As she strolls through New York City, Storm Large is processing the contrasting imagery playing out before her as though it were an internal cinema, a panoramic set of snapshots flowing together with almost frightening continuity.
"Right now, I'm walking through Tompkins Square Park," she says. "There are these impossibly beautiful models walking their little gorgeous dogs by a bunch of homeless guys. There are these weird scenes where you hear 10 different languages on one block. It's stimulating and it's repulsive. It's exciting and it's erotic. I don't know. I got ADD. My brain explodes with everything."
If Large's artistic psyche teeters on the point of continual eruption, so does her glorious music, which she brings to Lexington for a concert Thursday at the Kentucky Theatre.
Though nurtured on rock 'n' roll and a theatrical bawdiness as deliberate as it is unapologetic (one of her early bands was called Storm and her Dirty Mouth), the New England-born, California-raised and now Portland, Ore., resident became versed in a genre-free cabaret spirit cemented by an unexpected alliance with the globally inclined pop ensemble Pink Martini.
It comes as little surprise then that her newest album, Le Bonheur, has Large covering such strange bedfellow artists as Cole Porter, Lou Reed, Rodgers & Hart, Randy Newman and Jacques Brel.
"It's a sort of ADD punk rock cabaret," Large says. "I grew up with so many different kinds of music. I identified with punk rockers and layabouts and the lowlife scum of New York, etc, etc. That was what I emotionally and artistically related to. But my voice and my music sensibilities ran the whole gambit of Patsy Cline to Mozart to hip-hop. It was all over the place."
Curiously, Large's musical express was nearly derailed before it ever gained national exposure for her powerfully distinctive name (which, by the way, is not an alias; she was born Susan Storm Large). Fed up with the music business in the late 1990s, she moved from San Francisco to Portland with the notion of junking her career and becoming a chef.
"I was going to go to the culinary institute because I was so disenchanted with music," she says. "I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to tour and I wanted to sing, but I didn't care about being a rock star and I didn't care about being famous. I wanted to get paid more than beer. I wanted to be able to pay my band, have a tour bus and actually function as a business. But the whole '90s thing in San Francisco was about 'Oh, you've got to get signed, you've got to write a hit song.' Every time I saw a record deal, it was awful. It was like, 'We're going to lend you $5 and you will owe us $5,000 and we own everything you do.' I was just a singer, but that's a (expletive) deal. So I was like, 'You know what, this isn't fun.' I set out to learn another skill where I'm generating happiness for people.
"But I started bartending at this club called Dante's. The owner, who was a friend of mine, said, 'You know, I could really use some music on Wednesday nights. Could you maybe put something together?' That was 15 years ago. Then it became fun again."
In due course, the projects rolled in. There was national television exposure as a semi-finalist in the 2006 CBS reality-competition series Rockstar: Supernova ("A good business education that made me the most famous I've been. I don't want to be that famous ever again."). After that came a role in the Randy Newman musical Harps and Angels in 2010 ("As an artist, Randy has a very sharp, cynical tongue that can insult with the most venomous yet funny imagery. I would never want to see him mad."). Then it was Martini time.
When the multi-lingual, cross-generational pop troupe Pink Martini searched for a temporary touring replacement for singer China Forbes, who was sidelined because of vocal cord surgery, Large was drafted.
"Storm is incredible," Pink Martini chieftain Thomas Lauderdale said prior to the group's 2011 concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts. "She's very smart, too. She took classes so she could sing our French songs. By the end of two weeks she was conjugating and joking in French. That's how smart she is."
Large, though, was initially reluctant to fill in.
"I told China, 'No way. Your fans are going to hate my guts.' China has got such a flawless, beautiful voice. I would never pretend to do what she does. But Thomas was such a wonderful teacher and wonderful curator of these beautiful ballads where you don't technically need to be flawless. You just need to be emotionally honest about what it is you're interpreting.
"It's been the best musical education of my life being with Pink Martini. Thomas takes songs that really move him with melody, with beauty, with color and with stories.
"What I discovered was my strength of interpretation and my strength of emotional honesty through song."