Happiness is a chat with Storm Large

Storm Large
Bay Area Reporter

By Gregg Shapiro 

The title of Storm Large's new album Le Bonheur (Heinz), loosely translated from the French, means happiness. According to Large, the title has other meanings as well, which she explains in the interview below. A larger-than-life diva and longtime friend to the LGBT community, Large recently completed a stint as a vocalist for Pink Martini. On her own again backed by her band Le Bonheur, Large's new album features the singer interpreting 20th-century standards, along with a pair of originals that fit right in. Large plays Feinsteins at the Nikko in SF on Oct. 18-19.

Gregg Shapiro: What was it like to become the co-lead singer, alongside China Forbes, for Pink Martini?

Storm Large: It was a huge step up for me in my career. It was also, personally, very challenging. I'm very good friends with China. When Thomas [Lauderdale of Pink Martini] asked me to fill in for her, I felt like I was betraying a friend. I said, "Your fans will think I'm some hussy coming in and taking their diva's place." Thomas said, "No, we have all these gigs, and China can't do them. I'll explain to the audience what the deal is." The Pink Martini fans have been so gracious with me. Those are big shoes to fill. I don't think this happens with men that much, but with two female lead singers, it's widely assumed that we hate each other, that there's a cat-fight element.

There is a brilliant variety of music on your new album, from Bad Brains to Black Sabbath, Cole Porter to Tom Waits, Randy Newman to Lou Reed. How did you select the material?

Those are just a handful of my favorite songs that evoke a tickle in my heart. Bad Brains' "Sacred Love," I wore that album I Against I out. I wore out the Lou Reed album. I wore out Tom Waits. Those are albums through my childhood that saved my life, helped me realize I'm not the only person who feels this way.

The album also includes original compositions.

I felt that they harmonized with the vibe of the record. I wrote "Stand Up for Me" for gay rights, as an anthem for the right to love and the right to marry.

You also do a gorgeous duet with queer singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller on "Unchained Melody."

I asked Holcombe to sing with me the first time I sang with the Oregon Symphony. I've known Holcombe since we lived in SF, I've sung with his band. I wanted to put him in front of thousands of people. I love to champion my friends. We were like, "What are we going to do?" I said, "There's this great version of 'Unchained Melody' by Harry Belafonte that I've always loved." It's a simple version with a guitar and Harry Belafonte's smoked chipotle chocolate voice.

You found a dark layer in your interpretation of Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin."

James Beaton, my collaborator, re-harmonized that song. It brings out the obsession. People are very precious about classics and their favorite songs. They like what they like, they don't like any variance. I love to fuck with all of that! Some people are like, "How come Storm Large is singing with symphonies? She's a dirty punk. She's a poseur. She's a tourist." I'm like, "Look, it's music. It's like fire. You can't contain it, you can't shape it." If you look at Cole Porter's songs, a lot of them are twisted. Just because your grandparents snapped their fingers along to some of his numbers, this shit is messed up. I mean "Miss Otis Regrets!" It's so awesome. I'm just giving him a little nudge in a dark direction.

The title of the disc translates to "happiness." But happiness is in kind of a short supply in these songs.

Le Bonheur is kind of a quintuple entendre. I affectionately call my band the Boners. The band was like, "We're playing with symphonies now, you can't keep calling us that." Meanwhile I was touring with Pink Martini, and in France they say, "Le Bonheur." Boner! I get to say dick twice! Hap-penis! That became the name of the band. The happiness and joy of love is also the anguish and longing. Love songs don't often spring from a satisfied place. The best love songs are when love is over, when you've completely fucked up a perfectly good relationship and you wake up in a bunch of beer bottles, and you say, "Oh no, what have I done?" Then people pick up guitars or go to the piano, and they bleed. Those are the songs that get me. The legend of the Bad Brains song "Sacred Love" is that HR recorded that song for his girlfriend from jail! When I was 15, I was like, "That is the hottest fucking thing I've ever heard. I can't wait to have a boyfriend who goes to jail and calls me and sings!"

How's that working out for you?

Oh, it's great! I've had a great track record. You can read about it in my next book.

You wrote a memoir a few years ago. If there's a movie version of your book, who would you want to play you?

Oh, my God, I don't know. Brad Pitt.

I don't think he's tall enough.

Then I don't know. Maybe the young me: Elle Fanning. But she's way prettier. Somebody kind of chubby and blonde. I was a little chunk when I was a teenager.

What can people expect from one of your concerts?

I can't shut the fuck up, as you can tell. I play songs and tell stories. I try to keep it clean, especially if there are kids in the audience. I was playing in Bend, Oregon, and there were two kids in front of me. One was like eight and one was maybe 11, and I was like, "Oh, fuck!" I kept looking at the little girl, thinking, "Look kid, here's the thing. There's 800 people here tonight, but you're going to be my moral compass. If I say something upsetting, I'm just going to watch you." But it was great. I got a big hug afterwards from the little girl. Her mom said, "I knew what we were getting into. They love you and think you're great." I managed to not swear too much.