Published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
September 18, 2019
By Joshua Miner
It was 1994 and Thomas Lauderdale was shocked to see his home state of Oregon considering a constitutional amendment outlawing homosexuality. Lauderdale knew he couldn’t simply stand by and watch this happen, so he decided to get involved in politics himself – in his hometown of Portland. As he attended fundraisers throughout the city, he found himself disappointed in the music at these events – finding that not only were they disappointing and boring, but they failed to inspire the same passion he was feeling. Hoping to bring both sides of the aisle together to effect positive change, Pink Martini was born, and the amendment failed.
Lauderdale soon invited his former Harvard classmate China Forbes to join the project, and they began working on what would become Sympathique, released in 1997. Little did they know at the time, but the album would become a smash hit in France, earning them a Song of the Year at the Victoires de la Musique Awards. They had their European debut that year as well, playing at the famous Cannes Film Festival.
Their style is based largely on the Hollywood musicals of the 50’s and 60’s, combining a fun nostalgia with enchanting lyrics.
“When we were recording the album, we had never actually travelled outside of the city limits of Portland and had no inkling that we would ever actually be a travelling band. I thought that we were going to sort of stay in Portland and play political rallies and functions, and weddings,” Lauderdale explains.
Becoming a hit an ocean away was nothing more than a mistake, he says. Deciding to write the catchy title track with the refrain ‘Je ne veux pas travailler’ – or ‘I don’t want to work,’ the words just seemed to strike a chord not only in France, but the rest of Europe as well.
“It was totally unintentional,” he says. “It came out of left field. I think that if we’d had any inkling of it or had any ambition, we would have ruined it. The only goal really with the first album was to make a beautiful album. It wasn’t to become famous or to start touring.”
They began to play with symphonies after returning to the United States, which Lauderdale says fit in perfectly with the swinging retro-pop sound and image the band had cultivated. Pink Martini, he says, is a “little orchestra” – a sort of microcosm with all the same elegance of any full-scale symphony. Playing over 70 symphony orchestras in around the world allowed them to enlarge the landscape of their music with a much more festive and stylish platform.
It was also an outlet to promote their music on a much larger canvas, while at the same time introducing the symphonies to a wider audience of fans in a quirky and fun way. With how the music industry is structured today, Lauderdale says the path of success they took would have been much more difficult to try today.
“It was a way for all of us to go on the road and not go broke,” he says. “So we were very, very lucky. If I tried to start this band now, I don’t think it would work because 25 years ago people were still buying albums. So, we were able to eke out a career between travelling to Europe and playing with symphony orchestras and remaining independent on our own label.”
Following this, the band became instantly popular across the world. As their popularity grew so did the band, now with 12 members, and the number of language and cultures the bands represented, now at 25. By the time they released Hey Eugene! In 2004, songs like the title track would feature lyrics in 9 languages.
And while that may sound like a difficult task to undertake, the melodies and moods created by Lauderdale and his bandmates blend it all together seamlessly. Discovery a magic formula with a style both fresh and retro, the music and lyrics blend together effortlessly to take all your troubles away.
The reason so many sounds come together as seamlessly as they do, he says, is that the main focus is always on the sound first, and lyrics second.
Lauderdale himself can do interviews in French and has studied Japanese, Russian and some German. Forbes is also fluent in Italian. For the remainder of the dialects, they often speak to language professors in order to give the words as much meaning as possible.
Forbes simply amazes the audience with her talent for singing, giving a silky-smooth voice to lyrics in 14 languages.
“The goal is, first of all, write songs or take songs that have beautiful melodies,” Lauderdale explains of the common thread in their music. “Then the lyrics, whatever language, hopefully they match the beauty of the melody – but it’s melody driven, not lyric driven.”
This diversity is not just in language, but in the imaginative scenes they produce with their music.
These landscapes can quickly change, he says. One minute you’re in a hazy French music hall, next thing you know you’re in Japanese Noir film. Before you know it, you’re transported once again to a Brazilian Samba parade.
What the band had tapped into, it seems, is a nostalgia of the past with the diversity of the future. Lauderdale thinks of Pink Martini as what the United Nations house band might have sounded like in 1962.
“The mission of the band is now more relevant than it ever has been in the past,” Lauderdale says. “I view the work as not only entertaining, but it’s also diplomatic. It’s a small way to contribute to the world. But also, it’s a way to contribute to the world in an uplifting and positive way.”
They’ve certainly been doing that over the past two decades and have picked up an endless line of guests along the way. One of these was Phyllis Diller, who Lauderdale later met and then recorded Charlie Chaplin’s Smile with.
The band has also been home for Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August von Trapp, the grandchildren of Maria von Trapp – matriarch of the Trapp Family Singers and the inspiration Broadway play and movie The Sound of Music.
“We met at a Christmas Tree lighting in Portland in 2011. I instantly fell in love with them, and convinced them to move to Portland, and we made an album together – and it’s one of my all-time favorite albums.”
The record – Dream a Little Dream – also featured the legendary Wayne Newton, beloved zookeeper Jack Hannah, the Chieftains and Charmian Carr, who played Liesel von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
In 2011, Pink Martini also collaborated with legendary Japanese singer Saori Yuki for the album 1969. The album was certified platinum in Japan and reached #2 on the charts there as well. Their unique method of diplomacy shining through once again, the album also became the first time a Japanese artist reached the American Billboard charts since Kyu Sakamoto released Sukiyaki in 1963.
The most recent pairing is with the singer Meow Meow for the album Hotel Amour, which features other collaborators of the band like Rufus Wainwright and Barry Humphries. Pink Martini and Meow Meow are playing a number of shows together as well, including the upcoming date at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts.
The Australian actress, singer and cabaret performer has been a worldwide hit, with David Bowie even choosing her for a festival he cultivated himself – New York City’s High Line Festival in 2007. She was also named one of The New Yorker Magazine’s Performers of the Year and is currently touring the globe, including Ireland, Germany, France and Australia.
“It all came together last year, and we finally released it,” he says. “She’s incredible to watch.”
The chemistry always seems to be just right with Pink Martini’s collaborators, and their shows seem to thrive off unexpected sit-ins and guest appearances. The band’s unique approach is driven by the notion the songs could – and should be – expanded upon as far as possible.
Lauderdale says one of the most exciting runs they’ve done lately were dates at the Hollywood Bowl. For these shows. Pink Martini hosted an extravagantly beautiful production with a slew of personalities and guest musicians.
“Somebody said it was like the Lawrence Welk Show on acid,” he jokes.
In addition to the regular members of the Pink Martini, the show featured Ari Shapiro of NPR’s All Things Considered, the von Trapps, Edna Vazquez and 14 former Miss Americas – including 1955’s winner Lee Meriwether.
Lauderdale set out to make the ever-progressive city of Portland come together as its musical ambassador, but Pink Martini seems to always be destined for something much bigger that any one member. More than just determined to bring our historically polarized country together, from the beginning these unlikely sonic diplomats have answered the call to be ambassadors to the rest of the world as well – showing us through the universal language of music that we really are more alike than we are different.
“It will be endlessly entertaining,” Lauderdale promises Lake Placid with a laugh. “You may end up in a conga line by the end of it.”
Pink Martini with special guest Meow Meow will be performing at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts on September 27 at 8 p. Tickets start at $40 and can be purchased from lakeplacidarts.org.