By Jasen T. Davis
“Pink Martini is a rollicking, around-the-world musical adventure,” says founder, bandleader and pianist for the band, Thomas Lauderdale. “If the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully we’d be that band.” Lauderdale, born and raised in Portland, Oregon, was studying local politics while pondering a run for governor when he dreamed up the idea for Pink Martini in 1994 after attending one too many fundraisers where the musical entertainment for the evening was often uninspired.
Featuring nearly a dozen musicians playing a multitude of instruments including a harp, guitar, upright bass, drums, piano, trumpet and cello to name just a fraction, Pink Martini is a small orchestra which performs music that is elegant yet accessible, educated yet enjoyable. Blending jazz, classical music, American pop, some cabaret and a little bluegrass this band creates a sound that is ritzy, glamorous and international.
“All of us in Pink Martini have studied different languages as well as different styles of music from different parts of the world,” says Lauderdale. “So inevitably, our repertoire is wildly diverse. At one moment, you feel like you’re in the middle of a samba parade in Rio de Janeiro, and in the next moment, you’re in a French music hall of the 1930s or a palazzo in Napoli. It’s a bit like an urban musical travelogue.”
Only a year after Pink Martini formed the group met with near-overnight, international success with their first song, “Sympathique,” where it was nominated for “Song of the Year” at France’s Victoires de la Musique Awards. Since then it has sold millions of albums worldwide on its own label, Heinz Records, and have played at amazing venues across the world including the Cannes Film Festival, the Hollywood Bowl, the Royal Albert Hall in London, New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall, the L’Olympia Theatre in Paris and at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Pink Martini has released more than a half-dozen independent and collaborative albums including 2004’s Hang On Little Tomato, 2007’s Hey Eugene! and Splendor in the Grass in 2009. Each of its albums has gone gold worldwide and in 2011 it released 1969, an album featuring Japanese singer Saori Yuki, that has since gone platinum. It has also appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and their music can be heard in films such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and television shows including The Sopranos, Castle and Sherlock.
A Welcomed Storm
In 2010 when the original lead singer for the band, China Forbes, underwent vocal cord surgery, Lauderdale asked Storm Large, a formidable and influential producer, musician and singer in her own right, to join the band as a lead singer. Since then, Forbes has recovered completely, and the two singers have continued to perform together onstage with Pink Martini.
Large lives in Portland, Oregon, and is a veteran of such bands as Flower SF, Storm and Her Dirty Mouth, Storm, Inc. and Storm and The Balls. Compared to her previous gigs, what does she like the most about playing with Pink Martini?
“We are all capable soloists in our own right,” Large says. “Everyone is a star player and gets their moments to shine. I’m like a glorified back-up singer, so a lot of the normal lead singer pressure is off of me.”
While her own eclectic background is of no small magnitude, working with Pink Martini has shown Large many other vistas. “I’ve learned so much from hanging out with them,” she says. “Just the suggestions alone have taught me so much about music. I’m an old punk rocker who grew up listening to bands like Public Enemy and Metallica. Punk rock music is anti-establishment, and what I love about Pink Martini is how they have always remained independent,” Large says.
Growing up with a last name like hers was a challenge, but the bitter experiences made Large see life as being a lot sweeter, later on. “It’s a great stage name now, but if I were to pick another name it would be more feminine,” she says. A tall girl with a blue-collar background and an artistic nature, Large stood out from her wealthier, more popular classmates. “I was an unhappy, angry teenager going to school with the richest, most beautiful people in the country, and they didn’t treat me well.”
Time has moved on and now Large is a professional who is thriving and influencing in a music industry that has only grown more vicious with time and the internet. Now she is proud of her unpopularity in high school. “If life is tough growing up, you will be able to handle the real world later on,” she says.
With so much Pink Martini to listen to, a listener will soon notice two predominating themes its music is heir to: Joyful multiculturalism and sincere empathy. “Thomas says it best, Pink Martini is global pop. Beautiful melodies hand selected around the world, celebrated by a miniature orchestra,” Large says. When the band hits any city, Lauderdale will venture to a record store, searching for vintage gold, usually older artists and rare composers. “It has to be a beautiful melody, first and foremost. It has to be a tortured love song, full of longing.”
While Pink Martini is certainly very different than anything Large has ever done, given her history in punk rock and her predilection for music that isn’t mainstream, the experience has been a labor she enjoys. “I love touring with Pink. It’s like being a part of a big traveling circus. Performing with the band has been really good for my singing voice. It’s not as aggressive or intense as I normally get, because I play a different character onstage with them,” Large says. “It is very challenging in its own way, especially since its classical music.”
As much as she travels extensively Large still loves Portland’s own home-grown music industry, as well as its army of local artistic talent. “The creative vibe there is constantly changing. Because Portland is such an affordable place to live, you can have a part-time job, live well and still have a budget left over for your art. That really fuels creativity,” she says.
Get Happy is Pink Martini’s sixth studio album, an Earth-exploring array of all the band has to offer including collaborations with artists such as Rufus Wainright, the von Trapps, Phillipe Katerine, Portland’s own Meow Meow, the incomparable Ari Shapiro and even a special performance by comedy and entertainment superstar, Phyllis Diller, who sings along with the band for the song “Smile.”
According to Large, this album will pack a different recipe than Pink Martini’s previous punches. “What’s different about this album is that it is a lot darker. It has a lot of depth. It is also not as sparkly, compared to what we’ve done before,” Large says. “We have a lot more collaborators on this record, nearly nine different singers. Lauderdale really likes to have a lot of people on the stage.”
On the cover of Get Happy is a small boy looking up into the air, dapperly dressed, surrounded by big, bright, happy looking balloons. Rather than being just a simplistic piece of visually uplifting photography, the cover is actually a reference to a popular childhood French story. Large explains.
“Basically, a sad little boy meets a red balloon. The balloon makes him happy, but some bullies chase the boy down and pop the balloon. Just when the boy is sad that the balloon is gone, thousands of red balloons suddenly fill the air above the city and come down to scare the bullies into leaving and carry the little boy away.” Large says. “So the photo is supposed to make you happy, even though the songs on the album are, to be honest, all kind of sad.”
Even the title of Pink Martini’s latest creation, Get Happy, says something deeper. Large tells the tale. “Lauderdale wanted to put out an album that was really joyful, because he was tired of all of the negativity in the media,” she says. With wall-to-gutter coverage of political scandal, economic depression and senseless violence, the band wanted to offer something uplifting, for a difference. “A lot of the songs we were drawn to were still dark, moody and intense, but the album still ended up being called ‘Get Happy,’ so you could say the title is an imperative.”
As with most of Pink Martini’s potent mixtures, each of the songs on this album resonate with a tone that is meant to conjure up a past existence that, for our forefathers, was no less challenging that what we all face today. “The songs date way back,” Large says. “Some are from the 1800s, others are from the 1960s. We picked each of these songs because they are snapshots of dark, desperate times. What we want to say to the audience is, hopefully, we will get through these hard times and have an easier time understanding why it all happened to us, later. Get Happy is a call to action. At least, that’s how I saw it,” Large says.
Pink Balls of Steel
Pink Martini first formed for the purposes of entertaining wealthy donors to causes, political or otherwise, that are intended to help people and the communities they live in. Decades later, with millions of dollars to show for their talents, the band still believes in making lives better whether it’s performing for Occupy Wall Street or to help raise funds for bipartisan, charitable causes. “We always try to show our support for good causes,” Large says.
While a lot of other musicians might be afraid to state their opinions, lest their record sales suffer, but Large and Pink Martini have never let that bother them. “There are some fans that have this attitude that an artist should just shut up and sing. But I feel that just because we draw more attention as artists doesn’t mean we are any less important,” Large says. “An artist might draw some fire, but we have a responsibility to get involved. There are too many people who like to go online anonymously and give their opinion, but it takes balls to put your name, reputation and career out there and make a stand.”
Pink Martini with Storm Large at McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Dr.,
Palm Desert, (760) 340-ARTS; www.mccallumtheatre.com; www.pinkmartini.com. Fri, Jan. 31-Sat, Feb. 1. 8pm. $35-$75.