Graham Reid | | 4 min read
Yes it's true, says Thomas Lauderdale,
he was deeply involved in politics in his adopted hometown of
Portland, Oregon and had worked in a number of civic positions.
“I would love at some point to run
for mayor. I'd have to write the tell-all book before I do of
course,” laughs this man who knows all the drag clubs, strip joints
and high camp hangouts around town.
“I love this city and in fact the
band was formed to play at political fundraisers.”
That band is Pink Martini, an ensemble
which Lauderdale founded 16 years ago and which plays . . .
Better to let him describe the chic,
stylish and often very witty music of Pink Martini which, logic might
tell us, has no place in the hard-edged 21st century.
“The music is old fashioned but put
together in a new way, and I think people are starved of beautiful
melodies. But the diversity of styles and languages we have offers
this feeling of a 1940s Hollywood orchestra and a Havana nightclub in
1960. It is irresistible, people come with their grandparents and
“It's not too loud but it is festive,
it's an around the world adventure without leaving home.”
Over four albums, Pink Martini have
crafted stylish romantic music which references the classic sound of
Hollywood spectaculars, gentle swing jazz, Doris Day pop (“she was
extraordinary, if only we could lure her from retirement”), Spanish
melodrama and French sophistication.
With singer China Forbes out front and
the bow-tie wearing Lauderdale as band-leader/pianist, Pink Martini
conjure up the days of PanAm Clippers, palm trees in pots, and Greta
Garbo coming down the sweeping staircase of a swanky hotel to meet
This may seem a music of escapism, but
it is also shot through with wicked wit (the cross-dressing Bitty
Boppy Betty appears on their most recent album Splendor in the
Grass) and deft orchestration.
According to the band's website citing
an article in the LA Times, in 07 the new president of the
United Nations General Assembly Srgjan Kerim ordered 30 copies of the
band's album Hang on Little Tomato to give away to members at
the first meeting he chaired.
It is beguiling music, more so perhaps
because it comes from Lauderdale who was of the political persuasion
and grew up with his adoptive parents in Indiana.
“So no, I didn't grow up with
Hollywood musicals. My parents were on the earnest side of the 60s
and they listened to the New Christie Minstrels, Roger Miller and the
Mormon Tabernacle Choir . . . but all those artists have beautiful
“In terms of the Hollywood stuff, I
think that was my own aging kicking in and loving the spectacle of
Rogers and Hammerstein, and the Busby Berkeley musicals. They are so
beautifully shot and well thought through, the songs are fantastic
and the dancing is gorgeous. There is a style and ability felt by
Yet Pink Martini – for all that they
sometimes write songs which sound instantly familiar or are like lost
classics from the middle of last century – are not a revivalist or
retro act. Their music is sharp and contemporary in its sly humour
and lavish presentation.
“That's the challenge for us, to not
slide into parody or worse. The goal is to be modern in the way we
put things together but also respectful of a tradition. It also has
to be accessible so people can feel like they are part of it and not
outside of what we do.”
A song like the Lauderdale-Forbes
composition Over the Valley on their new album for example
seems instantly recognisable so there is the inviting comfort of the
“The more we play that, the more we
love it. It has that same feeling – but is not nearly as fantastic
– as Over the Rainbow. China and I love the songwriting of
the 30s and 40s, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.”
Pink Martini music may be exquisitely
crafted but you don't see the craftsmanship, and Lauderdale says it
is important they continue to collaborate widely with other musicians
to keep exploring ideas. Recently they played three nights at the
Hollywood Bowl with Rufus Wainwright; they have performed with the
Portland Symphony; and the new album features Courtney Taylor-Taylor
of the rock band the Dandy Warhols as well as 90-year old Mexican
singer Chavela Vargas.
They also have many songs in French,
Italian and Spanish. Lauderdale notes that in 25 years Spanish will
be the most widely spoken language in the United States, “and it is
a much more beautiful language than English anyway, everything will
hopefully be one touch more sexy.”
Behind the sophistication and glamour
however a political heart still beats: Pink Martini is a platform to
support the liberal causes they feel deeply about (they have just
played a fund-raiser for a school music department) and Lauderdale
laughs about their happy obligation to “keep electing democrats
into the White House”.
The George W. Bush years were actually
good for them: “It was an amazing way to active a sleepy population
and force those of us who disagreed to stand up and be counted.”
Politics with a charming soundtrack?
What an interesting mayoral candidate Lauderdale would make.