Pink Martini: A Toast to the World’s Rich Musical Variety (Part 1 of 3)

Founded in 1994 by Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini has carved out a unique niche for itself in the world of music. The large and ever-expanding group combines many genres of music – from pop to classical to ethnic styles – and delivers it all in an exuberant, engaging and multilingual manner. A Pink Martini concert experience is a musical travelogue, taking the audience on a trip that celebrates the varied musical character that defines the human race. The band stays very busy, but in a brief moment between shows, band leader Lauderdale took time to chat with me about the group’s vision, its past and its future. (NOTE: A significantly shorter version of this feature appeared previously in Rock On Magazine.)

Bill Kopp/Musoscribe: If you had to describe Pink Martini in the form of a mission statement, what would you say?

Thomas Lauderdale: Well, I have said many times that I’d like to think that if the United Nations had a house band in 1962, we would’ve been that band. And I mean that in terms of aesthetics, and also in terms of the ethos of the band. So I guess that is sort of our mission statement. What we do is to bring people together through music by a band made up of people from multiple countries and backgrounds, both cultural and musical. Our music blends many genres and styles and even eras, and that comes through in both what you hear and what you see on stage.

Pink Martini plays shows both as a self-contained unit and accompanied by an orchestra. In terms of arrangement, how does preparation differ between those performances?

In terms of preparation, there’s a lot more that goes into it when we perform with an orchestra than when we do a regular Pink Martini show. At this point, we’re almost 29 years into the band; we have some original members and many others who have been with the band for many, many years. So we really do know what we’re doing on stage without a ton of prep for each individual show or tour, beyond soundcheck.

But when we perform with an orchestra, I have to get set lists in advance to the orchestra. They almost always have a librarian on staff to get the music ready for their musicians to practice. That’s actually very challenging for me, because I am usually really “in the moment,” thinking about each show based on what feels right and fun, how the last night went, and things like that.

When we are prepping for a tour, and I’m on a break in between, I’m wedging interviews (like this one) in between multiple shows and tour dates, trying to get things done for my own personal life or for boards that I’m on or other things. And then it’s back on the road. So the set lists get made before soundcheck. But when we perform with an orchestra, I have to think about the shows weeks before we’ve even left for tour.

That said, I really do love performing with orchestra. There’s something really special about that for both the audience and the band. Being backed by an orchestra really adds another dimension to our music.

Each singer and musician has their own unique qualities. To what degree do personnel changes affect the character of Pink Martini?

I think for the first part of that question, absolutely. Definitely each musician, and especially our singers. Our alternate lead singer Storm Large really came to the rescue of the band when China Forbes (our original lead singer) had to have emergency vocal surgery in 2011. Storm had to learn songs in seven languages in five days before a show! Storm definitely brought an additional element to Pink Martini. She mostly does her own solo shows and touring these days. We’re so grateful to have China fully recovered and back to touring with Pink Martini full time again, and of course audiences love that.

Our two guest singers, Jimmy Herrod and Edna Vazquez, have performed with us regularly since the end of 2017. Each brings a different style, a different intersectionality, a different musical sensibility and repertoire to the stage. So that’s pretty amazing.

In terms of the other musicians in the band, we have an amazing main brass section, and we have European brass musicians that play with us there; they bring a different energy than our wonderful, talented regular North American musicians. We have four percussionists who have backgrounds in Brazilian Samba, Afro Cuban rhythms, jazz and even rock and roll.

You can see and hear those elements on stage, but the goal is that everything really blends into one band and sound. And I think we do a really good job with that. At the end of the day, the character of Pink Martini is that mélange, that mixing of all the things. That is a core part of the character of our band and sound. So in that way, personnel changes don’t change anything; they just enhance what is the essence of Pink Martini.

The multilingual nature of Pink Martini show is a key to its appeal. Was singing in many languages part of the original concept, or is that something that developed later?

You know, I am glad that you also think that it’s key to the appeal. I feel that very strongly. It was not something I explicitly set out to do, but I also have never shied away from songs beyond the U.S., outside of what’s currently popular and is in other languages than English. In fact, I have always gravitated towards songs in other languages, songs from other cultures, songs that are almost completely unknown in the United States.

We were just in Paris for the end of our fall European tour, and by a wonderful kismet the amazing Iranian singer Googoosh was also wrapping up the first leg of her European tour. She was in Paris, and was able to grace us with her presence on stage for one song. It was really incredible! There are some great online videos of the show.

Of course, our biggest hit “Sympathique” is a song in French. I have always loved the romance and sexiness of French music. Even before I started the band, I took French in high school and college, and I loved Edith Piaf. So to the extent that we are a multilingual band – and I think we’re up to 26 languages at this point – that has certainly evolved over the last three decades. But it has always been part of the fabric and the DNA of Pink Martini, and of my musical aesthetic.

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