Full-sized singer stirs up Pink Martini
The Aspen Times
Pink Martini refers to itself as “a little orchestra,” but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the role of lead vocalist in the group is a big one to fill. The Portland, Ore.-based act plays a repertoire that includes songs from 1940s movies, old South American sambas and originals with a modern, sassy flair, such as “Hey, Eugene,” about a guy at a party who asks for a woman’s phone number and then fails to call. The vocalist is called on to sing in numerous languages, including Arabic and Turkish. There is also a theatrical and comedic aspect to the role, and the tone of a Pink Martini show is balanced between retro and contemporary. China Forbes, the singer who has been with the group since the early days, in the mid-’90s, refers to the band’s “exploding range.”
So when Forbes was sidelined early in 2011 by problems with her vocal cords, finding a substitute was a tall order. Fortunately, there was someone on the Portland music scene with a big enough range and persona to fill in. When Pink Martini performs tonight at the Benedict Music Tent in an event co-presented by Jazz Aspen Snowmass and the Aspen Music Festival, a statuesque, flamboyant belter named Storm Large will fill the vocalist role.
The audience is likely to remember Forbes well. Three years ago, Pink Martini was something of an unknown when the group played the Music Tent. But the venue, maybe two-thirds full, quickly warmed to Forbes, and Pink Martini was a surprise hit that summer. Large — who currently shares the role of lead singer with a recovered Forbes, appearing on some 40 percent of the gigs — isn’t trying to make anyone forget Forbes.
“We’re drastically different women, the way we look, the way we sound,” the 44-year-old Large said from her Portland home. “I’ve had a handful of people snub me: ‘It isn’t Pink Martini without China Forbes.’ Hey, people are diehard fans. They should hate me. I can’t combat that. The only thing I can do is be authentic with the material. I would never pretend for a moment that I can sound like China, and Thomas” — Pink Martini founder and bandleader Thomas Lauderdale, a classmate of Forbes’ at Harvard in the late ’80s — “didn’t ask me to do a China Forbes impersonation. He said, ‘Just sing with the band.’”
Large actually was born Susan Storm Large and raised in Southborough, Mass. But her mother was also Susan, and Large went by the name Storm from birth. Her mother was mentally ill and not much of a presence in Large’s life — “She was diagnosed with everything: schizophrenia, manic depressive, suicidal, just really unhappy,” Large said — and her father was a football and baseball coach who was generally supportive of his daughter but not particularly warm toward her means of expression.
“I was an artist, a singer and entertainer constantly being told to shut up,” she recalled, adding that she was 6 feet tall at the age of 13. “My singing voice was admired but not encouraged.”
Large attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and, because of her assets, was pushed in the direction of Broadway.
“They heard the big voice, the big, expressive face,” she said. “But I hated Broadway. The stuff was ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘Les Miserables.’ I thought they were detestable. I was more a punk rocker. I was going to CBGB’s, the Limelight, the rock clubs.”
Large began finding her true voice one night in San Francisco, when she sang Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” and the crowd went wild.
“I felt I finally was actually good at something that made people happy,” she said. “I haven’t stopped.”
Large moved to Portland, where she did some political events with Lauderdale and sang on occasion with Forbes. In April 2011, she got an email from Lauderdale asking her to fill in for the ailing Forbes on some dates — four sold-out shows at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., that were five days away. Large’s assignment would be to learn 10 songs — in five languages.
“Thomas in all his epic wisdom said I’d be perfect for the job,” she said. “And I thought, ‘No way.’ China’s got that pristine, elastic voice. I’m more of a belter and thought they’d be better served by getting a Broadway singer. But China emailed me, said, ‘Please do this. You’ll be doing us a favor.’”
She doesn’t remember much about the Kennedy Center shows, “except me sleeping with an iPod. I was in such fear mode,” Large said. But she enjoyed it enough to take on the gig. The first year was fraught; Large sent Forbes frequent reassuring emails: “Don’t worry. I didn’t swear onstage tonight.”
Having Large and Forbes share the Pink Martini job seems ideal for the moment. Forbes has a young child, and Large has other projects. She leads her own band, with which she is preparing to record an album of original material. She recently took center-stage at Carnegie Hall, performing Kurt Weill’s “Severn Deadly Sins” with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
One project that has been put on hold while she tours with Pink Martini is “Crazy Enough,” a one-person show that received positive reviews when it was workshopped in New York. (An, R-rated music video for “8 Miles Wide,” a song from the show about her size, is available online.) The performance piece is based on her memoir of the same name about dealing with her mother’s illnesses.
“I tried to do everything in my power to be emotionally, mentally, physically as different from her as possible,” Large said. “She was always miserable and dainty and small and wanting to kill herself. I was determined to be bigger, stronger, louder, nastier, tougher.”
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