Personal Playlist: Peter Stormare’s obsession with Billie Holiday

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The character actor and musician assembles an eclectic group of artists such as Esperanza Spalding and Angela Bassett for ‘A Tribute to Billie Holiday.

It would be quite a stretch to watch Peter Stormare’s turn as the demonically silent henchman Gaear Grimsrud in “Fargo” and think, “This is a man moved to tears by the music of Billie Holiday.” But the man who pushed Steve Buscemi into a wood chipper in the Coen brothers’ classic knew he wanted to be an artist after being cut to the bone by Lady Day’s music and life story.

“I grew up in a snowy Swedish town, and when I heard her music and read ‘Lady Sings the Blues,’ I couldn’t fathom her life,” he said, driving through downtown Los Angeles en route to a video shoot for a collaboration between Christina Aguilera and Maroon 5. “Her story was a dagger. I felt her blood and pain, and I knew right then I had to leave for America and be an artist.”

Holiday’s music and story became a deep-rooted passion for the actor, who consistently steals scenes in darkly funny character roles in films such as “The Big Lebowski” and “Constantine” (in which he played Satan). This month, his boutique record label, StormVox, is releasing “A Tribute to Billie Holiday,” its most high-profile release yet. Recent best new artist Grammy-winner Esperanza Spalding, producer maven Babyface and folk standout Rickie Lee Jones are among the pointedly eclectic artists tasked with re-imagining Holiday’s standards, no mean feat given the singularity of the originals.


“I’ll Look Around” is one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded, Stormare notes, adding, “But Esperanza Spalding took today’s view of it. I grew up in theater where we do plays over and over, and every time I hear that you can’t remake Hitchcock I think ‘Why not?’ That goes for music too.”

Stormare, a musician and songwriter in his band Blonde From Fargo, knew he couldn’t compete with the originals. “‘Strange Fruit’ is a landmark of the civil rights era,” he said. “She was a Martin Luther King for music.” In hiring Angela Bassett to read parts of Holiday’s memoir as interludes, he underlined that the album was meant to tell her life story as well as explore her catalog.

“Tribute” was a labor of love that also threw his bank account into the metaphorical wood chipper. But he felt he had no choice.

“I had to sell my cabin in Big Bear to finance the album,” he said, laughing ruefully. “But I had to do it. I had to get this out of my system.”


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