In the pink with world music band

There is one and only one Pink Martini.

Under the direction of Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini has released 11 albums, including a holiday recording and one compilation disc, over the course of almost 25 years. Based in Portland, Oregon, the intoxicating Pink Martini has been entertaining lovers of world music around the globe, offering a mélange of styles, and will be on an international tour for most of 2018. 

WAG spoke with founding member Lauderdale about the band and its trademark sound in anticipation of its Tarrytown Music Hall gig:

Next year, 2019, is the 25th anniversary of Pink Martini. Are there big plans to commemorate the occasion?

“Not yet. This year, we are concentrating on the 20th anniversary of the release of our first album ‘Sympathique.’ We’re doing a remastered release version of that as well as an album with some of that same material with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. We’re also going to include different versions (of songs). For example, a version in Russian, possibly a version in Greek and maybe Romanian.”

There was a seven-year period between the release of 1997’s “Sympathique,” and its 2004 follow-up, “Hang on Little Tomato.” What was happening during those intervening years?

“I was having a nervous breakdown from the pressure of trying to figure out what to do with the second album. When we put out the first album, no one was expecting anything. I was just making an album of music that I loved. Up until that point, we had never really played outside of the city limits of Portland. We weren’t a traveling band or anything like that. We were mostly playing political fundraisers and parties in Portland, Oregon. 

“China Forbes, our singer, was in an independent film that was playing at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. I begged to go as her accompanist. I flew myself over. We ended up going to a couple of parties at the film festival. I thought to myself, the band would do really well (in France) because our music is global. The next year, we brought the entire band over to play at the Cannes Film Festival. Out of that developed a partnership with a record company and launched an accidental career in Europe. We went from Portland, Oregon, to France and then, after that, we started touring in the United States.”

You mentioned China Forbes, which made me wonder: Of the members of the core group in Pink Martini, how many have been there since the beginning?

“I’m the only one left from the very first performance. China joined in 1995, so did Gavin (Bondy) our trumpet player, and Robert (Taylor), our trombonist, Brian Davis, our percussionist, and Dan Faehnle, our guitarist. Most of the people in the band have been members for more than 20 years.”

What is involved in the process of selecting guest performers, including Rufus Wainwright, Ari Shapiro, Wayne Newton, as well as the late Phyllis Diller and Chavela Vargas, for Pink Martini albums?

“It’s sort of like whoever we meet along the way. Rufus I’ve known since 1995 when he first came to Portland during his first concert tour. I’ve known him for years prior to ever recording anything with him. In the case of Phyllis Diller, we happened to be playing in Los Angeles one New Year’s Eve. My friend Kim Hastreiter, who was the editor-in-chief and founder of Paper magazine in New York, knew Phyllis. 

“We went over to Phyllis Diller’s house in Brentwood. She made us chili. In the last decade of her life, she really became a painter. There were hundreds of paintings on the walls of her home. Each painting had a price tag. You would take them off the wall, be tallied up, write a check and off you went. I bought a whole suitcase full of Phyllis Diller paintings. We had several albums that she had made in the ’60s and early ’70s that we wanted her to sign. She was a pianist as well. 

“When I went to her house that night, it wasn’t on my mind to ask her to record a song. At the end of the night it occurred to me to do so, not thinking she would say yes. She did say yes — at age 94. The following month, we flew down to Brentwood, set up an impromptu recording studio in her living room and she recorded ‘Smile.’ That made a lot of sense on a lot of different levels. She was a friend of Charlie Chaplin, who wrote the song. It’s a perfect song for Phyllis Diller to sing. I think it’s her best recording that she ever did.”

In addition to the wide variety of cover tunes that can be found on Pink Martini releases, there are always original compositions, such as “Joli Garçon,” “The Butterfly Song,” “Souvenir” and “Segundo” on 2016’s “Je dis oui!” album. What can you tell me about your collaborative songwriting process?

“Each song is different. The three French songs on ‘Je dis oui!’ were written for the actress Isabelle Huppert to sing in a (2016) film called ‘Souvenir,’ which tells the story of a forgotten singer who lost to ABBA during the Eurovision music competition during the mid-70s. She’s faded into such obscurity that she’s working in a pâté factory. One day a boxer comes to work at the factory, they have a mad, passionate affair and she’s inspired to make a comeback. ‘Joli Garçon’ is the comeback song for her. We were working on the songs independently and I realized these should be the basis for the foundation of the next album. 

“‘Segundo’ is a melody that we’ve been working with for years and years. At some point we’ll release a version with lyrics because I think there should be words to that, but we ran out of time. Each song has a different genesis. ‘The Butterfly Song’ was inspired a bit by Robert Schumann’s ‘Papillons’ solo piece for piano. It was a collaboration with Alex Marashian, my friend from college who helped produce the fourth album (“Splendor in the Grass”). Most of the Pink Martini songs that are the most beloved are the ones that China and I wrote together. We haven’t written one together in a long time. I think it’s probably time.”

Finally, when I told my editor at WAG magazine that I was interviewing you, she told me a story about how during the final encore at the Ridgefield Playhouse, members of the audience formed a conga line for the song “Brazil.”  Would you say that this is a common occurrence at a Pink Martini concert?

“Our audiences are completely diverse. Full of people who would normally not be sitting together. The goal from the beginning was to make music that would appeal to conservative people and liberal people and everybody in between, people of different ages and people from different parts of the world. The audience runs the gamut, which is unusual because there aren’t that many places, in America especially, where people who are not at all alike find themselves sitting next to each other. Our goal, at the end of the night is to have everybody, with all of their differences, up and at ’em in a gigantic conga line. People leave being surprised that they were part of a conga line with people with whom they would not ordinarily speak.”

Pink Martini performs May 23 at Tarrytown Music Hall. For more, visit tarrytownmusichall.org.

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