Belting Reigns: An Exclusive Interview with Storm Large

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.

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Photo from Instagram: @Stormof69

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.

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Photo from Instagram: @Stormof69

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.

SL: Yup.

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.

CITA: Yeah.

SL: I make pretty killer salads. Let’s see … tonight I’m going to do beef tenderloin with brown butter garlic.

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Photo from Instagram: @Stormof69

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.

Old Soul Storytelling Hour

The Art of the Cabaret Singer

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A poster advertising a tour of the Le Chat Noir’s troupe of cabaret entertainers. (Théophile Steinlen, 1896)

In Parisian cafes after the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s, discontent grew. People were sick of social repression, war and constraints to expression. Artists, writers and other interesting people gathered to speak freely, often sharing their art with each other in small cafés. Eventually, these small gatherings became formal clubs. France, the first European country to give voting rights to all males, buzzed with a sense of equality, and perhaps the most alive with this bohemian restlessness was the city of Montmartre. Creative types flocked to its streets, and artists began to dismantle the notion of art as inaccessible fancies for aristocrats. They sought to create some art form crashing high-brow and low-brow together into something new.

From these efforts, Montmartre produced the most famous cabaret of all time – Le Chat Noir, “The Black Cat,” in 1881, named after the eponymous short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. In this small space, singing met spoofs met skits met shadow play in a low-cost hotbed of provocative entertainment. Cabaret was unpredictable, it was immediate, and, most importantly, it was fun.

Cabaret spread to Germany quickly, and by the 1900s, Germans managed to incorporate the traditional, unobjectionable variety show with experimental, avant-garde work, although they eschewed the risqué aesthetic of the Parisian cabarets with its nudity and casual profanity. World War I brought American jazz and African-Americans to German cabarets with legendary trailblazer Josephine Baker performing her cabaret revue in Germany in 1926.

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Josephine Baker performing at the Folies-Bergère, Paris. (Walery, 1926)

This cultural blending across European borders eventually traversed the Atlantic to the United States where cabaret began to take hold in the Prohibition speakeasies where anything goes and everything went. Chicago and New York boasted the most vibrant cabaret scenes, with an electrifying racial mixing of dancers, musicians, Mafiosos, working class, poets, writers and the socially adventurous who sought to defy (or at least taunt) the strict separation of races, classes and mores of the day. In this liminal space, Billie Holiday debuted her haunting, classic exposé of white supremacy, Strange Fruit, at Café Society, a cabaret in Greenwich Village. This moment, a raw, unflinching, terrifying expression of honesty not just for Billie Holiday but for the audience, captures the great essence of the cabaret singer: a public performance of a private moment, the sense of a shared experience with a trusted friend, a story told in song. Often these rough emotional moments were followed by a rollicking number, and this structure of ups and downs, sentimentality balanced with humor, remains the winning combination for a solid cabaret show.

According to Katherine Anne Yachinich’s thesis The Culture and Music of American Cabaret, “The word ‘cabaret’ stems from the French cambret, cameret, or camberete, for wine cellar, tavern, or small room, but ultimately comes from the Latin camera, for chamber.” Today, 134 years after Le Chat Noir opened its doors in Montmartre, cabaret remains largely defined by the fact that it happens in a small space though what happens in that small space may be rather loosely interpreted by the artists performing within it.

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The 2016 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET, which comes to Tampa Jan. 24-29. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For the cabaret singer, opposed to song-and-dance numbers, puppetry or burlesque shows, which often also fall into the cabaret category, the art form relies on the intimacy of the chamber, his or her ability to make a performance space feel as comfortable as a living room. Cabaret coach Anita Hall said in an interview with writer Rita Kohn that “people [who] are drawn to cabaret are old souls. I’ve shared my stage with children who can phrase and swing better than entertainers that have been at it for decades. You either have it or you don’t.”

The cabaret singer’s challenge is one of balance: the subtle interplay of patter (talking or storytelling between numbers) and song choice, the correct push-and-pull of tension between him or herself and the audience, of measuring honesty and anecdote, of dancing around instead of delivering a theme.

Cabaret, unlike many performing arts, refuses to construct the fourth wall – the accepted, invisible barrier between the stage action and the audience – which means that the audience has access to the singer’s vulnerabilities. By its nature, since it was created to build community and expression, cabaret demands the flow of intimacy between the performer and the audience. Any good cabaret act knows how to take an audience to its edge and back again.

A great act convinces everyone to jump off the edge with them. In fact, they make it sound like fun.