Arts & Theater

The ‘preposterous,’ ‘implausible’ making of Pink Martini

Pink Martin, with frontman and pianist Thomas Lauderdale seated at the piano.
Pink Martin, with frontman and pianist Thomas Lauderdale seated at the piano. Chris Hornbecker

As his group, Pink Martini, continues to tour behind its latest album, “Jes dis oui!,” frontman/pianist Thomas Lauderdale sounds downright astonished that he still gets to follow his musical inspirations and make a living in the process.

“We’ve been going for 22 years,” Lauderdale said, reflecting on his Pink Martini journey during a recent phone interview. “On paper it’s such a preposterous (idea), it seems so implausible for a band playing this kind of music and traveling the world for 22 years would actually be able to function. But here we are. We’re very lucky.”

The musical niche Lauderdale and Pink Martini have carved out includes vintage and contemporary pop, jazz, classical and a range of international styles. The songs are sung in a host of languages – with “Jes dis oui!” spanning French, Farsi, Armenian, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish, Xhosa and last, but not least, English.

The musical mix begins to make sense when one learns a little about Lauderdale’s background and upbringing.

“I’m the oldest of four adopted children. My parents were white, but they adopted a multicultural family,” he said. “My father went back and forth between being a minister and being a plant nurseryman. So I spent a lot of time both in the church and also growing up on a plant nursery in Indiana. After church services, I would go up to the piano and pound out the hymns that I had heard during the service. My parents sort of took it as a sign.

“So I started piano lessons when I was 6,” Lauderdale said. “And my parents aren’t really very musical. They listen to music. They had an original tape player. There were sort of six things that really were my childhood soundtrack. They were Ray Conniff, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, the New Christy Minstrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the soundtrack to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ That was my childhood. That coupled with the fact that I studied a couple of different languages and classical music and also loved sort of like show tunes, from like Rogers & Hammerstein, those are the influences. And what you get really is Pink Martini, from all of that.”

Lauderdale did not initially see music as a career option. After attending Harvard University, he moved to Portland, Ore., and had an eye on a future in politics.

“I was working at city hall when I was in high school and even throughout college and beyond college,” he said. “My goal was really to become mayor of Portland. That was my hope.”

As part of his preparations to perhaps run for office, Lauderdale started attending fundraisers for various political campaigns and progressive causes. One thing he noticed was that the musical groups hired for these events left a lot to be desired. He saw that as an opportunity to put his musical background to work.

So in 1994, Lauderdale formed Pink Martini, feeling a style built around a mix of retro pop, classical, jazz and world music would provide a more beautiful and inclusive soundtrack to political fundraisers than the music he was hearing at those events. Pink Martini’s music began to take, and Lauderdale’s political ambitions began to fade.

“Pretty soon it became kind of clear it was maybe much more fabulous to play music and get applause every night and make people happy, as opposed to working under fluorescent lighting and meeting angry constituents every day,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Lauderdale to start envisioning a future for Pink Martini that went beyond playing fundraisers.

A key step in Pink Martini’s development came a year into the group’s activities, when Lauderdale contacted a Harvard classmate, singer China Forbes, and asked her to join the group.

The two soon found they shared a songwriting chemistry, and in 1997, Pink Martini released its debut album, “Sympathique,” on the group’s own label, Heinz Records.

Eventually, the album caught on internationally, and in France the group was nominated for best new artist and “Sympathique,” was nominated for “Song of the Year” at 2000’s France’s Victoires de la Musique Awards.

The group released albums on a regular basis – “Hang On Little Tomato” in 2004, “Hey Eugene!” in 2007, “Splendor in the Grass” in 2009, the holiday album “Joy to the World” in 2010 – before branching into a pair of unique collaborative projects. In 2011, the group released “1969,” an album featuring Japanese singer Saori Yuki. Then in 2014, Pink Martini released “Dream a Little Dream,” a collaboration with Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August von Trapp, the great-grandchildren of Captain and Maria von Trapp, who were made famous by the musical “The Sound of Music.” Those two projects were sandwiched around the 2013 Pink Martini album, “Get Happy.”

Now, as the group, up to a dozen-plus musicians and singers in its lineup, plays shows behind “Je dis oui!”, Pink Martini has built a catalog that boasts several gold albums and total album sales of more than three million.

“Je dis oui!” (“I say yes” in French) figures to continue to build on the group’s accomplishments. It features a lively global pastiche of original songs (three of which come from the soundtrack to a soon-to-be-released film, “Souvenir,” featuring French actress Isabelle Huppert) and outside tunes ranging from Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” to “Kaj Kohla Khan” (“The Tough Guy with the Crooked Hat”), a song made famous by the popular Iranian singer/actress Googoosh.

The album features a host of vocalists, including Forbes, Storm Large, Rufus Wainwright, Ari Shapiro (of NPR’s “All Things Considered” fame), fashion designing icon Ikram Goldman and civil rights activist Kathleen Saadat. The musical range includes sprightly French pop (“Joli garcon”), the African flavored “Pata Pata” (a hit in the 1960s for South African star Miriam Makeba), classically tinged hybrids (the classical/Latin fusion of “Finnisma Di”) and the Middle Eastern flavored “Al Bint Al Shalabiya.”

Lauderdale considers “Je dis oui!” a particularly cheerful album that reflected the positive place he and the band have reached in life and their musical journey and how easily the material came together in the studio.

“I’m happier than I’ve been in years. I feel pretty comfortable in my life (right now),” Lauderdale said. “So that’s reflected in the music. It generally comes out in the music. Also, I mean, walking into the studio, just listening to the songs we were going to record and had the rights to record them and the band was pretty well prepped, so there wasn’t a lot of learning on the spot. It was just, it was more of a reflection of music we had been working on and developed.”

Lauderdale said fans can expect an eclectic and entertaining evening of music at Pink Martini’s shows.

“The shows these days are sort of like the greatest hits plus material from the new record,” he said. “There’s a lot going on always at these Pink Martini shows. It’s always moving, so hopefully nobody will leave feeling unsatisfied.”

A Holiday Show with Pink Martini featuring China Forbes

When: 8 pm., Dec. 9.

Where: Center for the Arts’ Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 255 South Auburn Street, Grass Valley

Tickets: $32-$87, www.thecenterforthearts.org

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