Pink Martini is the little orchestra love child of pianist/composer Thomas Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes. Their distinctive, hyper-glamorous, neo-retro world music has made them best-selling international recording artists and a tremendously successful touring act. They played the grand opening of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles with the L.A. Philharmonic in 2002, and then returned to sell out two consecutive New Year’s Eve concerts in the same venue. UCSB Arts & Lectures brought them to Campbell Hall in 2006, and this year they are back by popular demand for another go-round at the venerable-and much larger-Arlington Theatre. I spoke with Lauderdale recently about his intentions, his influences, and his grand sense of style.
You are very independent with the way you record, produce, and distribute your music. What has made you so determined to do everything yourself? I always felt the songs deserved the best treatment they can get, and I just never met a record executive who I thought would take better care of them than I would.
How would you describe the genre of Pink Martini? Is it world music? It’s a global perspective-like the United Nations. It’s also a little bit like Adams House [a Harvard University residence hall] hits the road. Ultimately, it all comes from there, because that’s where I met China and that’s where this all got started.
Did you know you would have a career as a musician? No. Originally I thought I would go into politics. Either that or open a nightclub in Prague-one or the other. But then this came along, and it hasn’t stopped being interesting yet.
You bring together many different kinds of music and your songs are sung in multiple languages. Is there a series of aesthetics, or is it all one? It’s a single aesthetic, even though it manifests in multiple ways. I aim for beauty, and I enjoy ethnic American things, mostly from before 1964. Both China and I are from mixed backgrounds, and that’s important. For a while in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a shared goal among newcomers in this country of creating something beautiful, and it’s easy to see it in something like a great musical-for instance, The Sound of Music-or in the movie All About Eve, or even in a copy of Life magazine from 1958 or before. : When it all comes together, like in the things I love and, I hope, in the things I do, what gets articulated is this simultaneity of beauty and terrible sadness. When we get it right, our music can satisfy everyone from the most hard-edged punk to the stodgiest older person.
There are so many layers and levels of meaning in your work. Is it intentional? Yes. I like to do intros sometimes from the stage, to give a little backstory to the songs, and to show how they came to light. The references in some of my compositions can come pretty fast. I can switch from referencing something like 9 to 5 with Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton to Chopin’s first nocturne in just a couple of bars.
How do you find new things to try? For me, creating new material is an everyday adventure. I love record stores, and just enjoy research generally. The Internet is so great for that. I just found a composer, Ludovic Lamothe, who is from Haiti, and he was known as a “Black Chopin,” and he’s really good. How great is that? A black Chopin!
The duet on the new CD between China and Jimmy Scott, “Tea for Two,” is wonderful. How did that come about? I love Jimmy Scott. He’s my favorite singer. I had wanted to work with him forever, and everybody I talked to said “no way.” So I finally just looked him up, and there he was, in the phonebook. I invited him out to play with us and the Oregon Symphony and we just kept him on for a few more hours in the studio. He has so many beautiful recordings-his Ray Charles collaboration is great.
How many of you will be coming to Santa Barbara? Are you going anywhere else exciting? There will be 14 of us onstage at the Arlington. We travel in two buses, and we love touring California, for the weather of course, but also for the fans. Then we go to Europe. I’m especially excited about Serbia. The Japanese ambassador to Serbia used to be the consul here in Portland, and he set up this show for us. I’m thrilled.
Pink Martini will be at the Arlington Theatre on Thursday, September 20, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and more information.