Thomas Lauderdale didn't intend for it to happen this way. He didn't think he would end up playing the Cannes Film Festival party circuit (in castles, no less) or travel the world with an internationally praised band or perform with 25 different orchestras around the United States.
Pink Martini started out "as a lark."? Today the 12-member "little orchestra" has become a media darling for its eclectic blend of musical styles and linguistic bravado.
Really. Lauderdale didn't suspect that this was how it would turn out.
Formed in Portland, Ore., in 1994, Pink Martini was created as a pet project for Lauderdale's day job. At the time, he was working in politics in Oregon, but wanted to incorporate his background in music.
"I wanted to create a Breakfast at Tiffany's type band to play events" for affordable housing and the environment, Lauderdale says. "The goal was to create the kind of music that I would like to listen to."
His "goal" attracted a following, and as the number of fans grew, so did the band, mushrooming to a dozen. Lauderdale convinced his friend and former Harvard classmate, China Forbes, to move to Portland from New York, where she was acting and singing. The band played benefits and "themed-parties" and, soon after, out popped its debut album, Sympathique, which sold more than 750,000 copies worldwide, a stunning amount for an album released independently.
"It was kind of an overwhelming response,"Lauderdale says.
Fourteen years and three albums later, Pink Martini - named because it sounded "festive and fun" - is tap dancing at the top of its game. At the moment the band is mid-tour in support its latest album, Hey Eugene.
Listen to the breezy opener of Hey Eugene and you'll hear remnants of Judy Garland backdropped by Andrew Lloyd Webber. "Tempo Perdido" brings to mind the percussion and horns of Buena Vista Social Club. The album's title song sounds like a tongue-in-cheek indie rock salvo.
Pink Martini, like the United States, is a multicultural experiment, Lauderdale says.
"A lot of the songs come from members of the band and their different backgrounds, which has led to a rollicking adventure in music," he adds.
Playing such different styles, he goes on, is like listening to "a mixed tape of my favorite things."
Indeed, to listen to Pink Martini's discography is to journey through languages, film noir, old-fangled Hollywood musicals, Wordsworth poems and sweltering Latin American speakeasies.
"I think our music is really accessible," Lauderdale says. "The diversity of sound is constant. There's a beauty to it. It has wide appeal, from kids to grandmothers. It's old-fashioned and romantic but modern in the sense that [the albums] are full of songs from different parts of the world."
Asked how exactly Forbes manages to deliver pitch-perfect renditions in so ***image2***many different languages, Lauderdale explains that Forbes has a knack for languages. (She's nearly fluent in French and Italian.) To capture the right inflections on the Arabic ballad, "Bukra wba'do," Forbes sought the help of a scholar at Portland State University.
Each song is the product of collaboration, Lauderdale says. Different band members write the lyrics, compose the score and chip in. Bass player Phil Baker wrote "Conte E Dance"in Portuguese. Martin Zarzar, the band's Peruvian percussionist, is responsible for "Mar Desconcido."The Arabic ditty comes from a 1957 Egyptian film.
One of the most exciting bouts of composition happened while arranging the song "Una Notte a Napoli," from the band's second album, Hang on Little Tomato. Lauderdale wanted to collaborate with the famed Italian television star Alba Clemente. To lure her to Portland, the band flew out a planeload of drag queens to her. They spent their days songwriting and their nights partying.
Now that Pink Martini has a foothold on success, Lauderdale confesses that he still has the occasional yearning to return to his roots. He'd very much like to play progressive political fundraisers again, especially for Barack Obama.
"The success and candidacy of Barack Obama is similar to the success of the band," Lauderdale says. "Both represent a larger America, the part of America that has been invisible to the rest of the world for a long time."
Cheers. Let's raise a glass to that.