Storm Large: from Deadly Sins to Holiday Ordeal

An interview with the star of Seven Deadly Sins, bringing her holiday show to the Schnitz tonight

Local singer-composer-writer Storm Large made a new fan this May. I can’t say I was a huge fan before her stellar performance of Kurt Weill’s creepy Seven Deadly Sins with the Oregon Symphony earlier this year. Her voice is magnificent, and as a performer she has impressively commanding charm, but genrewise the American Songbook sound she usually specializes in is simply not my cup of coffee. It’s all great, of course–I wouldn’t be telling you about her otherwise, and if it’s your cup of coffee you should definitely put on her terrific 2015 album Le Bonheur (or dip into the Pink Martini back catalogue, where you’ll find gems like 2013’s Get Happy). But the present author’s tastes always demand something musically a little nastier. Lucky us: that’s exactly what we got with Large’s Weill.

Our hometown orchestra–a well-balanced band with equal affection for Hadyn and Shostakovich–does a lot of work in the fertile in-between ground where pop and classical hang out to smoke weed. OSO’s Steven Hackman mashup concerts have been well-attended and enthusiastically received: peanut-butter-and-chocolate affairs that have been as much about Brahms and Tchaikovsky as they were about Radiohead and Drake (still waiting for the Bartók v. Björk show). And earlier this year, when the OSO decided to create a Creative Chair position for a living composer, they chose Gabriel Kahane–perhaps the most well-known pop-classical composer alive.

Seven Deadly Sins is another important step into that fertile ground–just playing the rebellious hybrid composer’s music at all is a fairly bold move, and hiring a local singer who’s not generally known for classical music is outright audacious. But the collaboration was a canny move: Large, who first sang the work with OSO in 2010, is hardly a nobody, and her devoted fan base showed up in force to hear her knock it out of the park and steal the whole fucking season.

With the orchestra and novelty vocal quartet Hudson Shad at her back, Large sang the ballet chanté’s dual roles with theatrical intensity and a salty vocal tone perfectly suited to Weill’s dark, confrontational music and Brecht’s twisted story. Rough and intense, sardonically emotional, punk as fuck–and spot on genrewise, a gritty cabaret performance that had me thinking of Lotte Lenya stalking Weimar-era Berlin cafes singing about pirate ships and serial killers.

Large seemed perfectly at home in the bougie Schnitz singing over a full orchestra, and they seemed perfectly at home with her too. It’s easy to misinterpret Weill, especially when you’re a band who spends a lot of time playing pretty symphonies for nice rich people. They could have scrubbed away the nasty and dressed Weill up in an ill-fitting tux; they could even have brought in Renée Fleming to proper it all up. But Seven Deadly Sins is nasty music about nasty people–essentially a horror movie with songs–and it was good that they had the wisdom to work with a singer who has the skill and courage to keep it dirty.

Tonight, Monday the 16th, the symphony brings Storm back for a special holiday concert: the Storm Large Holiday Ordeal. The Ordeal has been a Storm Tradition for years, but it’s usually on a smaller scale: singer, band, and string quartet, performing holiday songs. The band is still on board for Monday, but this time Large and company do their thing with the full orchestra behind them and Norman Hyunh at the podium.

We caught Large in San Francisco and chatted by phone about Portland, Weill, Oregon Symphony, the Ordeal, and Bullshit. Her answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow–but we left in the fucking fucks.

Coming to Portland

It felt like home to me. Every time I would tour up that way, I felt like I could breathe better. People were actually doing stuff, not just talking about it like in California. The weather was shitty, the coffee was really strong and good. People stayed inside and just woodshedded their stuff, they could afford to work on it. There were a lot of crazy synchronicities that had me end up there–not least after 9/11, when I decided that being in a band was bullshit.

People were always telling me, “oh you need to lose weight, lia about your age, sing nicer songs.” Basically, to be successful you have to become someone else. It was so heartbreaking, and after September eleventh I decided it was bullshit. I want to be of service, and if the world is ending I at least want my life to be of service. And my friend who’s a sound engineer was living in Portland, she was going on tour with another band and asked me if I wanted to come up here and take care of her dog Wilma. So I decided to quit music and come to Portland.

I was going to go to the Culinary Institute, because my innate skills were singing and cooking. It seemed like cooking was a better service, providing meals on wheels or teaching young homeless moms how to provide for themselves on food stamps. While I was looking into financial aid for the CI, I was working at Dantes, and Frank was bugging me, “When are you gonna sing, I’d love for you to do a weekly thing here.” And I said, “nah, I don’t sing anymore, it’s bullshit, I’m not doing it.”

Then a band abruptly and rudely not only decided to cancel their show, but to picket outside the club, handing out flyers for their gig somewhere else. So Frank asked me if I could do something, and I put together a ramshackle group of friends who were musicians and roadies and we put together the Ramshackle Balls. That’s how The Balls started. I thought it would just be a favor, and it just took off.

Once I became a musician again, I told people that it had to stay fun–no assholes. If anyone came up to me saying that I could make it, or with any record deal bullshit thing, and that’s what you want to do, I’m out. I want to do this because I’m good at it and it makes people happy. And if that’s my service, that’s fine. And that was eighteen years ago.

I actually only quit playing music for about six months. I played at the Fillmore and I told my musician friends that I was done: what a great way to go out. I got to high-five Les Claypool. And I said “I’m out. Done.” And then six months later I did a favor for a friend and got back into it. It’s not an altruistic noble story but it’s the truth. And at this point I’m unhirable. I’d be good at bagging groceries. That’s my plan, just work at a health food store and get cheap food and bruised apples.

Learning by doing

I didn’t have a musical family or musical background. My older brother played in rock bands, he still does, but he was my older brother and I was just a little girl. My family was blasted apart, my mom was in mental institutions and my dad was into his work. My brothers were older, and I was obnoxious and annoying and lonely, so I was loud all the fucking time and wanting attention, thus making everyone ignore me harder and harder. So I entertained myself by imitating things: imitating bird calls, accents, Mel Brooks and Monty Python scenes. I would entertain anyone who would listen to me do the speech of Tim the Enchanter giving the warning of the monstrous rabbit.

The same thing happened when I started listening to music, and the only things around were eight-track tapes of Johnny Cash, John Denver, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Beatles’ Abbey Road, the Kinks’ Give the People What they Want, Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte. I would listen to the music and sing along until I could match my voice to them, and then I would sing the harmony and the guitars, the weird noises on the White Album. I wasn’t teaching myself music, it was just what I did to keep myself from being so lonely.

And then I realized when I would be out around people not in my family, I would sing for them and I’d see in their face, “shiiit.” My dad would be like, “oh she’s just looking for attention,” but in my little brain I was like, “fuck you, I’m good, I have something that people like. This is just a thing that I have.” I was in musicials in school, and I could see it in the audience, people just like “holy shit.” And I was not allowed to be proud of it or talk about it. If I was in a proper musical thing in school it was okay, and my family loved getting pats on the back from me, all the way up to Carnegie Hall.

But if I got attention elsewhere that seemed like I was just looking for attention–which I was. I was pathetic, needy, a loser. I wish I could say, “oh I just locked with Lou Reed, and I felt this and I knew I had a story to tell,” but no I was lonely. I wanted to be a person people wanted to be around. It doesn’t sound deep, it sounds pathetic, but it was true. I wanted people to think that I was good, and that was it.

Singing the Sins

I love the piece. They asked me to do it years ago; it was my Carnegie Hall debut. And I didn’t like it when I first heard it because it was so German, so narrative and unemotional. You know, the Russians and Italians are so florid and passionate, there’s all this emotion, and the Germans are very straightforward. It didn’t have a lot of singing the way that I liked to sing: a lot of curly-qs, emotional, passionate, ups and downs. But I wanted to go to Carnegie Hall, so I had to learn this shit. I don’t read music so I had to study it for a year, writing it down and reciting it. Pop songs are easy to remember because they have hooks, but there’s nothing catchy in there. But once I was in it and started performing it, I was like, “oh I get it.” It’s just not emotional on its face.

When I was young I used to watch a lot of True Crime stuff, and I saw a thing about a serial killer, the Green River killer or something, someone who killed so many people. He was on the stand, and they asked him, “okay when you broke into the apartment, tell us what you did when you went inside.” And he calmly, linearly, practically, unemotionally talked about tying up, raping and murdering this person. And he was so removed from what he was doing emotionally in any human sense, it was chilling. It wasn’t that he was lusty, murderous, angry. He was just, “well it was like hitting a doll like a bat. I didn’t see her as a person at all, she wasn’t.” It was so fucked up.

And that’s what I thought about in this piece. Anna is whoring herself out to send money home, but her sin isn’t her whoring, her sin is if she doesn’t. Her sin is not doing these things, and the way she’s so conversational about her heinous existence. There’s this split personality thing, where she was, “oh I’m not taking off my clothes for money, my stupid sister is and if she fucking dies there’s gonna be hell to pay. You better not gain any weight or fuck someone you’re in love with, you gotta make them pay.” It’s seething and dark and such effective messaging, because it doesn’t feel the feelings for the audience. It just shows someone who’s removed from their acts. It leaves everyone else to decide how they feel about it, and it’s dark. It’s great storytelling.

I’m not really trained, and I don’t think I could do opera, it’s not really my jam. It’s out of my reach and I don’t resonate with it as an artform. But storytelling is becoming more of a passion, both in writing and performance. I haven’t found another thing. My management wants me to learn another classical piece for us to sell to symphonies, and part of me is like, “maybe I should write one.” There’s a lot of great stuff out there, but I’m an old punk rocker. I don’t know any of that shit. I’m not versed in those classics. But a dear friend of mine, Meow Meow, she’s a scholar of Weimar Cabaret song-cycles and stories and whatnot. She could totally educate me on a lot of stuff very easily. But it’s not something I’ve sought out. I’ll know it when I see it.

Holiday Ordeal

It’s going to be really different, and we’re still working it out a few days before hand, which is really crazy. When we’re performing with a string quartet we have ultimate freedom, but the symphony is particular and we have to be careful with licensing and rules. There will be a lot of classical Christmas pieces, standards, everyone’s favorites, some of my own stuff, some oddball stuff that I think is Christmas-y. And then some storytelling.

The Oregon Symphony is such a great band, and they trust me, and Norman is awesome and I trust him. It’s gonna be a lot of fucking work because we’re doing a lot of new stuff that is totally rife for catastrophic fuckups. But I can’t take for granted the easy stuff that I can fall back on–I don’t have that here, because I’m pushing eighty people around with my tongue. It’s a massive mess if I fuck up. And if I make a mistake I can make an entertaining moment out of it, but I have this thing in my stomach where I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m doing it anyway. I signed up for this. I have some surprise guests, just a wonderful band and good friends and I have two days off afterwards and I’m so psyched.

A shield of disgusting honesty

Because I was such an oddball fuckup as a kid, my foul language and ribald humor evolved into “everything out there, it’s all on my sleeves,” so no one can “discover” something about me and hold it against me. Overly sharing, overly honest, cringe-worthy. It was defensive. I was so picked-on and sad, but at least I could control this. I can say something that no one would fucking say. And it just became a shield of disgusting honesty. There’s no question that I don’t think has been answered by my very existence.

I’ve been talking about [recording] with my business partner James, who plays piano in my band. No one buys records anymore, but people want songs. So we were thinking of recording a handful of songs when we’re in Minneapolis or LA or wherever. We can release them piecemeal. People at shows buy stuff, they want to leave with something. So we may put something together, but to take time to go into the studio and make sure my voice is in great shape and well-rested, and having the right producer and all this money–there’s no reason to do that.

I love the craft of making a record, but it’s just a different time. I don’t have a place in my home that can play a CD, not even in my car. Where are the CD players? I have three record players, and I play records. I love listening to Brahms on vinyl, but I usually play bluetooth mp3s. So it’s time to innovate in recording music, by making videos or releasing online-only. My friend Amanda Palmer, the way she does it is to put it on Patreon. And everyone stays very much in touch with their favorite artists, which is better than spitballing and nine-tenths of the universe says, “who the fuck is that? Who is Storm Large?” Like you spend thousands of dollars to get five inches in a magazine. What’s the point? There are people who want it, but you want to make it more specifically to your people.

And at every show my audience brings new people, playing bigger and bigger venues. I built it up slowly with my rag-tag team of weird lesbian mom fans. It’s the weirdest fanbase. They’re all very emotionally like, “you rock!”–but then they’ll come up crying to me. I’m a different kind of artist. I’m more of a performer than a recording artist, but we have some songs to record. Recording albums is a great art form and a great expression, but it’s not my strong suit. It comes with the times. I bought Lizzo’s whole album cause she’s awesome, but I don’t shop for hits because I can just do that on Spotify.

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