Though socially embedded gender roles and even misogyny lead some to ignorantly assume any two women sharing the spotlight equals “dueling divas,” the dual lead singers of Pink Martini—the original frontwoman, China Forbes, and her counterpart, Storm Large—share the true state of a airs. There is no rivalry. They are a village, happily sharing the benefits and burdens of performing with Portland’s most diverse band. The two recently invited Artslandia to eavesdrop on their conversation about how they are “similar and different in the way that the Westminster dog show is similar and different to a pack of wolves” and yet one another’s biggest fan.

Written by Brett Campbell. Photos by Gia Goodrich. Interview by China Forbes and Storm Large.

P ut two great male singers in a band, Lennon and McCartney or Henley and Frey, and what do you call it? Supergroup! But try it with two females, and… catfight?

That’s what a few haters snarked in 2011 when one of Portland’s best known vocal stars, Storm Large, joined one of its most beloved bands, Pink Martini—whose lead singer since its 1994 inception had been China Forbes. When vocal cord surgery sidelined Forbes, Large (better known at that point for hard rock swagger than PM’s arty lounge sound) blew in, replacing Forbes on a tour that summer and winning raves.

“I always hoped we could find a way to collaborate,” Pink Martini founder and pianist Thomas Lauderdale said when Large first joined. “She is a brilliant, beautiful, charismatic, and seductive star who would give Jayne Mansfield a run for her money.”

While Forbes healed, comparisons and questions inevitably arose, and some wondered: Did the band’s future lie with elegant, refined Forbes or with gritty, foul-mouthed Large.

Even though Pink Martini has always been classically trained pianist Thomas Lauderdale’s creation and has followed his quirky blend of classical, Latin jazz, and French cafe music, Forbes (previously an off-Broadway actress and singer-songwriter) has been its glamorous frontwoman and important songwriter from the get-go. Her charismatic singing, understated, even ironic, persona, and ability to command the spotlight with symphony orchestras and in the Hollywood Bowl—without making the show all about her—“made the band possible, Lauderdale told The Oregonian. “The way into the music is through her voice. She helps articulate the romance and the lushness of the songs. China helped broaden the vision of what the band can be, he said. “There’s been a huge folk, pop, rock influence that we wouldn’t have had. She’s the reason the band has been so successful.

Forbes’ genius lies in the convincing delivery of everything from opera arias to retro-romantic stage musical ballads to cheesy pre-rock pop, in multiple languages. That’s why Lauderdale enlisted Forbes—his old Harvard classmate and buddy (they used to play and sing opera arias in their dorm common room at night)—when he started the band in the first place. Over a decade and a half, the oddball ensemble of “musical archeologists rose to international prominence, playing arenas, festivals, and clubs around the world. And then, in the summer of 2011, vocal polyps threatened the ensemble’s dominant voice, with surgery and an extended leave of absence the only option for a full but uncertain recovery.

Enter Large, lead singer of Storm and The Balls, reality television contestant, and star of the smash hit Crazy Enough—her autobiographical, one-woman musical that included such numbers as 8 Miles Wide, a tribute to her vagina. Her turn at the mic began with four soldout concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. One can see where trouble might have ensued, particularly upon Forbes’ triumphant return to the stage and the band she made famous.

Of course, women have shared the mike in bands for ages, from the Supremes to The Shirelles to Destiny’s Child. But with a few exceptions (Fleetwood Mac, Sleater-Kinney, Throwing Muses), usually a single alpha female takes the lead. It’s rare for bands to replace an established, popular, successful singer with another star—and then have both share the lead. That’s what Pink Martini was trying to do, amid sexist social pressures that tend to pit accomplished females against each other even more than their male counterparts.

But like all stereotypes, those assumptions and precedents didn’t account for the reality of the two individuals involved. And both Large and Forbes, secure in their own artistry, had plenty of reasons to welcome the shared spotlight, since, for the most part, they alternate PM performances. Lauderdale was initially loath to invite comparisons by featuring both in the same show, but the shared role made a lot of sense.

At the forefront of Forbes’ reality is motherhood. She’d spent 15 years on the road before her hiatus, touring through her pregnancy and rejoining the band when her son was just nine weeks old. The demanding international touring schedule meant time away from her boy, a trade-off that made performing bittersweet. After having time at home to bond while recovering from surgery, sharing the spotlight afforded Forbes the gift of her desired work-life balance.

Large—who recommended the OHSU physician who ultimately treated Forbes’ vocal polyps—“relieved the pressure on my shoulders of keeping the band going,” Forbes told The Oregonian.

“I don’t feel any competitiveness with her because now I’m secure in myself. Some songs she does way better than I did, and she’s so entertaining. Thank God for her because I would have been in the loony bin.”

For her part, Large welcomed both sharing the burden and the band’s variety. “One of the things I love about singing with Pink Martini is it’s not all about me for a change, she said. “I’ve been a solo singer for 20 years. It’s so relaxing, she said, not to occupy the solo spotlight for a whole show, as she’d had to do with her own bands. While she maintained a solo career, learning from Forbes and her occasional performances with Pink Martini allowed Large to stretch her musical muscles. “I have fought my theatrical and dramatic leanings for more than 15 years because I thought they weren’t cool or rock ’n’ roll, she told Artslandia Magazine a few years ago.

“Singing with the Symphony and Pink Martini, writing love songs where nobody dies at the end, is the next step in my artistic evolution. It forces me to be soft, vulnerable, and feminine… qualities that, a few years ago, I would have considered to be the most humiliating to ever take on.

The joint venture also benefited the band, allowing Lauderdale to vary the musical menu as he’d long desired. It also gives fans yet another reason to see Pink Martini, maybe even twice in a brief span.

The answer to the “China or Storm? question turned out to be: Better with both. As their conversation reveals, they’re a mutual admiration society and part of something bigger than both of them. “I consider us to be soloists, Large says, “in a big posse of soloists.

China: I guess people think we have a rivalry.

Storm: Yeah. Do they ask you?

China: People from time to time say, “Is it hard for you when Storm sings when you’re not there? They’re curious. But I don’t think that they assume it’s a rivalry. I think they assume it would be hard for anyone to surrender their position to someone as amazing as you. I think it’s just that it’s a natural curiosity that people have, but I don’t assume that it’s negative or catfighty.

Storm: I get more questions with the gravitational pull toward competitive, catty. I’ve found that, more with women artists, it is assumed that we are not going to get along, that we’re going to be difficult to deal with. In the hip-hop world, men get together, and they’ll rap. Or they’ll rap and have a female singing, and it’s awesome. It’s not assumed that one is vying for the most attention. When it’s two women, there’s this very traditional opinion in entertainment: the word “diva. When “diva is applied to a female entertainer, it signifies that we need to be manhandled; We need to be managed, and we can’t get along with each other. We compete with each other. And I always found that to be hilarious. When I was coming up in rock bands, I had women all the time say, “So, I guess, you’re the competition. I was like, “I could not be more different than you as a singer, as a performer, as a writer. I don’t know why there would be competition. Why can’t we just rock together and hang?

China: I feel like, in pop music, there are tons of collaborations, but I think it’s different when it’s “so-and-so collaborating with so-and-so versus “so-and-so singing instead of so-and-so. We have a unique situation that nobody else has. We’re sharing. It’s different. In addition, it’s not just women; It’s singers—men and women. We’re different. Thomas has always said that dealing with singers is different from dealing with everyone else in the band. I think it’s that we want to sing, and we want to sing our songs. And when other people sing, well, then we’re not singing. With women historically feeling threatened by other women, I think it’s because there’s only one position historically that a woman might be able to fill. There’re not hundreds of opportunities for women. So I think that set us up for this dynamic of  “If I’m going to be the ONE woman who gets the job, then other women are my competition. I feel like that has to be considered. It’s not everyone’s fault for assuming that; It’s sort of the way it’s always been.

Storm: I guess so. I’ve never felt threatened by other women, mostly because I never felt like I was a threat, to anyone. I started being a musician out of loneliness and wanting to be a part of a community and belong somewhere where I wasn’t a problem, where I could maybe get free beer, maybe get something to eat. Hopefully, at some point, people would look at me and clap and think what I did was good. I’ve been in the place where I’ve heard a song, by a man or a woman, and been like, “Oh God, I wish I wrote that. I wish I thought to put those words together. But I’ve never felt competitive with anybody. Or maybe I’ve compared myself to China in the sense of “China totally knows how to dress! I look like I’m coming to teach people weightlifting, and they’re going to pay me with cigarettes. I’m just sort of a tomboy dude, right?

China [in a funny voice]: But you clean up real well!

Storm: It takes a village. I don’t know what I’m doing! But it’s fun, and it’s awesome. And you’ve been such a great teacher in terms of being in this band, and that’s always how I’ve perceived it. We were friends. And then, when you were recovering from vocal surgery, I was terrified because I know that perception outside. There’s this thing: It isn’t Pink Martini if China’s not there. It is China or nothing. And I understood that because you guys have such a history. But you notice this in magazines and in entertainment everywhere that to lift a woman up, they tear another one down. Why can’t you just admire and lift up another woman? Why does it have to be on the back of the abuse you give someone else?

China: I don’t know. Maybe people need to have their person that they idolize and worship; Maybe they don’t feel like they can give all that energy to more than one person if they’re going to be that kind of fan.

Storm: When I was dating Toby, who does sound sometimes for Pink Martini, I went somewhere with a symphony. Everybody was acting scared of me, making sure everything was OK, acting like I had flipped out and eaten a baby or something. I was texting Toby, “What’s up with this? Do you think maybe my contract makes me sound like a bitch or something? because he’s worked with so many singers. He said, “This is kind of the norm—that female singers are scary and demanding and stuff like that. So there is maybe some truth (or at least experience) to the origins of a stereotype, possibly. But not allowing for individual experience is what I have a problem with.

China: Well. I mean, what you just said is frustrating to hear because I feel like (and we all know this), women who are strong and demand what they really need are “bitches, and men just do that anyway. That’s just being a man, being a professional.

Storm: That’s why I just punch.

China: That blows.

Artslandia: Ok, just one prompt. I would like to hear you both describe each other.

China: Well, I’ll go first. When I first saw you perform, I said to Thomas, “She is really a good singer! I just felt that your voice was almost like musical theater. And your personality is Courtney Love. Like if Courtney Love did musical theater and was fearless and dove into the audience. You’re riveting, and you’re strong and powerful. Your banter is hilarious. And you’re so smart… quick. And the voice… I feel like there’s nothing you can’t sing or do. It’s amazing. And you’re very kind.

Storm: No, I’m not! I’m ferocious!

China: I think you swear a lot because you’re actually just nerdy and sweet, and you’re trying to be bad.

Storm: I felt the same way. I was friends with you and Thomas before, so I learned about the band and the music from within it. I first saw you with Pink Martini at the Greek Theatre, and I was so excited. You were so perfect. I was just like, “I don’t know why I’m in this band. I don’t know what I could possibly bring. I felt, suddenly, a little embarrassed. You have such precision with your mind and with your instrument. And there’s zero phoniness. Any good singer could get up in front of Pink Martini and be the instrument and have vocal chops, but you have such grace and genuine character. And your wit and your intelligence are laser-focused but so natural and disarming. And you’re a glamour puss! You’re beautiful and wild and refined.

China: Now! But when I first performed with Pink Martini, I was just flying by the seat of my pants. It’s like nothing I had done or thought I would ever do. And so, at first, it was just chaotic and random. And then, we started performing with orchestras. That’s when I was like, “This is a different level, and I can’t just be half-assed anymore. Singing feels different because, when I had vocal cord surgery, I realized I’m never going to let myself get to that point again where I’m singing through colds and straining. I rest my voice more. It feels very supple. There are no residual issues, and (knock on wood) it’s been reliable. And now that I study pretty regularly, I feel like I have more tools in my kit.

Storm: Yeah, I was saying to my band, I want to take opera, not because I want to sing opera, but because I want more tools. I’ve heard opera singers function vocally with a horrible cold. It’s a muscular difference in their approach.

China: And also I think is a psychological difference, knowing how to sing over the cold.

Storm: …which is crazy. I just… ugh.

China: But, hopefully, we will never do that.

Storm: Oh, yeah. Knock on wood. We don’t have to do that.

Next Up for Pink Martini

Pink Martini is performing at the LA Philharmonic 100th Anniversary Gala, September 27, in Los Angeles, California. See pinkmartini.com for additional tour dates. See Storm Large at the Britt Festival, September 8, in Jacksonville, Oregon, and in a special, 10th anniversary engagement of Crazy Enough, June 25–30, at Portland Center Stage at The Armory. See stormlarge.com for additional tour dates.