have any idea going into it who you wanted to be coached by?
SK: That was kind of my downfall with the whole thing. I catered to have her specifically turn around and I wasn't necessarily thinking or caring if anybody else turned around because I was singing one of her songs (He sang 'Up To The Mountain,' which Clarkson covered). But that would be the thing I would change if I was to do it again. I would definitely pick a song that doesn't have any bias with all of the other coaches. That way it would be more of a free-for-all. When Kelly turned around and they all turned around to give their feedback, they all pretty much said, 'We didn't turn around because we figured you're going to be good with Kelly,' which I later now know is just a quick way to get me on the show and get me off the show real fast.
DS: As you alluded to, your time on the show was short.
SK: I made it on my first episode, and my next episode, I battled Jake (Hoot), who was the winner of my season. The battles are when Kelly or whoever the coaches are pick pairs of two to sing a duet, and she picks somebody based on who sang the duet better, which, to me, if you're singing a duet, both people are pretty equal, so I don't think that's really the right way to judge a singer.
DS: What has life after "The Voice" looked like?
SK: As soon as I got off of the show, I got a little bit of notoriety in San Francisco as far as doing gigs and things like that. I had a gig in Alameda ... and they would ask me once or twice a month to go sing at a place called Wine & Waffles, and I had a pretty good thing there, and then the pandemic happened, so everything got shut down. I just started doing livestreams and stuff like that, just like every other singer, and started putting out more YouTube videos. My YouTube channel is actually getting pretty popular at the moment compared to what it was.
Then we moved to Palm Springs and music opened back up again, and I was able to get enough gigs to keep me busy every now and then.
DS: Where do you perform around town?
SK: I started at the V Wine Lounge and I was there for a few months. I went to GiGi's, the new place in the V Palm Springs hotel, and then I was doing the Bighorn Golf Club last season, and they invited me back this season. Unfortunately, I had to not take three or four gigs because I'm doing the (Desert Theatreworks) show.
DS: Perfect segue. How did "Jimmy Buffett's Escape to Margaritaville" come your way?
SK: I just got a random message one day from the artistic director of the theater company, Lance Phillips. I don't think he knew that I was on "The Voice" at that time, but he had just heard some of my music through somebody and sent me a message and said, 'Hey, I need somebody who can sing their ass off.' He said, 'It's an acting role, but I'm not too worried about the acting. We can teach you that, I need somebody who can sing.'
DS: What can you tell us about the show?
SK: I want to say it's loosely based on Jimmy Buffett's life, but not really. It's about a guy who sings at a tropical resort. A woman comes to town with her best friend and they're celebrating her best friend's bachelorette party. My character, Tully, is kind of a womanizer and has fun with the guests when they're there and then they leave and he never sees them again. This one he falls in love with, and the story goes from there.
DS: Were you a Jimmy Buffett fan before all this?
SK: I knew who he was, and I knew 'Margaritaville' and a couple of other songs, but I didn't know that he wrote or sang a lot of the songs that are in the show. There's a few songs that I've come to really like that I had never heard before this show, so I'm glad I get to sing them.
DS: With this being your first stage production, how has that been for you?
SK: It's definitely a little more natural than I thought, but learning the dialogue is the hard part. When you learn a song, there's a pattern to it usually, and so the way to remember a song is the first verse starts with this, the second verse starts with this, the chorus is the same. But there's no pattern to this. You never repeat anything, so it's a little more difficult. I have a couple times where I have to say an entire paragraph of stuff and fast, in a sarcastic kind of way, so it'll be interesting (laughs).
DS: Are you impressed that you put yourself out there in a new way?
SK: (My husband's) big thing is goals and setting goals for yourself. My goal for this year, a continuation of last year, was to do something like this, do something musically that was totally out of my comfort zone.
We went and saw a show at the Coachella Valley Repertory. We saw (actress and singer) Julie Garnyé perform there, and there were a few people there, like (photographer) Michael Childers and a bunch of other people who are well known around Palm Springs. I was telling my husband, 'I feel like I should be approached by some of these people (laughs). I feel like I'm good enough to do a show here. When is it going to be my turn?' I think that night or the next day, I checked my email and there was a message from Lance asking me if I wanted to do the show. So it was kind of meant to be.
DS: Will there be more stage performances from you in the future?
SK: I'm just going to take it a day at a time and wait and see how the show goes. If I get bad reviews, which I hope I don't, I'm not going to let that deter me from trying again, but I want to make sure I'm doing it with the possibility of progression versus just pulling another bad flop. I want to make sure enough people are saying, 'You have potential, just work on it.'
If you go
What: Desert Theatreworks' "Jimmy Buffett's Escape to Margaritaville"
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays from March 10 to April 2
Where: 45-175 Fargo St., Indio
How much: $40 for adults, $38 for seniors (ages 55 and older)
More information: dtworks.org
Ema Sasic covers entertainment and health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @ema_sasic.