Pink Martini bandleader Thomas Lauderdale originally thought he’d enter politics and run for mayor of his hometown, Portland, Oregon.
As he started going to fundraisers, he realized that the music most politicians played at their events was so bad that he could easily come up with something better.
He then put together a self-described “little orchestra” he dubbed Pink Martini. Nearly 25 years on, the group has evolved into an international sensation that plays a unique mix of lounge music, jazz and classical.
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, which Lauderdale has praised as the best in the country.
On tour in support of its new album, Je dis oui!
, the band returns to town on March 8 to perform at the Masonic Auditorium
. Lauderdale recently spoke to us via phone from his Portland home and broke down the tracks on the album.
In the last couple of years, we wrote three songs for the French actress Isabelle Huppert to sing in a film called Souvenir
, the fictional tale about a woman who lost to Abba in the European singing competition and faded into obscurity and is working in the meat packing industry. One day, a young boxer comes to work there, and they fall in love and she goes for a comeback. We wrote three songs for her to sing, and this is her comeback song. On the record, China Forbes sings but Isabelle sings it in the film.
"The Butterfly Song"
I wrote this with Alex Marashian, who I went to college with. It’s a swing-y song and flitty song, just like a butterfly.
"Kaj Kolah Khan"
It’s sort of a pioneering feminist anthem from Tehran in the early ’70s by a singer named Googoosh. There’s a short window in time when the women in the country enjoyed incredible freedom, and the country was the most western in that part of the world. Googoosh, like many others, fled when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. She lives in Los Angeles now, and we’re hoping to work with her in the coming years. I don’t know how I originally heard it. I think I found it when I was working on Get Happy,
and we covered another song in Farsi from 1965, and I had seen an old clip of Dinah Shore singing “Omide Zendegani” in 1965 and that song was originally by Googoosh. After that, I listened to as much of her music as I could. She has hundreds of songs. As it turns out, for those living in Iran in the early '70s, they all love it. It was a huge hit. Outside of Iran, not that many people have heard it.
"Ov Sirun Sirun"
It’s our first song in Armenian. I found a recording of Armen Darbinyan singing it in the ’60s. We’re really popular in Turkey, so we have spent time in Turkey, and it’s one of our favorite places to travel to as well as Greece. In the course of our travels, we have had Armenians tell us that they want us to do a song in their language. Since it’s the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, this seemed like a good time to do a song in Armenian.
"Love for Sale"
That’s part of an album project I’m working on with my friend Kathleen Saadat. I worked under her in City Hall. We worked on a civil rights ordinance in 1991. She has a great voice, and we’ve played together and rehearsed together. We did this song together, and it turned out so well that I wanted to include it on the album.
It’s a song in Portuguese from Amalia Rodrigues. She’s the queen of fado in Portugal. Of all the songs she ever sung, this is my favorite of hers.
"Al Bint Al Shalabiya"
This is originally performed by Fairuz, the great diva from Lebanon, who’s still alive. [Fashion icon] Ikram Goldman, who I met eight years ago in Paris during fashion week, is from Lebanon but grew up in Israel. She told me about this song, and when we decided to cover it for this record, I flew her out to perform in the backup chorus. She ended up becoming the lead vocalist. It’s the first time she had ever been in a recording studio. She’s in the world of fashion and is credited for Michelle Obama’s interest in fashion.
It’s one of the three songs we wrote for Isabelle Huppert. It has a moody, mid-’70s sounds.
It’s our second Turkish song we’ve recorded. It was first sung by Belkıs Özener in the late '60s, and I’ve always loved it. We spend a lot of time in Turkey, and it made sense to do another song in Turkish for this album.
It’s a rewriting. On our first album there is a song called "Soledad" with Pepe Raphael. This has new lyrics in Arabic that were written by Iyad Qasem. I met him on a flight from Paris to New York and he was a big fan of the band and recognized me. We stated talking and started talking about working on a Middle Eastern album. This is the first iteration of that, and it’s sung by Ari Shapiro from NPR. I think it’s significant that it’s a song with Arabic lyrics sung by an American Jew. It was originally in Spanish. I was able to re-record some of the piano from the first recording, so it was great.
We ran out of time in terms of writing lyrics for it but maybe that will be for a future album. I co-wrote it with Johnny Dynell, who’s a DJ from New York.
I don’t think he’d sung it before. He’s so tremendous. I think he’s such a genius. We did ten takes and on the last take, he paused on the word “gold” for a long time and it took all of by surprise. I think it’s just absolutely exquisite. He’s such an amazing artist and performer.
"Fini la Musique"
It’s one of the three songs from Souvenir
It’s with Miriam Makeba, and it’s our first attempt to work with music from South Africa in particular. I had been listening to this song whenever I threw parties so it made a lot of sense to record it. The language is really tough. I don’t know if we quite pulled it off but it’s beautiful.
It’s a song that my partner Hunter Noack, who’s also a pianist, was working on for his classical album. It’s so beautiful that I wanted to conclude it. It’s a nice lullaby that finishes the album.
Pink Martini, 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 8, Masonic Auditorium, 3615 Euclid Ave., 216-881-6350. Tickets: $45-$70, clevelandmasonicauditorium.com.