For a guy who began his music career wearing a cocktail dress while trolling around on a scooter, Pink Martini founder Thomas M. Lauderdale sounds awfully earnest.
“It has campy beginnings, but when we recorded the first album we realized camp only goes so far,” says the musical director and pianist of the deliciously eclectic big band. “It’s not that funny in the end.”
Pink Martini sounds odd enough to elicit chuckles. Their repertoire ranges from American jazz standards to originals that sound like hits from half a century ago to ballads from Romania and Japan. But they’ve created serious success over nearly 20 years, selling more than 2.5 million copies of their six albums and building an audience that ranges from young hipsters to aging boomers.
They’ve played venues from the Kennedy Center and Royal Albert Hall to the Fillmore Miami Beach, where the 12-member Pink Martini kicks off a U.S. tour on Saturday, presented by the Rhythm Foundation.
The whole unlikely package is united around classic pop values of musicality and emotion.
“A gorgeous melody is the biggest requirement,” for a Pink Martini song, says Lauderdale. “The melodies are beautiful and memorable and people are starved for that, no matter what age one is. I think people are starved for things which are uplifting and hopeful. There’s not a lot of that in our culture.”
Lauderdale, 42, started Pink Martini in his hometown of Portland, Ore., in 1994, when the political progressive and aspiring public servant (he dreamed of being mayor) decided the political events he was attending needed better music.
A classically trained pianist (he still does occasional guest stints with orchestras), Lauderdale persuaded singer China Forbes, a close friend from Harvard, to join a group that quickly morphed from lark to real band.
The duo’s first song together, Sympathique, written in French, became a hit in France, and the chorus, “I don’t want to work,” remains a mantra for striking French workers and indolent cultural rebels everywhere.
(Forbes, who has been sidelined with voice problems and recently underwent vocal surgery, will be replaced in Miami by singer Storm Large.)
Their collaborators have included Mexican diva Chavela Vargas, Phyllis Diller and Rufus Wainwright. The group regularly tours internationally, and has played every continent but Antarctica. They sing in multiple languages, and Lauderdale constantly looks out for new material.
One of his latest finds is Maria Tanase, whom he calls “the Edith Piaf of Romania.” “We recorded the most gorgeous song for our next album,” he says. “You don’t have to understand Romanian to understand that there’s something humongous going on there.”
Lauderdale maintains his global perspective from an insular, self-defined base. He lives over the band’s recording studio in a 19th century building he owns in downtown Portland, drives an antique car and doesn’t own a TV.
“Television is just the worst,” he says. “If I make the mistake of turning one on in a hotel room, I’m really shocked. So I try not to pay attention.”
Instead, he keeps his vision and aesthetic fixed on the time before President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, which he calls a turning point in American culture. “It was the end of optimism,” he says, and the beginning of the seismic shifts of the ’60s and a consumerism and cynicism that he deplores.
With Pink Martini, he responds with a lovingly crafted musical nostalgia, evoking both the silliness (like the Italian novelty hit Tuca Tuca, a kind of Fellini-esque Macarena) and the romanticism and idealism of another time.
“A song like [samba-gone-Hollywood hit] Brasil is tragic and bittersweet and also uplifting,” he says. “Most of the songs we write with that in mind.”
Pink Martini is working on two recordings, one of them with four great-grandchildren of Gregg and Maria Von Trapp of Sound of Music fame.
“They’ve been home-schooled in Montana so they’re not wrecked — they’re real purity and light,” Lauderdale says.
The working title of the other album was Get Happy, but he says it isn’t turning out to be quite that optimistic.
“The songs don’t quite add up to ‘get happy,’ although I guess they would if you’re being ironic,” he says. “But we’re not trying to be. It’s really moody, and kind of slow and sexy. So it has to be called something different.”