It’s been a wild and wooly year for Pink Martini, the cocktail–cool, multi–lingual “retro” band from Portland, Oregon that’s playing one of the most hotly–anticipated Savannah Music Festival shows this year.
Vocalist China Forbes is just back from an extended leave (not only is she raising a 3-year-old, she had throat surgery), and, in her absence, pianist, bandleader and all–around head guy Thomas Lauderdale has kept Pink Martini busy.
How about this? “Just about a month ago,” he says, excitedly, “I went to Los Angeles and went to the living room of the 94–year–old Phyllis Diller, and recorded the song ‘Smile’ for our next album. She’s amazing. She’s 94!”
They toured the country with sexy cabaret singer Storm Large (“She would give Jayne Mansfield a run for her money,” said Lauderdale) at the microphone.
As if that and Phyllis Diller weren’t enough, the 13–member group has another new album out, 1969, featuring guest vocals from Saori Yuki, whom Lauderdale says is “The Barbra Streisand of Japan.”
All the singing on the album – from “Is That All There Is?” to “Puff, the Magic Dragon” – is in Japanese.
“That’s just sort of coincidentally happened at the same time that China was unable to use her voice,” Lauderdale explains.
The entirely-Japanese album is not at all out of character for Pink Martini, which has been making music as a polyphonic unit for 17 years. Although the band has recorded numerous blithe, airy pop tunes in English – check out “Splendor in the Grass” or the insanely catchy “Hey Eugene!” – a large percentage of their music features lyrics in another language.
“I’m surprised that more American bands don’t record and perform songs in different languages,” Lauderdale says. “It doesn’t make any sense to me why they wouldn’t. Connie Francis certainly did this in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but I guess it’s pretty uncommon these days.”
While she’s only fluent in English, Forbes sings in 15 different languages. Her voice, gushes Lauderdale, “has this ability to soar, as well as be neighborly at the same time. It’s not too high, which is great. It’s an almost seductive, come–hither, but not overly seductive voice.”
This is why he often refers to her as the Diva Next Door.
All of this goes hand in hand with the original vision Forbes and Lauderdale shared when they started making music together as students at Harvard University.
“The one rule is that it has to be a beautiful melody,” Lauderdale explains.
“That’s most of the battle. And hopefully every song that we’ve ever done or recorded has a beautiful melody, a melody that you can remember and hum to yourself as you’re doing the dishes.”
Lauderdale doesn’t see Pink Martini as a kitschy throwback to days gone by. He goes to great lengths to ensure that while the music evokes a certain time and attitude in America, it’s creatively arranged and well–executed. Not, ladies and gentlemen, cheesy nostalgia.
“It’s very pre–1964 in a way, when things were still beautiful,” he says, while emphasizing that, of course, it was still a rough time for America, what with Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam and the Cold War.
“The products of that particular time were built to last. You could fix them yourself, like an automobile or a Polaroid Land camera, these were great products. And the music and film, the visuals of that period, were all pretty beautiful.”
When he’s on an airplane somewhere, Lauderdale says, he has no problem explaining, to the person in the seat next to him, that Pink Martini plays “old–fashioned symphonic global pop. It’s a little orchestra of good cheer.
“It’s definitely old–fashioned. We’re going in a completely different direction that Britney Spears and Adele.”
It’s not just Americans who dig their crazy compound of jazz, swing, pop and classy bossa nova.
Pink Martini does concerts all over the world, and their albums have gone gold in Greece, Turkey, Canada and France.
As a matter of fact, they’ve sold more than one–and–a–half million CDs, most of them overseas.
“It’s the kind of music that really uber–conservative people can listen to, as well as crazy liberals,” enthuses Lauderdale. “And everybody in between.
“It’s multi–generational, multi–denominational music which is ambassadorial and almost like United Nations–esque.
“But again, like from pre–64.”
From the band’s earliest days, says Lauderdale, he was committed to writing music with a trans–global reach.
“I felt like English wasn’t enough. The original Greek lyrics to ‘Never on Sunday’ are actually much better, and sound much better, in Greek than the English lyrics. Which are sort of insidious, and dizzying, and not so significant.”
This is one of Lauderdale’s favorite subjects. “I’ve been always boggled, for example, by the lyrics to ‘Fernando’ by ABBA,” he continues.
“It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a song about the Spanish–American War, which is bizarre. But going back to the original Swedish, it’s this beautiful love story. I think there’s a certain kind of depth that one gets by going back to the original language, and by having the option of singing in the original languages.
“Part of it has to do with the fact that I just feel like the English language doesn’t sound beautiful enough, and that things almost always sound better in French and Italian.”
Besides that, he says, “It’s hard to write a song, especially in English, that doesn’t sound ridiculous.”
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 8 p.m. Thursday, March 29