Pink Martini has local connections, and widespread appeal

Tomas Hornbecker

Thomas Lauderdale founded the band Pink Martini back in 1994, when he was looking for more inclusive music for a broad array of political fundraisers. Since then they’ve played with more than 50 orchestras around the world — including the Boston Pops and the Los Angeles Philharmonic — and at venues like Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House. They have a multilingual repertoire, with over 3 million albums sold worldwide. Pink Martini’s ninth studio album, “Je dis oui!,” features vocals from China Forbes, Storm Large, Ari Shapiro, fashion guru Ikram Goldman, civil rights activist Kathleen Saadat, and Rufus Wainwright. And It includes eight languages.

The Times caught up with vocalist China Forbes on the road.

How did you meet Thomas? And how many members make up Pink Martini today?

Thomas and I met in college, at Harvard, where he had journeyed from Portland, Ore., and I had come down the hill from North Cambridge. We met through our love of music. I sang and he played piano. When Thomas asked to accompany me, just for fun I chose to sing all of my favorite opera arias by Puccini, Verdi, Catalani. We would break into our dormitory common room at night to use the grand piano and I would sing at the top of my lungs without anybody else hearing us. It was a free and experimental, safe creative space and time. I would also do comedic impressions and sing a funny version of “The Way We Were” and the theme from “The Jeffersons.” We bonded, and years later after he started the band, he invited me to move from New York City to become the lead singer of Pink Martini. Since then, the band has grown to feature 12 core band members, with a variety of revolving guests and orchestral players. I now share the lead singer role with Storm Large.

 

Where did the name Pink Martini come from?

Thomas thought of the name on the spot when he threw the band together as a last-minute opening act for a fundraiser he was curating in 1994. No one truly knows how he thought of it.  My guess is that it was during the cocktail revival, and Thomas adored Audrey Hepburn and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Henry Mancini and the name just came to him in a flurry of activity. Pink Panther. Martinis. It fit the band.  

You say if United Nations had a band, that would be Pink Martini. Why?

Yes, Thomas often says that we could be that band. Pink Martini is multicultural celebration. We sing songs in up to 20 different languages. We perform songs in styles from Jazz to Classical, Pop to Folk, French Café to Japanese Film Noir, often with Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms. I can’t think of another band that could represent so many cultures and be the house band of the UN.

 

The inclusivity that Pink Martini represents and the world appeal the band has is probably more important than ever in 2017. Do you feel a responsibility as artists to address the times the U.S. is living through right now?

Yes, we have always felt like musical ambassadors over the years. Through several different presidencies, the band has strived to show the world a side of America not represented in the media. We like to show an inclusive, diverse, and eclectic America, which really better represents our country of immigrants. While we don’t necessarily want to preach at concerts and alienate our fans who have differing beliefs, we hope that by doing what we do and the way we do it, our love of inclusivity comes through.

What role can music play culturally and socially?

Music is magnetic, it’s glue, it’s mortar… It heals and unites people. Even people suffering from brain injuries who can’t speak can still sing. What does that mean? I think it means that music may be the most important socio-cultural medicine. I find it soothes my body, the humming vibration and the deep breathing. It is like yoga and meditation. It accesses parts of the brain that need accessing. If everyone sang in tune, how could we fight? And then the ideas and points of view in the music, in political songs, can be so much more powerful when sung together. “We Shall Overcome” comes to mind.  

Have you ever played or visited the Vineyard before? Any preconceived ideas?

Growing up I visited the Vineyard many times with my friend, Emily Hass, in Chilmark, and I have family in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs. My maternal great grandfather, Percy Steele, lived in Vineyard Haven until his death. Another dear friend, Belle Burden Davis, is now a Vineyard resident. I also grew up spending every summer on Naushon Island with my paternal extended family, so playing for the first time on the Vineyard is a huge thrill. I am trying to reconcile my usual Birkenstocks with the Pink Martini gowns and jewels I am bringing. It will feel odd, yet wonderful.

 

What was your favorite gig of all time and why?

While we have played the most incredible venues, from Sydney Opera House to Red Rocks, the Hollywood Bowl to Royal Albert Hall, I have to say that debuting at Carnegie Hall was unforgettable.  It is the dream of every musician and it was just a magical night.  I wore gowns by Carolina Herrera and had my hair done by Ric Pipino arranged by our mutual friend Kim Hastreiter of Paper Magazine.  The whole night was a Cinderella moment for me.  But truly, it is so hard to choose a favorite because we have had so many incredible concerts.

 

What’s your favorite album so far and why?

I adore the first album, “Sympathique” for its singular launch of our old-fashioned, multilingual style. The second album “Hang on Little Tomato” is another favorite, which features so many original songs. And of course I also love the third album for which my original song “Hey Eugene” is the title track. Our newest album “Je Dis Oui” is also incredible! I get to sing original songs in French as well as the fantastic Miriam Makeba hit “Pata Pata,” along with songs sung by Storm Large, Rufus Wainwright, Ari Shapiro, fashionista Ikram Goldman and Thomas’s political mentor Kathleen Saadat. As always, hard to pick favorites.

You’re very popular abroad. Which country, besides the U.S. of course, do you enjoy playing the most.

I love playing in France because I speak French, I have French ancestry, and I love any chance I get to work on my accent and conversational fluency. My dream is to one day spend a year in Paris or Lyon, and become completely fluent. My son is 8 years old and attends the French Immersion school in Portland, which means he has already surpassed me and his accent is flawless.I need to keep in step with him so we can one day live there. That is my dream!

Pink Martini performs at the Performing Arts Center on Thursday, July 13, at 8 pm. For ticket information, visit mvconcertseries.com.