The Pink Martini, China Forbes and Thomas Lauderdale story . . . if you're curious.
From the Guardian:
"We see ourselves as musical ambassadors," says China Forbes. "We're trying to portray a side of America that people don't see. Maybe a bit more intellectual and a little bit more broad, speaking in different languages and travelling the world ... George Bush's America might be isolated and not interested in the outside world, but there are vast numbers of Americans who are not like that."For those in danger of losing hope in America, here is a band who would seem to embody all those liberal ideals that have guided the work of campaigning songwriters from Woody Guthrie to Steve Earle. And yet Pink Martini are most certainly not protest singers, folk singers or progressive country-rockers. Quite the opposite. On one level, at least, they are a retro lounge band, specialising in tuneful, gently quirky easy listening and committed to "putting romance back into music".On stage, the glamorous Forbes is surrounded by men in suits playing grand piano, double-bass, brass and percussion. She starts with unashamedly romantic ballads and breathy, Latin-edged big-band numbers, then veers off to sing in Japanese, Croatian, French, Turkish or Portuguese. "It's certainly not world music," she says. "If pressed, I'd say we are old-fashioned pop in the Frank Sinatra sense, with orchestration. But then there's the whole Latin thing, and all the different languages."This may be easy listening but it's also very clever. In their non-confrontational, gently charming way, Pink Martini are promoting their view of an alternative America, either by displaying their delight in other languages and travel, through Thomas Lauderdale's explanation that "this song was written with some drag-queen friends", or (far more directly) by his regular onstage apologies for the re-election of George Bush. In the process, they have become unexpected celebrities, packing out the Festival Hall in London, playing in Beirut or Taiwan, and becoming cult heroes across Europe, where they have sold 600,000 albums. Not bad going for a band with no major American record label behind them, and who operate from Portland, Oregon.Their unlikely story started at Harvard. Forbes was studying visual arts with the aim of becoming a painter, and met up with Lauderdale, a history and literature student who played piano in the Boston clubs. They both came from multi-racial backgrounds. Forbes had "a black mum and a white French-Scottish dad", while Lauderdale was "adopted, and a mystery Asian - he might be half-Chinese or something, but doesn't want to know". The duo discovered they had a shared interest in opera. Lauderdale was a classically trained pianist, and at Harvard he would take out Puccini and Verdi arias from the library "and we went into the common room at night, where he would play the grand piano and I would sing in the dark. Nobody was listening but we had this cute bond that was our secret little thing."After college, the two parted. Forbes had taught herself to sing not just by practising opera but "by listening to Donna Summer, my first teacher, then Stevie Nicks and Joan Armatrading". She spent two years as an off-Broadway actress, then became a professional musician. "So I started writing songs and playing guitar in a Sheryl Crow style, and had a band and put out a solo album."Lauderdale settled in Portland and decided he either wanted to become a concert pianist or run for mayor, and began organising political fund-raisers. There was one big problem. He hated the music that was played at such events, and so decided to form his own band.Finding suitable personnel was more difficult, and he began ringing his old Harvard friend China Forbes, begging her to join. "He called me desperately, asking if I could come to Portland, and I didn't even know where it was. But he was very persuasive." For three years, Forbes commuted between New York and Portland "when he really needed me", and then she too moved to this city "hidden away from America", and committed herself full-time to the band "though I had never imagined Pink Martini as a style I would do".The band's unlikely sound evolved from a fusion of Forbes's work as a singer-songwriter and Lauderdale's musical obsessions. They write the lyrics and music between them. "I love writing melodies but he'll put in much more interesting chord structures, and tempers my autobiographical leanings, which is about relationships and heartbreak, and helps me to be more sweepingly romantic."As for the Latin influence, this came from Lauderdale's love of old films and Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. "The sexiness of Latin music really appealled to Thomas, and he wanted to apply his classical background to a melange of Latin and then jazz." Slowly, the band developed a cult following. In Portland, they played fundraisers, from cleaning the Oregon river to playing for various politicians, including Forbes's "distant cousin" John Kerry.Then they began to travel. Forbes had appeared in a film, "playing a straight part in a drag-queen musical", and a song from her earlier singer-songwriter career was used on the soundtrack. She was asked to sing it at a party at the Cannes film festival, but decided instead to take Lauderdale with her to play some Pink Martini songs. The following year, they took the full Martini band to Cannes "on our own dime, to see what happens" and ended up playing at celebrity parties and then saw their albums released across Europe. In France, the quirky chanson Sympathique (Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler) became a best- seller. "Everyone there knows it," says Forbes. "It's crazy. We recorded it like an old radio song and I was told I sound like Josephine Baker because the accent is different, better than most Americans, but not quite French." So why have they become so popular in Europe? "Maybe because we aren't a typical American band. They can claim us as their own, then they find we are American, and it's a nice surprise. And we're very anti-Bush, so maybe they like that ..."Back in the US, they have begun to expand. They started as a five-piece, now it's up to 10 or 12, depending on the string players: "Thomas always wants the music to be bigger." An experimental collaboration with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra led to more orchestral bookings, right across the US. Along with all of that, Forbes has now revived her solo career, as a sideline, and is recording a solo album.She has had a bizarre and brilliant career, but acts as if it wasn't really happening. At the Festival Hall earlier this month, she came off stage and walked out into the hall to chat to friends. "It's weird," she says. "I don't spend hours thinking how we come across. I just sort of do my part and be myself."· Pink Martini's single Lilly is out on April 25 on Wrasse Records.