INTERVIEW: Our Chat With Storm Large
After I posted a list of the “must-see” fall concerts, a friend of mine in San Francisco let me know about a big one I had missed: Singer Storm Large and her band Le Bonheur perform this Thursday to the Prince Theater’s Rrazz Room. My friend also sent a link to a video of her meltingly beautiful rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Who was this 46-year-old, six-foot blonde, this crazy cocktail of open-heart, punk rage and mischievous stage banter? He also sent me a picture of the massive tattoo arcing across her back in big, gang-style letters saying, “Lover.” More on that later.
Portland-based Storm Large must have heard the phrase “Living Large” more times than she can stand, but her gypsy life has indeed been lived in capital letters. In her memoir, Crazy Enough (2012) — based on her one-woman show of the same title — she chronicles her early years in a family at the mercy of a mother suffering acute mental health problems. Large wondered if she, too, would become afflicted — one of her mother’s doctors told her it was inevitable (It wasn’t). After high school, she moved to New York and struggled her way through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Later Large journeyed through hyper-sexuality and heroin addiction, all the while hanging on to her music like a lifeline. After Large ended up in Portland, where she and her rock band, The Balls, gained a significant following, she took a gamble with her credibility and became a contestant in 2006 on the reality CBS TV show Rock Star: Supernova. She didn’t win, but attracted a lot of enthusiastic attention. In 2010, Large began touring with Portland’s elegant, glamour lounge band, Pink Martini, while continuing with her solo career.
We caught up with Large by phone from Colorado, where she was getting ready for her tour. She told me she was ready for our interview. “Oh, I’m all ready, wearing my sexy librarian glasses and sitting here naked.” She punctuated that with a big guffaw.
Have you spent time in Philadelphia? My family hails from Bucks and Montgomery counties. My dad went to Princeton, and so did my grandfather. My family is totally old school WASP from the Mayflower. General George Gordon Meade was a great-great-grandfather, so I feel very much at home around there.
Tell me about Bonheur and the creative process to make this record. Why this particular eclectic mix of songs? It was a selfishly motivated album for me. All of my favorite love songs — and a couple I’ve written — are on it. I’ve been performing these songs for the last two years with symphonies, so I wanted to make a beautiful album incorporating that symphonic element. Some might think the material doesn’t go together, to have a Cole Porter song followed by a Black Sabbath one to a Randy Newman one, to a Bad Brains song … . It’s the most schizophrenic Pandora station you’d ever listen to. But I put them all through my lens of love songs that have moved me. It doesn’t matter what style of music is producing the love song, but that they are all about the human experience of desire and love.
Do you need a little bit of crazy to be creative? There has to be a level of madness, not deep, but a level of crazy hopefulness and delusion to think that what you have to say matters and that people will stand in a dark room and listen to you, emote, speak and sing — and that it will pay your bills. I’m living evidence of a performer making a living, writing and filling theaters, but on our own terms. I wanted to be in a band because I could be good at that. I wasn’t good at anything else. I wasn’t pretty, cool or popular. I could attract people’s attention with my voice. That was something I could do and control and make it a positive force.
Was writing your memoir therapeutic? No, it wasn’t. It sucks. People said it will be so cathartic. When writing a memoir, you have to be that person again and look around again at those moments so that’s what ended up happening. I had to look at a lot of the shitty things that happened in my life. The things that happened to me in my 20s and 30s were my own stupid fault. That was a bitter pill.
The book has such a strong voice, and it feels like the reader is sitting down having a conversation with you. What is your writing background? They had to persuade me to even write the book proposal. I was thinking, ‘I’m a musician. I’m not an intellectual.’ I have horrible dyslexia. I love to read, but have a hard time since I was barely educated. Then there are people who spend their whole lives writing, brilliant people who’ve never gotten a book deal, and here I am a neophyte with a huge book deal. So I had a sense of responsibility, I can’t suck, this has to be good. I had two editors. The second one was lovely, really all she did was keep me from being as graphically sexual as I tend to be. At one point, she said ‘Okay, the scene where you sleep with the first girl, that’s a great scene, and I can see how it might be important to your story, but when she smokes a cigarette with her vagina, well … that may be too much.’
How do you hold back a piece of yourself or is that part of the magic — just letting it rip? I don’t know how to do that. I’ve been told by friends that I’m too open and vulnerable. I can get worn out. People react to me in an emotional way, crying and telling me dark secrets about themselves, mostly women who have emotional fragility see something in me that’s strong, like I’m a big sister or motherly figure that they can fall apart and I will put them back together.
I loved that quote about your vanity saving you from heroin addiction. What are your thoughts on beauty, aging and your stage persona? Even a woman who isn’t a public person worries about that. Women in this country are told we are what we look like and are told to look young, feel young, have young bodies. I’m a little bit luckier. I wasn’t beautiful growing up. I was a fat girl who had a pretty face. I got hot in my 30s, so genetically I’m lucky. I will look young for a long time. I just started getting wrinkles, so I’m finally looking a little older. My body is starting to have aches and pains.
I’m self-conscious about aging. I’ll have to start changing my stage appearance. I’ll ask myself ‘Should I wear this tight fucking dress?’ But I just performed with Rita Moreno, who looks astonishing at 83. She’s a little showgirl. I‘m not like Madonna, who is still being Madonna of the 1980s, being super sexual with her body and tight face. That’s cool, but that’s not my thing. Mine is singing and storytelling. I’m more like Bette Midler. She looks great, but she’s not trying to look like she’s something else. I’ll become more of a punchline in my own jokes. I’m already making cougar jokes about myself.
Do you miss performing punk-rock music and the freedom that kind of music gives you onstage? My cabaret performances are not restrained. I become a little bit unhinged. It’s not punk rock, not as loud and screamy, but definitely the energy is there. That’s the punk rock that I do.
What is the story behind the big “Lover” tattoo? I was kickboxing at this gym full of dudes in San Francisco with all these Cholo [gang] guys there and they all have Cholo-letter tattoos saying, ‘killer,’ and stuff like that. I thought that it would be really cool to get big tattoo across my shoulders, but one that says something really nice. The word that most describes me is lover. It didn’t occur to me then at 22 or 23, but now I look at it and it is so perfect. It’s rough looking, but inside I‘m all mushiness and the most sentimental, sweet, sad little thing. So it’s a perfect metaphor.
What are Storm Large’s words to live by? Follow the yes. Even if yes feels scary. When opportunity comes, and it gets in your gut, follow the yes.
Storm Large and Le Bonheur play the Rrazz Room at the Prince Theater on November 12th. For tickets and more information, go to princetheater.org.