Just say ‘oui!’
Pink Martini frontman reflects on band’s musical adventures
As his group, Pink Martini, continues to tour behind its latest album, Je Dis Oui!, frontman/pianist Thomas Lauderdale sounds downright astonished that he still gets to make a living playing music he likes.
“We’ve been going for 22 years,” Lauderdale said during a recent phone interview, reflecting on Pink Martini’s journey from a Portland, Ore., curiosity to world-touring, multilingual, genre-blending, dozen-plus-member “little orchestra.” “It seems so implausible [that] a band playing this kind of music and traveling the world … would actually be able to function. But here we are. We’re very lucky.”
The niche Lauderdale and Pink Martini have carved out is indeed unlike any other in pop. The music traverses a spectrum that includes vintage and contemporary pop, jazz, classical and a range of international styles. And the songs are sung in a host of languages—with Je Dis Oui! composed of songs in French, Farsi, Armenian, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish, Xhosa and English.
“I’m the oldest of four adopted children. My parents were white, but they adopted a multicultural family,” Lauderdale said. “My father went back and forth between being a minister and being a plant nurseryman. So I spent a lot of time both in the church and also growing up on a plant nursery in Indiana. After church services, I would go up to the piano and pound out the hymns that I had heard during the service. My parents sort of took it as a sign.
“So, I started piano lessons when I was 6,” Lauderdale said before running through his early musical influences. “There were sort of six things that really were my childhood soundtrack. They were Ray Conniff, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, The New Christy Minstrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. That was my childhood. That, coupled with the fact that I studied a couple of different languages and classical music and also loved sort of like show tunes, from like Rodgers and Hammerstein, those are the influences. And what you get really is Pink Martini, from all of that.”
Lauderdale did not initially see music as a career option. After attending Harvard University, he moved to the band’s current home base, Portland, Ore., and had an eye on a future in politics. “I was working at city hall when I was in high school and even throughout college and beyond,” he said. “My goal was really to become mayor of Portland.”
As he began attending fundraisers for various political campaigns and progressive causes, Lauderdale noticed that the musical groups hired for these events left a lot to be desired. So in 1994, he formed Pink Martini, feeling a style built around a mix of retro pop, classical, jazz and world music would provide a more beautiful and inclusive soundtrack for political fundraisers. Pink Martini’s music began to catch on, and Lauderdale’s political ambitions began to fade.
“Pretty soon it became kind of clear it was maybe much more fabulous to play music and get applause every night and make people happy, as opposed to working under fluorescent lighting and meeting angry constituents every day,” he said.
Lauderdale said he considers the cheerful nature of Je Dis Oui! (French for “I say yes”)—a lively global pastiche of original songs ranging from bossa nova to French pop, and covers of the likes of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and Iranian pop song “Kaj Kolah Khan”—a reflection of the positive place he and his band members have reached in their lives and shared musical journey.
“I’m happier than I’ve been in years. I feel pretty comfortable in my life (right now),” Lauderdale said. “So that’s reflected in the music.”