“I’m like a big, crazy mess,” Storm Large says to describe herself. “I live up to my name. . . . But I have a very strong voice.”
If there’s one thing that can be said about the musician and entertainer (whose name, by the way, is not a moniker), it’s that she holds nothing back. Witty, irreverent and refreshingly unguarded, she’s as open about her struggles in her personal life as she is about the many paths she has traveled as an entertainer.
But of course, there’s a lot more to be said about this one-woman force of nature, who will take the stage by storm (ahem) at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on June 24. She’s a singer who has covered everything from metal and rock to jazz and cabaret. She gained national recognition as a semi-finalist on the singing competition Rockstar: Supernova, but she’s probably best known for her work with the eclectic pop-jazz orchestra Pink Martini. She’s also an acclaimed songwriter, actress and writer.
The road from East Coast ingenue to international stage has been a long and turbulent one. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Large studied at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. At the tender age of 21, however, she left family, friends and the theater world behind for the West Coast. “I realized I was more of a musician than an actor,” Large says. “I couldn’t afford to do what I wanted to do in New York. I just needed a big change.” So she traveled across the country helping a friend move to San Francisco, determined to make a fresh start.
“I was running away. I always kind of ran away from home,” Large adds. “I put a lot of miles between me and my family.” Growing up with a mother with mental illness left its marks. (Large would later delve into this part of her life with her self-penned, one-woman authobiographical show Crazy Enough.) On her own in California with demons she couldn’t outrun, “I quickly got addicted to drugs,” Large admits. “It’s typical addict mentality: I’m going to manufacture some good feelings. But that led to more despair and less positive activity . . . until I got on stage.” She had something of a revelation while singing a cover of Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker.”
“The place went shithouse crazy!” she recalls. “It occurred to me, ‘Wow, I’m good. There’s something of value in me.’ I didn’t feel ugly, fat, stupid, out of place. Suddenly there was something for me to be excited about besides the next hit.”
Large got clean, and started devoting her time to writing and performing. One of her first bands was Flower SF. “We were all really loud and dirty and crazy,” she laughs. “It was this big, rangy, loud thing — Led Zeppelin and Jane’s Addiction. And embarrassingly bad, bad lyrics.”
Large was enjoying herself, and committed to her craft, even if the results were somewhat lackluster. The six-foot-tall statuesque blonde with the tremendous voice was attracting attention. “Record labels kept coming,” Large says. But it was never quite right. They wanted her but not the band (which generated offstage drama), and there were always caveats: lose weight, be on the radio, write a hit, get famous. These weren’t Large’s goals. “I wanted to be good. I never thought I’d be famous,” she recalls.
True to her name, Large found herself outsized for the molds for “female pop star” that were prevalent in the 1990s. “I’m not beautiful like Gwen Stefani,” she says. “The music of the day — Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden — it was a big sausage party. The women who were singing were yodeling about boyfriends. The most aggressive thing was Alanis Morissette. I was this big, thick, screaming banshee. A Robert Plant and Meatloaf combination. Very operatic and dramatic.”
“Every now and then, something bigger was gonna happen — and then nothing would come of it,” she continues. “The pressure kept building and building, and then September 11 happened. The whole world shifted.”
For the first time Large questioned her purpose. Music seemed trivial compared to the woes the world was facing. “It felt really vapid — an empty pursuit to be a musician. I felt like I should be doing something substantial.”
In 2002, she more or less ran away again — this time to Portland. She planned to attend culinary school and become a nutritionist.
But the stage continued to call. While working as a bartender at Dante’s, the owner, Frank Faillace, who loved her singing, encouraged her to start a band. One night, the band scheduled to play “up and quit,” and Faillace asked Large to help out. She got some friends together (to play piano, stand-up bass and jazz percussion), dubbed the group Hellfire Anti-Social Club, and away they went.
“We played punk rock and heavy metal songs, but we slowed things down and did them like jazz standards,” she says with a chuckle. She was back on stage, and loving it. And the weird mix of genres, with a dose of theatricality and originality, hit a sweet spot for the hard-to-categorize singer.
Portland is where Large grew the most as an entertainer, and where she has formed the closest thing to roots. Hellfire Anti-Social Club became The Balls, and had a cult following in and around the city. In 2006 she came to national attention, competing on CBS’ Rock Nation: Supernova. She was eliminated just shy of the final round, but impressed host Dave Navarro (of Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers) enough that he performed on her single “Ladylike.” Large also gave theater another chance, taking on the role of Sally Bowles in Portland Center Stage’s 2007 Cabaret and debuting Crazy Enough in 2009 — both to rave reviews.
And then came Pink Martini. “Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes and I had been friends for a decade,” Large says. When lead singer Forbes took an extended leave of absence for vocal cord surgery in 2011, Lauderdale turned to Large. She wasn’t keen at first. “I didn’t want to do it,” she admits. “I didn’t think I could do it. . . . [But] I love the band and I love the music, and it’s been the best musical education of my life. I’ve sung in 18 languages all over the world, and my voice has improved exponentially, because I have to use it in so many different ways.”
Pink Martini’s tour featuring Large was wildly successful, and included four sold-out concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Large also sang on the 2013 album Get Happy and joined the follow-up world tour. Forbes has since returned to the band, which now maintains both women as co-lead vocalists.
Large continues to record and perform with Pink Martini, but it has taken a backseat to her solo work. She has a new band, Le Bonheur, which includes longtime collaborator James Beaton, who played piano back in the Balls days . . . and which is pronounced “boner.” The double entendre delights the ribald singer to no end. “I loved it — semantically hilarious on multiple levels!” Large laughs. “The Balls is my favorite band name ever . . . [but] we’re moving up in the world!”
She released an album by the same name in 2014. Pronunciation jokes aside, La Bonheur means “the happiness” in French, and as Large explains, “The first album is all the songs in my life that made me the most happy.” In true Storm Large fashion, no genre is left untouched. She covers everything from Cole Porter to Lou Reed to Ozzy Osbourne, with some French jazz and a few originals thrown in for good measure. These and other songs, as well as her endlessly engaging stage presence (Large is known for her bawdy humor and witty banter with her audience), will be highlights of her show in Thousand Oaks.
From rock bottom to the top of the world, Large has seen and done it all. And she credits her success to one simple philosophy: follow the yes. “If it’s really good or really scary, you should do it,” she says. She also has some candid advice for other women struggling in the music industry.
“When girls ask for my advice, I just say, you’re gonna eat shit for years,” she says. “You just gotta play, not get paid, do things for free as long as there’s an audience there. And you have to be brave enough to suck until you’re good. . . . We want instant gratification. People don’t like to be uncomfortable. But it’s not all cocaine and blowjobs.”
And in these uncertain political times, she hopes her music can entertain as well as comfort her audiences. “We’re so overstimulated by all the crazy shit,” she says, referencing Brexit, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, the unrest in Turkey and Syria and U.S. President Donald Trump. “We’ve got some crazy extreme people in charge of a lot of beautiful people. . . The crazy is overwhelming. The outrage pours out, and we’re so exhasuted.”
“So I try to remind people,” she continues, “about gratitude, love, tenderness, humor. We’re fucking crazy, but also crazy beautiful.”
Storm Large performs with Johnny Boyd on Saturday, June 24, at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets and more information, call 449-2787 or visit www.civicartsplaza.com.