Storm Large is a singular personality with brash attitude to spare, but some of her biggest breaks have come only after she relented to vigorous arm-twisting.
Take her autobiographical cabaret-style show “Crazy Enough,” a big hit for Portland Center Stage in Oregon in 2009. The show inspired a book of the same title, which received the coveted seal of approval from Oprah Winfrey and led to the one-time punk chatting about her life story on-camera with Rosie O’Donnell.
“I got bamboozled into doing it,” says Large, 45, of the original “Crazy Enough,” calling from the road on a tour that brings her and her band to Paramount Center Mainstage on Sunday. “When they asked me to write a one-woman show, I thought it would be like sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and I'll sing songs and tell terrible stories about three-ways in CBGB. And they were like: No, you should talk about how your mom is mentally ill.”
Once upon a time, Large was a misfit prep-school student in her hometown of Southborough, she says, listening to 1980s-vintage punk rock and hitchhiking to Harvard Square to hang out and ask the squares for spare change. Her mom was indeed mentally ill, and a doctor once matter-of-factly told her to expect the same fate.
“I was alienated and not treated well, and I was always in trouble, and it was always assumed that I was stealing and lying and not a good person,” Large says of her high school days. “And now they want me to do fund-raisers and say on social media that I went there, and let’s have a big love fest with Storm Large, and I’m like: Absolutely not,” she adds, squeezing an expletive into the middle of “absolutely.” (She does allow that her father was a teacher there and “they were very good to him.”)
Since then, Large has led several lives. After an unproductive spell studying to be an actress in New York — “I don’t like acting, and I don’t like actors,” she observes — she transplanted herself to San Francisco and started singing in bands.
“I got called all kinds of different things,” Large says. “A punk singer, a metal singer, a big cabaret singer. I didn't really have a style.” But her musical approach has been defined by a mash-up of influences, into a whole that doesn’t always necessarily cohere — save for the brute force of her personality, which sells it in the end.
She’s tall, blond, pretty, and quick to reference her own bosom. She also has an explosively powerful voice, which earned praise last year when she sang Kurt Weill material with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
To see her confidently slink around the stage on the television program “Rock Star: Supernova,” as she did in a star-making appearance in 2006, it’s hard to imagine her as an awkward misfit. “I’m considered kind of hot now, but that’s a really late thing,” she says. “I got hot in my 30s, just in time to see my visage start to decay with age. So I have a sense of my beauty more like a drag queen, like someone who puts it on. It’s great and it serves me, but it’s not something I had in spades my whole life.”
Large is most comfortable onstage, where her personality emerges in unfiltered form. Longtime collaborator James Beaton says she still surprises him: “She keeps you on your toes onstage. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, she comes up with something utterly unique. It’s like her brain’s got this creative short circuit where she just spontaneously comes up with the most amazing stuff.”
It has taken Large some time to find her musical voice. She quit music after several years working the club scene in San Francisco, moving to Portland with the intention of attending the Oregon Culinary Institute. Then a friend leaned on her to fill in for a late cancellation at the nightclub where she bartended. “And the rest is Google-able,” she sums up.
Her proper solo debut, released after her flirtation with television stardom, sounds heavily influenced by 1990s alternative rock. She later landed a seemingly unlikely gig as guest vocalist for Portland friends Pink Martini, purveyors of tasteful but energetic big-band pop and jazz. Her latest album, named for her touring band Le Bonheur, features lush string arrangements on her original songs, as well as interpretations of numbers by Lou Reed, Cole Porter, and Black Sabbath.
“For so many years I was trying to make rock records and it just never really seemed authentic,” she says. “Even though it was my stuff and my voice and my choices, it just never really sounded right.” But Large says the mix she’s now hit upon — punkish energy in a plush package — showcases her authentic voice. “I’ve really hit a groove of feeling very confident of where I am and where I’m headed. Wherever that may be, I don’t know — but I feel more myself now than I ever have.”
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.