Stirred, Shaken, and Sung
Pink Martini—musicians who don't "know enough to be scared"
At the end of Pink Martini’s Carnegie Hall debut this past June, a conga line broke out in the audience and bounced its way up and down one of the aisles. Even in the venerable hall’s tiered balconies, people were on their feet, clapping and dancing. “Our music is permission to escape into a romantic world,” says lead singer China Forbes ’92.
That music—much of it written either by Forbes or by bandleader Thomas Lauderdale ’92—represents a kind of reverse globalization. Rather than impose one style everywhere, it draws from nearly everywhere, ranging from Edith Piaf-style torch songs to Brazilian sambas to Gershwin standards; the lyrics are in Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Arabic, and Portuguese, as well as English. With strings, percussion, two horn players, and Forbes’s clear, luminous voice, the 12-piece pop orchestra has a lush, energetic sound, with the sweep of a Hollywood musical from the 1940s or ’50s (www.pinkmartini.com). It’s a mix different from almost anything else out there, and audiences are responding: Pink Martini’s first two albums sold more than a million copies combined, and its recently released third album, Hey Eugene!, entered Amazon’s bestseller list at number one.
The New York Times headlined its review of the Carnegie Hall concert “Grab a Cocktail and Listen to the Vintage-Chic Band.” Replace “Cocktail” with “Coffee,” and that headline—with its offbeat allure—could have been a handwritten sign from 1992 advertising a musical night at Café Mardi in the Adams House lower common room. The founder of Café Mardi, and of Pink Martini, has never had trouble attracting an audience. With his platinum-blond hair, bow tie (something he gave up after college), and cross-dressing, Thomas Lauderdale has always cut a flamboyant figure. (He threw the last, and perhaps most famous, party in the now-remodeled-out-of-existence Adams House pool: “In walks the senior tutor—lots of naked people in the pool, at 3 a.m., with the lights off,” he confesses with an impish grin.) When not in the pool, Lauderdale, a classically trained pianist, could often be found late at night accompanying Forbes on Puccini and Verdi arias. But he never envisioned that a band would grow out of their collaboration. “I was more concerned with throwing parties,” he says. “With being the cruise-ship director of Adams House.”
His cruise-ship-director talents—energy, organization, and a penchant for fun—have served him and Pink Martini well. Indeed, the band’s appeal is not unlike that of the cruise ship: just subtract the surfeit of dining options and the shuffleboard, and enable the ship to travel at high speed through time as well as space. Of writing lyrics in several languages and drawing on the musical styles of different eras, Lauderdale says, “It frees us from the fear of sentimentality. It’s like a kid playing the piano—he doesn’t know enough to be scared.”
Pink Martini’s success has surprised many, and that includes Lauderdale himself. “When the band first started, I was wearing cocktail dresses and we were playing ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’” he recalls. After graduation, Forbes moved to New York City to launch a career as a singer-songwriter, while Lauderdale returned to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, hoping to get involved in politics—he aspired to become mayor someday. While working on a campaign to keep homosexuality legal in the state, he booked bands for political fundraisers; one weekend, in desperate need of an opening band for a show, he called up his old friend Forbes. “I just fired the singer; we have these really big shows coming up this weekend, and I want to fly you to Portland,” Forbes remembers him saying. With the Pink Martini sheet music in hand—Lauderdale had FedEx-ed all the songs to her—she boarded the plane.
Forbes soon signed on full-time, but the band did not find its niche easily. For one thing, traveling with so many musicians is expensive. Without the backing of a major label (the band’s albums are on its own label, Heinz Records, named after Lauderdale’s dog), Forbes and Lauderdale had to think unconventionally. Unable to cut expenses, they increased revenue instead by performing where they were most popular: in Europe.
The band got its first big break in 1997, when the release of its version of Edith Piaf’s “Je ne veux pas travailler” (“I don’t want to work”) serendipitously coincided with French legislation that shortened the number of hours in that country’s workweek. The selection was nominated for “Song of the Year,” and the band for “Best New Artist” in France’s version of the Grammys, the Victoires de la Musique awards. (The song is still popular there, having run in a Citröen commercial.) With its multilingual lyrics and diverse influences, Pink Martini soon attracted a following across the continent.
The band’s success in Europe prompted American symphony orchestras to extend invitations. Since its debut with the Oregon Symphony in 1998 (Lauderdale has been friends with then-music director Norman Leyden since high school), Pink Martini has performed with the Boston Pops, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and other companies across the country. Although “It’s not really in young people’s repertoire to go see symphony orchestras,” Lauderdale says, the sophisticated fun of Pink Martini’s sets has drawn a mixed crowd of old and young, turning such collaborations into an appealing way for the orchestras to reach a new demographic.
After their Carnegie Hall performance and an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, Pink Martini continued its North American tour to promote Hey Eugene! with stops in Montreal, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many places in between. “There’s nothing better than a public library, a used-record store, and meeting strangers in dark alleys,” says Lauderdale of his life as bandleader. Although the stage doors of leading concert halls don’t always open onto dark alleys, Lauderdale has certainly become cruise-ship director once again.
Howard Axelrod ’95, a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, is writing a memoir.