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The Vibrations in Your Bones

How rock star Storm Large hooked up with Pink Martini
Photo by Laura Domela
Photo by Laura Domela

Storm Large may be a star, but she’s a Portland kind of star. She’s a rock/punk star singer with her band the Balls and a raunchy cabaret-style singer at regular clubs in P-town. Large became the darling of the theatrical world when she played Sally Bowles in Portland Center Stage’s 2007 Cabaret — a role Willamette Week’s Byron Beck called “the biggest gamble of her career.”

That gamble paid off in spades, both for PCS and for Large. Two years later, she starred in her own one-woman show, Crazy Enough, which ran to ecstatic, bawling, sold-out crowds at PCS. Crazy Enough covered pretty much everything about sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, abuse, neglect, love, loss, and longing, all from Large’s persona, that the Portland Mercury’s Alison Hallett called a “gorgeous, 6-foot tall, kinda-scary-but-weirdly-inspirational glamazon.” She’s tattooed; she doesn’t take any shit; and she’s, you know, Storm Large

So Large was more than a little surprised when Thomas Lauderdale, leader of Portland’s iconically sophisticated and suave Pink Martini, called her up to help out the group in mid-2011 after the band’s China Forbes developed serious vocal cord problems. 

More than a year after Large stepped in, and after she published a memoir (also called Crazy Enough) and toured with her own band as well as Pink Martini, she alternates with Forbes — and will perform with Pink Martini July 1 in the Oregon Bach Festival’s first big show at the Cuthbert Amphitheatre. 

Tickets, not surprisingly, are selling fast. 

Large took some time out from biking by the Willamette River in Portland on one of June’s first sunny days to talk about everything from Pink Martini to what’s next on her long, long list of goals for her life. 

Let’s talk about how you got hooked up with Pink Martini.

China got sick right when they had four sold-out shows at the Kennedy Center in D.C., and the doctor said, you have to be on extreme vocal rest. 

Thomas [Lauderdale] begged me. I said absolutely not! I don’t know any of your music, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll singer; I’ll embarrass you guys. He said, “No you won’t; you’ll be amazing, and we need you.”

Then China wrote to me and said, “You’ll be doing me a huge favor.”

So I learned 10 songs in five languages in four days. Not by heart! I said, “I’ll do it as long as I’m allowed to have a music stand and read the lyrics, and you tell the audience that I don’t know what I’m doing.” Thomas said, “I won’t do that, but I’ll explain that you have courageously stepped in at the last minute to fill in.” 

It went really well, and then it turned out that China needed surgery. So I did all of the touring with Pink Martini last year, which was insane, because I also have my own band. I managed somehow to be OK. 

We had so much fun, and the audiences really embraced me, even though I’m very different from China. Then because of China’s health scare and because she has a little boy, she said, I kind of like that I don’t have to tour half the year and be away from my son that long. So we’ve started splitting the singing duties. 

We crowd-sourced some questions, and Trisha Pancio Mead of the Oregon Ballet Theatre asks, “What’s different, and what’s surprisingly the same, about performing with the Balls and performing with symphonies?”

With symphonies, there’s much less swearing. It suits me, and it suits the symphony, because there is a stodgy cool-headed traditionalism that is thick in symphonies around the country and the world. They kind of want to stick with the dead Austrians and the classics. They tend to be stuck in the way they think things ought to go. And here comes rock ‘n’ roll sex thug Storm Large. I pay homage to the classics, I sing beautiful showtunes and classical numbers, but I throw in a little bit of stuff to break it up. Maybe against their better taste, they enjoy it, and it brings in a younger audience and new, fresh blood in to the symphony that they need. 

What’s similar is the joy of filling the room with the vibrations of the bones in your face and your throat and your head; evoking emotions out of other people just with the vibrations of music.

Stephen Marc Beaudoin of Portland’s PHAME Academy asks how you had to adjust your persona to fit Pink Martini? (Or do you?)

I do. I definitely hem it in. Thomas coaches me; he gives me things to think about, like, I want you to perform as though you’re in front of 8-year-olds or 80-year-olds. I say, Thomas, those grandmas have been through some shit, and they can handle it. However, Pink Martini is not my band, it’s a collective, and it’s not about the singer, it’s not about just the one, it’s about the entire musical experience of the evening. I don’t feel like I am compromising my authenticity by not telling filthy jokes or swearing or being my cabaret self, but by being basically a pin-up chanteuse and focusing on the material, the music as opposed to my band, where I am the focal point, and I am the engine. I am by far not the most important element in Pink Martini. I am as important as the brass or as the strings. It’s a support slot. And it’s fun; it’s so fun because it’s glamorous and still really sexy in its own way, in a very mature way.

I feel like you’ve simply been hitting success after success in the past five or so years. What do you want to do next? What’s scary?

Everything is scary right now — being an artist, I’m constantly terrified that I’m not really famous, I’m certainly not rich, I’m just really busy because I don’t pigeonhole myself as one thing. 

I think I’m a better singer than a writer, certainly a better singer than actress. I’m a horrible guitar player, horrible bass player, horrible piano player. I’d like to learn to accompany myself on guitar and piano, so I can play Tom Waits songs and Nick Cave songs. So when I go to a hotel and get drunk, I can be Tom Waits for a second, only with nicer boots. 

I broke up with my fiancé back in April. We still totally love each other, it was absolutely for the best, but I think I’m going to take a vow of celibacy to just focus on creativity that really feeds me as opposed to sexual creativity that really feeds me but has been a little distracting of late. I’m going to focus on creating things other than orgasms.