Rocker, chanteuse and raconteur Storm Large (yes, her real name) is a consummate performer—storyteller, writer, high-decibel rock belter, actress and crooner in the woozy, boozy husky-dusky style. After her stint on Rock Star: Supernova catapulted her into America’s living rooms, she became a household name, ultimately re-directing her career trajectory to fronting for Pink Martini, the ultra-hip, multi-lingual contemporary big band everybody loves. Storm formed her own bands The Balls and, most recently, Le Bonheur, both gaining a cult-like fan base. Striking, vulnerable, brutally honest and still eager to grind through the influences of her punk rock youth in her cabaret show, Storm is an experience that matches her name.
We caught up with Storm on the phone during her east coast tour, which stops by The Straz on Thursday, April 4, to chat about the price of reality-TV fame, her career and food.
Caught in the Act: You seem to be a thinking woman, an angry woman, a thoughtful woman’s woman. You’ve been open about your background with Crazy Enough, a one-woman-show about reckoning with your mom’s mental illnesses that you turned into a memoir. You were famous on television for a while when you were on Supernova in 2006, and you’ve come to what appears to be, at least in your other interviews, a peaceful place of acceptance. You’re in this different part of your career from The Rocker Storm Large. Do you feel like a famous person or do you feel like a normal person who is very visible?
Storm Large: I don’t really feel like a famous person. I don’t know what a famous person would typically feel like. When I was on television and right when I got off television, I was kind of famous. I did not like that. Right now, I feel really great. I think I don’t feel famous. Not that being famous is necessarily a bad thing. Not to disparage people who are famous. I didn’t enjoy that experience very much. It was frightening, and it was very weird, and awkward, and incredibly demanding. And a weird responsibility to strangers that I’d rather not have.
CITA: Did you feel that you had to “perform” their idea of you?
SL: No, I felt like I had to hide. In terms of dealing with people in the public, when I was feeling like a famous person, I was very, very, very, very, very, very self-aware about be nice, be nice, be nice, don’t give anyone any reason to say something nasty about you. When little kids come up to you and their parents are pushing them towards you for whatever reason, be very gentle. Try not to swear. When people start crying because they’re meeting you, don’t laugh because you’re like, “What the hell are you crying about?” You know, “Why are you crying?” People would offer incredibly, dangerously, personal information about themselves to me, as if they had a very intimate relationship with me. It was really not what I liked. I did not enjoy it. I always try to perform at the top level of whatever I’m doing. When I’m on stage, I always try to, you know, when it’s time to perform. I definitely always do my best, whether someone thinks I’m famous or not.
CITA: You said elsewhere about feeling like you, yourself, are a cabaret storyteller. The term “cabaret” is sometimes confusing for people. When you come down here, most of our audience will probably recognize you from the work that you’ve done with Pink Martini. Will you talk a little bit about what means to you to be a cabaret singer?
SL: It doesn’t mean anything really to me … people call me a cabaret singer because I’m not a rock singer. I’m not an opera singer. I’m not a jazz singer. Cabaret just kind of encompasses any genre that doesn’t really necessarily have a genre. It’s kind of a lazy way to describe someone you don’t want to really get into describing. I’m like a punk rock balladeer storyteller. A punk rock balladeer raconteur. I still sing rock and roll music. I still have that grit and that gravel, but I like to use my voice also in a pretty way, in an intimate way. I love to tell stories. It all kind of comes together in the whole show. The more intimate the space, the more effective the whole show is. Because I can get into people’s faces. It’s really lovely.
CITA: Talk a little bit about the show. What musicians are you going to bring with you? What are the arrangements like? Are we going to hear some punk rock ballads? What’s the deal?
SL: Yeah, you will. You’ll hear some things that are unexpected; things that sound differently than you might expect them to sound. You might hear something very traditional. I’m going to be bringing my band, La Bonheur. They’re a rock ensemble: piano, guitar, bass, drums, and I play ukulele and some percussion, and yeah, it gets loud. It gets bawdy, it gets raucous, but it’s also very smooth and very beautiful. I mean, the band plays so … They’re great, great musicians and good friends of mine. There’s a level of comfort on stage that I really enjoy.
CITA: Well, that’s awesome. What from your punk rock days still lives with you?
SL: I think I just have, you know, some brain damage from the drugs and the bashing myself around, and sleeping in the street, and being a shit-head. Maybe that’s kind of what’s opened up my creativity. Who knows? Maybe it’s cut off a large part of my creativity. I could have totally stunted myself with my bad behavior.
SL: One thing I’m pretty sure I have from having lived that way—it lives on in me energetically in terms of the way I see the world—is I understand how a lot of people see things. I have a good strong sense of empathy with people, and sensitivity. I’m like overly sensitive, really. I mean, I talk all tough, and I look really tough, but I’m such a puss. I’m such a squishy, like overly sensitive. I cry over very little thing. I used to hate that about myself, but now I really appreciate that I have heart, having encountered a lot of heartless people. I’m just like, “Wow, I would so much rather burn than be cool ever.”
CITA: When you come to The Straz, will this your first time in Tampa?
SL: I don’t think so.
CITA: Are you looking forward to anything in particular about heading down to Florida that we can share with our readers, some of whom may be being introduced to you for the first time?
SL: Well, I would like to know what your particular food is? Every city has its own kind of take on some kind of food you’re famous for, or drink you’re famous for, or something. Do you have one?
CITA: We do. If you’re a vegetarian, or a vegan, you are way out of luck, though.
SL: I’m not. Is it alligator?
CITA: Not in Tampa. You have to go a little bit further south for that. First, you have to know that Tampa was a huge, huge cultural crossroads back in the 1800s because of the cigar industry. We had Cubans, Germans, Spanish, Italian. It was a hodge-podge, and everybody had their own cigar factories, and they had their own mutual aid societies, but everybody got along. They were making mad, serious, sick bank because cigars were so incredibly popular. The Cubans naturally gave us cafe con leche, which is delicious here. The original Cuban sandwich was invented in Tampa for the cigar workers.
SL: Shut up!
CITA: It’s true.
SL: The original Cubano was invented in Tampa?
CITA: In Tampa, yeah.
SL: Oh my god.
CITA: We had the first Cuban neighborhood. It wasn’t New York, it wasn’t Miami, it was Tampa, honey. We have a piece of land in downtown, in a place called Ybor City—that’s where most of the cigar factories were—that literally belongs to Cuba. It’s Cuban soil.
SL: That’s awesome.
CITA: Yeah, it’s nutso.
SL: Then I know what I’m getting when I get down there.
CITA: Yeah. You’ve got to get a Cuban sandwich and a cafe con leche.
SL: You got it.
CITA: That reminds me that you, before your true destiny called you, were going to be a chef and you ended up in Portland.
CITA: Do you have a favorite thing that you make? Is cooking still something that you pursue?
SL: I cook all the time. I’ve been staying with mostly friends and family on this tour and I cook, almost every night. Last night, I made my Greek chicken, which is chicken marinated in Greek yogurt. Lots and lots of garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, fresh parsley. Let that sit for at least an hour. Then you bake that with a lot of salt and pepper.
CITA: You bake it right in the marinade?
SL: I usually take it out of the marinade and just wipe a little bit off. The dairy will brown. It makes it nice, but I kind of like brown skin. It’s usually chicken thighs, chicken legs.
SL: I make pretty killer salads. Let’s see … tonight I’m going to do beef tenderloin with brown butter garlic.
CITA: We want to go on tour with you, except that we’re vegetarian, although you can probably whip up some delicious veggie cuisine, as well.
SL: I make great vegetarian food, but my business partner is vegan; he and his wife make amazing food, like crazy creative, interesting food.
CITA: When you and your crew get here, you’ll have to make sure you eat downtown. Get Cubans, café con leches … you’re in a fantastic performance space here at The Straz, so you’ll have a really great time.
SL: Thank you so much.
Storm Large and her band La Bonheur perform as part of the Straz Center Cabaret series. Hear them in the Jaeb Theater Thursday, April 4.