It's the Fourth of July, and Nina Storey is playing the Cherry Creek Arts Festival. As her band sets up under a cavernous white tent whose lax corners flutter gently with the breeze, a crowd begins to gather: hot, tired women wearing florals with straw hats, and sunburned men in shirts picked out by their wives. Some of the attendees are merely looking for a shady place to eat calamari; once they settle, they send out spicy wafts with each bite. But many of the others plopping down on free seats are more interested in what's about to take place on stage. "Are you ready for that Nina Storey?" a man in a plaid golf cap asks people around him. "That'll be the big one today."
He's right, of course, but Storey doesn't look the part. She presents herself with a casual air that catches the uninitiated off guard. Wearing a cotton tank top with Gap anonymity and old gray sneakers sans socks, she smiles sweetly, allowing her strawberry-blond hair to fall where it may. She seems poised to wash the car, not rock the house. But when showtime arrives, she looks at the empty space between the seated crowd and the tent overhead, and then proceeds to fill it. Her arms at her sides, fingers spread, head back, eyes closed, she shoots for the rafters and reaches them easily via sweltering vocals that leave the audience with a collective question: How could such an effervescent person release such righteous blues hollering?
There are no easy answers to this particular puzzle. Storey may sing with the blazing bravado that is her birthright as a redheaded woman, but she was raised in Colorado and California under clear skies bereft of the fretful humidity that breeds soulful bayou crankiness. As a result, the origins of her gifts are a mystery even to Storey herself. "Music is a conduit to share the secrets inside of me," she says. "It's not my job to prove to people that I come from whatever place, and that gives me the right to sing in a certain way. I just sing honestly."
Such forthrightness has earned Storey a loyal following in Colorado and beyond. But although she regularly plays to packed houses and adoring audiences these days, it hasn't always been that way. "A few years ago we were on a European tour--one where we were performing on a lot of military bases, and we were misadvertised as a country band," she recalls. "When they heard us play, it wasn't pleasant. You don't mess with serious country fans. And this happened repeatedly. We'd hit another city and the same thing would happen. We kept saying, 'Fix this!' But then we'd go out there and see the crowd and think, 'Oh God, it's going to be another hellacious night.'" Though Storey never resorted to endless reprises of "Rawhide" and "Stand by Your Man," a la the Blues Brothers, she admits, "There were a few nights when I wanted a fence between me and the crowd."
Fortunately, Storey understands the ups and downs of show business. Her mother, Jan Storey, is a singer and producer in her own right, and her father, Bill Storey, is a studio mainstay with an impressive resume.
"Because Bill was a sound engineer from the time she was very young, working with Manilow and Sinatra, she's used to the whole touring lifestyle," Jan says. "The only thing I did was to ask her if she wanted to sing. You can't make somebody get up and do that. I did back-up vocals for her once on a tour, and it was such a frightening thing. You definitely have to have the makeup to get up in front of people and do that. It's something you're born with."
Family connections didn't hurt, either; they helped get Storey's career started before she was out of her teens. "I was working on a project at MCA with Leon Ware, and he needed somebody to do scratch vocals for the real artist," Jan notes. "I told them that my daughter sang. She was fifteen at the time, and they were like, 'Yeah, yeah, here we go with the daughter thing.' But they gave her a chance, and when she came in, they were blown away." Shortly thereafter, Storey recorded her debut disc, a five-song EP. After moving to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado, she formed the group Lost Generation and appeared at clubs throughout the state. She subsequently issued two long-players, 1993's Guilt and Honey and 1994's Bootleg, as the leader of the Nina Storey Band before going solo with the 1997 CD Shades, issued by the clan's Red Lady Records imprint.
Storey began writing many of the songs that wound up on this last effort while driving on the freeway--"It's not a safe thing," she concedes. Perhaps as a result, the lyrics are very Aretha: They spotlight a strong woman taking a stand against the untold legions of cheatin', schemin', lyin', leavin', dangerously attractive no-good men. The conclusion of "No Man" is typical: "I don't need no man," Storey asserts, "and I don't need no lovin'." According to Storey, expressing sentiments like these "is cathartic, especially if I've had a bad romantic experience. The unrequited-love thing seems to come up a lot. I'm more expressive through my music about those things than I am in daily life. I don't know if those songs are a reflection of my personality or my inability to hold down a relationship or what."
Given the frequency with which Storey's words limn the squeamish territory of love and its uncomfortable derivatives, it's something of a surprise that she frequently collaborates on songs with her mom. But Jan, who shares three credits on Shades with Nina, says they are able to keep their working relationship professional. "It's hard to separate mother/daughter and this and that sometimes," she says, "but I have a lot of respect for Nina's private life. When we do our writing, the relationship is from artist to artist. I don't look at it from a mother point of view. The stuff we have written together has never been embarrassing. When she was first performing, I'd bring everyone I knew--every friend and every relative--to come see her play. The most astonishing thing to me is seeing a whole audience that I don't know, seeing hundreds or thousands of people watching her and realizing, at that point, that she belongs to the public."
Appreciative listeners are embracing Storey in ever-increasing numbers, and the able support provided by her current bandmates is one of the reasons. The miscellaneous tribe at the arts festival includes seventeen-year-old lead guitarist John Paul Johnson, whose requisite Gen X/Y silver wallet chain dangles from capacious jeans; bassist Donny Key, clad in the shades and jeans of a slightly more senior generation; talented drummer David Rothstedder; and Jeremy Lawton, a member of the Psychodelic Zombies whom Storey describes as "the most wanted keyboardist in the city." Also indispensable are Coco Brown and Yvonne Brown, two unrelated women with voices full of dusky Motown goodness. Storey and the Browns cheer each other's vocals and cool each other off by waving a towel when the singing gets too hot. "Guys are great and all that stuff," Storey says, "but there's something about having additional female vocalists on stage--they are beautifully strong, amazing, present women." The musicians are at their best on songs such as "Let Us Walk," which is built upon funky guitar licks, lounge-lizard keyboard grooves and "Go, girl!" gospel vocals. Listening to their diverse vibe, you don't know whether it would be more appropriate to throw on your choir robe or your Doc Martens.
Representatives of major record companies are among those who've been tempted by musical flavors like these; Jan says they have received "a lot of interest with regard to calls from labels." In her view, "Every day she's closer to getting national exposure. Every day brings more people into contact with her music."
More golden opportunities are coming Storey's way in the near future. On September 7 this true-orange Broncos fan is scheduled to sing the national anthem prior to the team's first appearance of the season on Monday Night Football. Later this fall she'll tour the eastern seaboard and Canada, followed by a winter playing shows in New Orleans and other cities in Southern climes. "We want to continue with the festivals that give her the most exposure," Jan points out. "We're a small label, but we're trying to do everything on an international level."
In the meantime, Storey is preparing for the Denver edition of Lilith Fair. Although she won an audition for the spot against more than twenty local female artists, she says, "I'm not one for tryouts, competitions or contests. I've never thought of music as a competitive sport. I just went out there to sing, perform, have fun and call it an evening. And the crowd was so kind, generous and supportive that I was rewarded from that experience alone." She'll use an acoustic setup for her Lilith Fair performance, and afterward, she confesses, "I'm secretly hoping I'll be able to track down Sarah McLachlan and do something for her--like, 'Hi, do you need a shoe-shiner? Call me.'"
Lilith Fair, with Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Paula Cole, Cowboy Junkies, Lisa Loeb, Joan Osborne, Mary Lou Lord, Neko Case and Nina Storey. 3:30 p.m. Sunday, August 23, Fiddler's Green, $31-$45, 830-
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