There was a time when pianist Thomas Lauderdale was considering running for mayor of his beloved city, Portland, Oregon. It was the early '90s, and he was just out of college and active in progressive politics. He was going to lots of fundraisers and tolerating the generally bad music that accompanies those affairs. Then he decided to do something about the music. He started a band called Pink Martini in 1994, in part to support his favorite political causes.
"The idea was to create music that sounded like the film Breakfast at Tiffany's, but to make it global, by singing songs from different cultures, in different languages," says Lauderdale. "There was never really a marketing plan. It just sort of unfolded."
He met multilingual singer China Forbes while both were at Harvard. He studied literature and history; she studied literature and painting. They had played a portentously campy mix of opera and Barbra Streisand while at school. Three years after graduation, she was pursuing a singer-songwriter career in New York when he called and asked her to join Pink Martini. She moved to Portland and became the band's main songwriter.
Their sound came together in a marriage of celluloid and world music, with the United States represented by the sugary, melancholy sound of the '70s epitomized by the Carpenters. For a while, wedding gigs paid the bills, and their self-organized concerts raised money for various causes.
"We supported environmental issues, clean rivers, PBS, libraries, civil rights, a lot of progressive causes," says Lauderdale.
Then their debut album, Sympathique, came out on the band's own label, and suddenly they had fans and gigs around the world. The title track, which they co-wrote, sold more than 100,000 copies in France and was nominated for "Song of the Year" at the French Victoires de la Musique Awards. It's since sold more than 1.3 million copies worldwide.
Their fourth studio album, Splendor in the Grass, came out in October 2009. With support from the Harvey Rosencrantz Orchestra, it surveys their influences, opening with a sultry cover of Alba Clemente and Massimo Audiello's "Ninna Nanna," an Italian song of love about waiting for the return of a sailor. Next up is a Latin-beat interlude, with Gavin Bondy's hot trumpet taking the solos, and a wordless choir lending a campy, Muzak feel. Next comes the title track, a pop song about a couple contemplating the future, with strings added for background texture. The rest of the collection continues the shift from language to language, mood to mood, always rich in melody and fine playing. There's even a cover of Sesame Street songster Joe Raposo's "Sing," a children's TV hit that the Carpenters took to radio audiences.
"In this world with a shorter attention span than audiences had 50 years ago, it's great because the music is constantly evolving and shifting," says Lauderdale. "It works because it's all pop, but it's not monotonous."
Performing with symphonies is not exactly new to Pink Martini — they played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as early as 2000 and the Boston Pops in 2005. But lately, the group has been collaborating with orchestras more. Last spring they began recording an album with the Oregon Symphony (Lauderdale is on the orchestra's board of trustees).
"I once thought the recordings would take a more classical approach," says Lauderdale. "At one point, we were working on an Afro-Cuban Peter and the Wolf, but that didn't work out. I think we'll go with a more pops sound."
The spring tour is a string of U.S. performances backed by symphony orchestras. They play Severance Hall this week with the Cleveland Orchestra as part of its Celebrity series. James Feddeck will conduct.
Lauderdale has not ruled out a return to politics, but while Pink Martini is touring the world, selling millions of CDs full of their sweet and hot worldwide mix of pop influences, now might not be the time.
"It's a lot of fun traveling around and being musical ambassadors and not having to work under flourescent lighting," he says. "I love my city, but right now the band is doing so well, it would be a shame to have to give that up."