On Saturday evening, after 30 years of sporadic visits to the Edinburgh Festival I finally got to taste what the Fringe is supposed to be all about. Upstairs in the Voodoo Rooms, tucked in behind the Café Royal, a witchy woman with a smoky voice in a feathered mambo hat had been mesmerising an audience of about 30 with bluesy, calypso songs about life and death and human imperfection.

Now I’m helping to lug her belongings to a quieter place where we can talk about her life and why, after more than five decades, she still wants to bare her soul like this.

At the entrance to the hotel where we’ll conduct our interview a young American couple compliment her on her black voodoo hat. Before they depart I instinctively thrust a couple of flyers at them. Once, I’d fancied being a roadie for a travelling rock ‘n roll band, but this will do just fine.

Unless you belong to the global community of those itinerant singer/songwriters whose pockets are full of promissory notes for elusive stardom you may not have heard of Holly Penfield. Yet, she’s been on the road since she embraced the rock scene of the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s as a dreamy 14-year-old.

In London (where she’s now based) she’s been acclaimed as one of the city’s top cabaret and jazz performers. The London Evening Standard was captivated by her. “Vegas may have Elton and Celine, but now Soho has its own devilishly talented singer in residence. Holly Penfield could give either of these divas a run for their money, not just for the power of her vocals but in terms of sheer, old school glamour. Holly has established herself as the premier cabaret performer.”

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Sir Tim Rice said of her: “Holly Penfield is more than one fine diva – she’s a whole host of them, and they all look wonderful and sound sensational.”

Her big break seemed to have arrived when Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn signed her up. This song-writing and production duo showered hit after hit upon Tina Turner, Suzie Quattro and The Sweet. Chapman would also produce Blondie’s epochal Parallel Lines album. They too were bewitched by this pocket dynamo from San Francisco. “When we signed Holly Penfield to Dreamland Records we knew she was a star and a damned good songwriter,” said Chapman.

Yet, it never quite worked out. “The label crashed and, well, other stuff happened which I had no control over.”

“Please tell me about that hat,” I ask her. “I got it from the old blues singer, Dr John back in the 1970s. He’d heard me sing one night and asked me to join his backing singers. I’ll never be without it.”

She tells me about a record producer who invited her to accompany him to Burt Bacharach’s Los Angeles home in the mid-1970s. “It was a small and intimate gathering of some of the biggest names and personalities in the music business. Dolly Parton was there and Rod Stewart and Bette Midler.

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“I think my friend was hoping to impress me and we had a lovely evening before he suddenly asked me to perform one of my songs. I hadn’t been expecting this, I mean how can you enjoy an evening out, knowing you’ll be asked to sit down at a piano and belt out a number for these people?

“And so, after a few bars, I froze until Bette Midler said: ‘honey, I know that song,’ and she duly sang the first verse for me and I completed the rest. I was at once embarrassed at freezing in the moment and absolutely overjoyed that Bette Midler knew my song word for word.

“And then my producer friend said: ‘Bette has an amazing, photographic memory for songs. She can instantly memorise entire songs on first hearing them’. It was his way of saying, ‘don’t get too carried away’. But it was still a thrill.”

“But isn’t it the job of record producers to carry away their proteges,” I ask.

 She tells the tale in a self-deprecating way, entirely devoid of resentment or self-pity. Elements of it have defined her career. “I’ve never had a hit record,” she says, “but I know I’ve written some. I’ve had some great record deals and, for various reasons – other people’s anti-social habits and companies which collapsed at the wrong time for me – the hit records were always just out of sight.

“At some point, maybe in the midst of the 1990s, I kind of realised that I had a choice to make.” She knew that the ship bearing global stardom and a hit record had probably sailed without her. “So, do I quit or do I continue performing and doing what I do best: singing, writing and entertaining people and making more than a decent living?”

One of her songs in a mesmeric, 50-minute set pays homage to Tom Waits and his “howlin and his growlin”. The old singer and poet with the 60-Capstan voice would have appreciated it. Until this evening, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a woman to imitate Waits’ sepulchral yowl. But Holly Penfield manages it effortlessly.

Another song is about walking through tombstones where she tells us she’s happiest. “I travel the world and everywhere I go I head straight for the graveyard.” At last, a fellow traveller. And so I tell her she’s in a city with two of the best graveyards on the planet. “Greyfriars is just up the road,” I tell her.

“It’s said to be the most haunted in the UK. Hoaching with ghosts.” And I direct her also to the Canongate Kirkyard with its ancient terraces and tell her how you can arrive at a point within it when the sound of the traffic suddenly departs. “I’ll get a song out of that,” she says. And I tell her too about “A Tomb With a View” the brilliant book by Peter Ross about walking among gravestones.

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ON the street outside while I wait for Ms Penfield to gather up her day I encounter a group of 20-somethings who’d happened upon her free show and wandered in. “What did you think,” I ask them. “I didn’t know what to expect but it was unique and captivating,” said one. Another described her as “charismatic”. They all felt though, that the venue’s acoustics and the sound system did her few favours.

When I tell her this, we have a moment together that requires tenderness. She may have been bringing her show to the glitziest venues in the planet’s most alluring cities, but right now she’s on her own. There’s no backing band (they cost thousands) and she’s fallen upon the kindness of the Free Fringe organisers. Her sound assistant has performed heroics to chivvy resonance from a machine that was made for school discos. “Free Fringe performers are not allowed to use the fancy systems,” she says.

For a few moments, she seems overwhelmed by self-doubt. “I sometimes wonder if I should just pack up and quit,” she says. After more than 50 years of this, she’s suddenly feeling the strain. “It’s been difficult this time around and I’m not sure why.”

“You’ve got to carry on,” I say. “This is what you were born to do.” She knows and I know that, like Elkie Brooks’ sweet Pearl, she’s been tasked forever to sing songs for the lost and the lonely and that this is a sacred calling. And besides, as the Fringe has become a manicured, corporate, soulless entity, she’s proof that if you look hard enough you can still find something real and unsullied.

She needs to know that the rest of us who read the law or shoogle numbers or write stories for old newspapers would swap all of it for her twilight voice and to see an audience dancing to her songs at the end of a show as this one just did. And so I tell her all of this.

And besides: how many of those bands and singers who’ve come and gone in her lifetime would not give up their platinum discs still to be doing what she’s doing?

“I don’t really have a choice, do I,” she asks and we both know the answer. It’s a blessing and a curse. But mainly a blessing.

Holly Penfield is at the Voodoo Rooms every day at 5.30pm until August 27. Entry free.