By Cameron Rasmusson
Portland, Ore., band Pink Martini has carved out a unique space for itself in popular music. Blending multiple genres together, including Latin, classical, jazz and more, the band has been in the business of aural fusion for more than two decades. Band founder Thomas Lauderdale talked to us about Pink Martini’s unique journey, its unexpected beginnings and the process of writing music for a recent film.
SR: The Festival At Sandpoint is fast approaching, and you’re no stranger to that venue. What was your experience the first time you played there?
TL: It was a really, really wonderful experience. As I remember it, it was a packed-house outdoors (festival), and it was a wonderful summer night, and so we’re happy to come back. We don’t get to play Idaho that much — we’ve played a handful of times in Boise, and we’ve played in Sandpoint once before, so we don’t spend enough time in the state, although my father’s family is from Caldwell. So we’re happy to come back.
SR: Many people would agree it’s the best time of the year to be in Sandpoint. Now, you all have been playing for quite a long time —
TL: — This is our 23rd year. We started in 1994, and at the time, I thought I was going to go into politics, so I was working on various campaigns in the political world. There had been a very nasty attempt to amend the Oregon Constitution to declare homosexuality illegal, along with bestiality, pedophilia and necrophilia. So I was working in the campaign in opposition to this.
I had just seen PeeWee Herman’s Christmas Special, which packed in every guest star imaginable … (including) the Del Rubio triplets: three gals with three guitars, ages of 70 to 80, who wore little mini-skirts and played the guitar for covers of songs like “Walk Like An Egyptian” and “Whip It.” So I brought them to town to do a series of concerts in places like retirement homes, hospitals and rotary meetings, and at the end of their set they would say, “Please vote no on Measure 13.” At the end of the week, for a big community concert, I couldn’t get a hold of a certain band I wanted to open for the Del Rubios, so I threw on a cocktail dress and started Pink Martini.
SR: That might be the most fantastic band origin story I’ve ever heard.
TL: It was an entirely unlikely beginning. I never expected to be in a band, let alone running one, and so the whole thing turned out to be a shocker for me, especially since it’s lasted nearly a quarter of a century.
SR: You had a new album come out in November (“Je dis oui!”). Could you tell me about the process of making that? Does it fall into what you’d consider a well-established sound for the band, or is it new territory?
TL: The new album is our ninth album. The foundation, when we were conceiving it, is three French songs we wrote for a French film called “Souvenir,” which stars the legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert. The story of the film is about a singer who lost to ABBA in a Eurovision music competition in the mid-’70s and has faded into obscurity and is working in a meat pate factory. A boxer comes to work in the factory, he recognizes her, they have a mad, passionate affair and then she tries for a comeback.
So we wrote three songs for the film, where they’re sung by Huppert, but on our album they’re sung by China Forbes. The rest of the material kind of came out after that, and we did everything from a rewrite of a song from our first album, which is originally in Spanish, written collaboratively with a fantastic guy from Jordan but who lives in Abu Dhabi currently. He wrote Arabic lyrics for this song that was originally in Spanish, and that song was recorded by Ari Shapiro, the host of “All Things Considered.”
We also collaborated with people like my friend Kathleen Saadat, who is 75 years old and had never been in a recording studio before. I worked under her in city hall in 1991 on the civil rights ordinance for the city of Portland. But she loves to sing … so we worked with her on an incredible, epic version of “Love for Sale” by Cole Porter.
There’s a song called “Segundo,” which is an ongoing collaboration with our friend Johnny Dynell from New York City. And there are many other songs that came from here and there. The idea is really an album that people would want to look into again and again and again under any number of different circumstances, whether that be holding a dinner party or vacuuming around the house or falling in love or going through a divorce.
SR: That’s an interesting point about the first few songs of the album being made for a film. What is it like writing music for another creative project?
It was great. For me, I can come up with melodies right and left any time. Lyrics are harder. With this particular film, the filmmakers had a definite vision for what they wanted the text to be. It was wonderful and fun to collaborate with them, because they were really in charge of the part that I don’t feel I’m good at. We mapped out the songs in a couple days, really.
SR: One striking thing about Pink Martini is that you have so many collaborators. Can it be a bit like herding cats trying to organize all that?
TL: (Laughs) You know, I personally love — well, there are days I don’t love it — but it’s the idea of a circus, with all sorts of moving parts and pieces, and somehow, most of the time things sort of work out. … I like the sort of chaos of not knowing what’s going to happen, and having faith and trust that it’s all going to work out, and most of the time, it does.
SR: Anything that lasts for multiple decades has fairly strong foundations, it seems to me.
TL: I think the thing that keeps it going is the fact that the musicians are really great. … If the music wasn’t good, it probably wouldn’t last. I think having great musicians who are well-versed in (many genres) keeps it all from becoming terrible.
SR: That variety in genre influences also seems to help you carve out your own unique space, especially in this year’s Festival lineup. It’s always a refreshing experience to see you play live.
TL: That’s cool. For us, we’re all about anything that gets people out of their homes and into the streets. It’s important to us that we do a great show so people will come back year after year. … So I think keeping the concerts fun and upbeat and constantly shifting (is important). … That’s the life of any performing group that wants to stay relevant and uplifting.
SR: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us. Is there anything else you’d like to mention that we haven’t covered?
TL: We all feel very fortunate in the band to be able to make a living playing music. It’s a complicated time in the world, and I think our goal of getting people who are very different from each other in the same space doing conga lines — I think that’s a really important part of our work right now.
The Festival at Sandpoint opens with An Evening with Pink Martini on Thursday, Aug. 3. For ticket information, call 265-4554.