Pink Martini bandleader Thomas Lauderdale originally thought he’d enter politics and run for mayor of his hometown, Portland, Oregon. But as he started going to fundraisers, he realized that the music most politicians played at their events was crap. He figured he could come up with something better, and he put together a self-described “little orchestra” he dubbed Pink Martini. Twenty years on, the group is an international sensation that plays a unique mix of lounge music, jazz and classical. Because his parents were from what he describes as “the earnest side of the ’60s,” his influences are quite varied.
“I grew up listening to six things: Ray Conniff, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, New Christy Minstrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar,” he says via phone from his Portland home. “That was my childhood. My father was a minister at some point. I heard gloom and doom hymns and I studied classical.”
He also grew up in a family that was ethnically diverse even though his parents were both white.
“My mother is from Greenville, Ohio and my father is from Los Angeles, but they adopted a rainbow tribe of children,” he says. “I have an Iranian brother and an African-American brother. There was this idea of multi-culturalism that existed in my family. I used to speak different languages while growing up. I was exposed to foreign films, from [Italian director Federico] Fellini to [Spanish auteur] Pedro Almodovar. It made sense to do songs in different languages.”
Lauderdale recruited China Forbes, a former classmate, and the two collaborated on the band’s bouncy first single, “Sympathique” which Forbes sings in French. Sounding like something from the ’20s, the song became a hit, and the band has never looked back. The immediate success certainly took Lauderdale by surprise. “The band was formed to play at political fundraisers in Portland,” he says. “It never occurred to me that we could travel and tour. It seemed like an unlikely, preposterous concept given the number of musicians and the type of music we play. It’s not the direction of most pop music. It didn’t seem very viable. It was somewhere between The Muppet Show and Lawrence Welk. [With Sympathique] I made the kind of album I wanted to listen to myself. We released it, and it just took off. Somehow, it caught on.”
He says taking the newly formed band to Cannes Film Festival was key. He signed a deal with a French label, and the music quickly took hold with French audiences. It then spread across Europe and back to the States.
“I never imagined we’d have a career,” says Lauderdale. “I thought I would become mayor. Now I realize the folly of those ways. It wouldn’t much fun to be mayor. It’s much more fabulous to be traveling the world and getting applause rather than facing angry constituents.”
Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, the band continually recorded and toured, collaborating with a wide range of artists that ranged from jazz/pop singers such as Jimmy Scott and Rufus Wainwright to filmmaker Gus Van Sant and the original cast of Sesame Street. Along the way, Pink Martini performed with numerous world-class orchestras, including the one here in Cleveland.
“Cleveland Orchestra is the best orchestra we played with,” Lauderdale says. “Oregon Symphony is pretty good and maybe as good as Cleveland, but Cleveland does have the best orchestra in the country. It’s a whole different thing.”
Then, last year, Lauderdale met Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August von Trapp, the actual great-grandchildren of The Sound of Music’s Captain and Maria von Trapp, at a Christmas tree lighting in Portland. After one performance together, the latest Pink Martini collaboration was born. The von Trapps sing on the band’s new album Dream a Little Dream.
“I loved them and flipped out,” Lauderdale says of his initial meeting with the von Trapps. “They were homeschooled in Montana and never watched TV growing up. They were taught Austrian folk songs by their grandfather, who’s portrayed as Kurt the Incorrigible in the film. Because they didn’t watch TV while growing up, they have this incredible amount of focus and incredible ability to concentrate and learn. Working with them on this album, it unfolded so beautifully. It was a fun album to work on. It’s their first real album. They’re crossing over from being The Sound of Music kids to being something else that is deeper and more meaningful and more viable.”
In a separate interview, Sofia von Trapp agreed that she and her siblings immediately clicked with Lauderdale.
“Thomas just makes everything so much fun,” she says. “When we first met him, our material was very The Sound of Music heavy and we were looking for new material. We later listened to all of Thomas’ material and really fell in love with it. It felt so organic and fun to work with them. The group has an international audience and that’s something we have tried to have too. For the past 14 years, we have toured all around the world trying to learn the ‘Edelweiss’-es of each country. We were drawn to the Pink Martini style of playing because it has that element. And the music is so light-hearted and fun. The collaboration is a dream come true.”
One of the new album’s standout tracks, “The Lonely Goatherd,” features an unlikely combination. While the von Trapps provide some soothing backing vocals, raspy-voiced Wayne Newton contributes a colorful narrative about a lonely little girl stuck in the goatherd. And then Columbus Zoo’s Jack Hanna contributes to the song as well.
“He’s a friend of the von Trapps,” Lauderdale says when asked about how Newton came to participate in the song. “At the top of the whole recording thing, I asked them who they would most like to collaborate with. Wayne was a neighbor of theirs in Montana. I wish we had more goats in that song. At least we have Wayne and Jack.”
Lauderdale has performed with the von Trapps in the past, but this tour marks the first time the two have done any extensive touring together. Lauderdale says he’s not sure whether he’ll collaborate with them on the next album but he says he’d certainly like to.
“It’s up to them,” he says. “I’m sure we’ll do some stuff in the future. I’m sure they want to explore things that are beyond Pink Martini. They’re not owned by anybody. They don’t have a manger and it’s wide open. We’re releasing the album on Heinz Records and splitting the profits. It’s set up perfectly so they can do whatever.”
While Lauderdale abandoned his political plans long ago, his role with Pink Martini requires some leadership skills. But when he describes his role, it’s more along the lines of a leader by default, even though he’s the band’s founder.
“I’m the reluctant band leader, and I write songs occasionally,” he says. “I’m like the ringleader or almost like the cruise director. It’s become more like that recently now that we have two singers and I can make the show that I always wanted to make. It’s like a variety show meets Laugh-In.”
The Grog Shop Presents Pink Martini with singer China Forbes and the von Trapps / 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15 / Cleveland Museum of Art / 11150 East Blvd. / 216-321-5588 / Tickets: $39 / grogshop.gs