Arts & Culture

Taking Tacoma by Storm: Portland rock-chanteuse Storm Large brings her new album – eclectic arrangements of American songbook classics – to Theatre on the Square next Thursday

Cole Porter wouldn’t recognize this version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Slow and expansive, it breathes in and out of shimmery string chords — before the words dive down into the throaty depths of Storm Large’s voice. But then, Cole Porter didn’t have a career blending punk, rock, cabaret and chanson, or what the New York Times calls the “personality plus” of the Portland chanteuse.

Large is kicking off the Broadway Center’s 2014-15 season Thursday with an evening of songbook classics given an edgy twist.

Last seen a year ago in Tacoma singing with Portland’s retro-smooth Pink Martini, Large is happy to push what people expect her to be. A singer equally famous for being a finalist on CBS’ “Rock Star: Supernova” in 2006 as starring in her self-written musical memoir “Crazy Enough” in Edinburgh, Scotland; Adelaide, Australia; and New York, Large has a voice that is too big for any box.

Her new album “Le Bonheur” — named after her band and releasing Oct. 7 during her current tour — follows the Porter with 12 more unexpected versions of old and new songs. Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.” starts with an a cappella-brass duet and blossoms into a snarky cha-cha. Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” flips between high and breathy and powerful, while in Jacques Brel’s classic “Ne me Quitte Pas” Large sashays between English and French to an echoey, metallic solo guitar. Richard Rodgers’ “The Lady is a Tramp,” meanwhile, gets a straight-up brassy kick that Liza Minnelli would be proud of.

Meanwhile, Large also pushes the boundaries of being a singer itself. Her book version of “Crazy Enough” was named Oprah’s Book of the Week in 2012, and awarded the Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction in 2013. She’s also acted in James Westby’s film “Rid of Me” and in the musical “Harps and Angels” in L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum. This year she’s expanding into orchestra concerts around the world and has collaborated with artists from k.d. lang to punk rocker John Doe. She wrote two of the songs on “Le Bonheur” herself.

On the phone from Portland, Large talked to The News Tribune about the songs she’ll sing in Tacoma, why she likes them edgy and how being larger than anyone’s expectations is perfectly fine with her.

Q: You just did a couple of concerts with Pink Martini at Seattle’s Woodland Zoo – how did that go?

A: Oh, it’s a beautiful venue, and I love playing with Pink. They’re a great group of people, and it’s always a lot of fun.

Q: Tell me about your new album, that you’ll be singing from in Tacoma. Who does the arrangements?

A: Myself and James Beaton, my piano player. We usually sit down and work things out, then open it up to the other members of the band when we’re just messing around.

Q: Your opening song is a slow, sultry version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” compared to the boppy original. How did you come up with that alternative idea of it?

A: I love songs with darkness and longing, and some pain attached. We had been doing more gigs where they wanted American Songbook stuff, and James did a re-imagining of that song, and I sang along, making it more of the intense, stalker-ish side. You know, where you can’t stop thinking of the person, how it’s kind of torturous.

Q: Two of the songs on “Le Bonheur” are your own – how did they come about?

A: “A Woman’s Heart” came from being heartbroken. You always think you’re coming to a relationship with an open heart, with high hopes and your best self. (So) if it ends, one or the other person will usually have to vilify and demonize the other to get past the heartbreak. I don’t do that. I tend to just shut down and get over it. It doesn’t always work well that way … I’m a public person, and I tend to date people who aren’t public people, at least until they go and tell all about it, which is a lovely form of social media.

So the song is about how you’re never really going to know how I felt, how much I loved you — you don’t want to know. It’s much easier to just feel hurt and abandoned.

I wrote “Stand Up for Me” for gay rights and marriage equality. I was meditating on the idea that God is love and thought: “If God was a songwriter, what would God say to mankind? We all want more love in our lives … but what does love have to say about us?

Q: The von Trapps add a deep layer of vocal texture to that song — did you write it with them in mind?

A: No, but once I started playing with the von Trapps, I thought, they just have to sing this. I just can’t tell you how kind, amazing, lovely people they are.

Q: You stepped into soloing with Pink Martini when their vocalist China Forbes had voice issues in 2011. Now you and she share that stage. Has singing with Pink Martini changed your vocal style at all?

A: I stay as true to their music as I can, but I’ve always been a balladeer. My big idol is Nina Hagen, the punk rock singer — she could sing opera but also scream, yell, belt out songs. Punk rock didn’t work for me in a career, but I’ve managed to create a fabulous career with Pink Martini and Le Bonheur using what I have — a big theatrical voice. I’ll still get my agro on, get my scream on; that’s part of who I am as a performer. But people don’t like you to be too many things, especially as a woman. You have to be hot — you always have to be hot — and either scream, or sing sweetly. Or else just ... be whoever you want to be. I don’t feel I need to do things for the fame. I’m enjoying life and the work that I do – I’m not trying to be what I’m not.

Q: So how does that play into classical music, since you have some upcoming gigs with big orchestras this year: the Houston Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the RTE Concert Orchestra in Dublin?

A: I’ll be singing Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins,” and some Gershwin, and the Sinatra 100th birthday concert in Carnegie Hall. I do all kinds of stuff. I like to do anything, especially if it’s challenging and weird. Classical music is this deep well of really challenging stuff, and I don’t know very much about it, so I’m looking forward to getting in there.

Q: When you first moved to Portland in the early 2000s you originally intended to change career and become a chef. Do you still like to cook?

A: I do love cooking, but I don’t have as much time as I’d like to cook. I’ll have Thanksgiving off this year, so I’ll … have a big get-together and a feast with friends. But I’m on the road 75 percent of the time.

Q: What else do you do in your spare time?

A: Spare time? What is that? Well, I read, I catch up on movies, I like to visit with friends — it’s so rare these days to have a bottle of wine with friends and hang out. And then writing, figuring out what my next book is going to be, writing music. It’s just flying by the seat of my pants.

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