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 23 years,” Lauderdale says, reflecting on his Pink Martini journey, which brings it to the Chandler Center for the Arts on Friday, January 18. “On paper it’s preposterous. It seems so implausible for a band playing this kind of music and traveling the world for 23 years would actually be able to function. But here we are. We’re very lucky.”
The musical niche Lauderdale and Pink Martini have carved is indeed unlike any other in pop music. The group’s music traverses a spectrum that takes in 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 says. “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, and my parents aren’t really very musical. They listen to music. They had an original tape player. There were 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, Oregon, 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 says. “My goal was really to become mayor of Portland. That was my hope.”
As part of his preparations to run for office, Lauderdale attended 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 says.
It didn’t take long for Lauderdale to start envisioning a future for Pink Martini that went beyond playing fundraisers.
A 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 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.
As Pink Martini moved forward, the group regularly released albums 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.
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 album sales of more than 3 million.
Je dis oui! (“I say yes” in French) continues to build on the group’s accomplishments. It features a lively global pastiche of original songs 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-spiced “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 says. “So that’s reflected in the music.”
Pink Martini, Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N. Arizona Avenue, Chandler, 480.782.2680, chandlercenter.org, 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 18, $46-$76.