Saddlers’ Wells is not a venue noted for its music. But then Pink Martini are not a band noted for conforming to stereotypes. Somehow their eclectic mix of exotic rhythms and styles seem more suited to the world of dance than trying to shoehorn them into one musical form. Besides. They have found their spiritual home. There are enough trendy Islingtonites in here to fill all eight hours of an Andy Warhol movie. Which is a good job, too, since by the time the group have performed both their back-to-back shows tonight eight hours will not be far off…
Trying to peg Pink Martini down has always been part of the problem of promoting them. What makes them unique is their melting pot of forms – and there’s little the pop business likes less than unclassifiable music. A whirl of 1930s tea dance, chamber orchestra, Cuban fiesta, Brazilian street band and European folk-jazz it’s difficult to describe them, let alone pigeonhole them. So, in a scenario that will be instantly recognisable by anyone who’s ever tried to break out of the mould, the music industry has done the most appropriate thing – and ignored them.
“They don’t know what to do with music like ours,” sighs China Forbes, the group’s vocalist. “We only get played on public and specialist radio. If we had the exposure I think a lot of people would like us but it’s difficult to find it. It’s hard for people to discover us so a lot of it’s word of mouth.”
“It’s all been under-the-radar stuff,” agrees Ian Ashbridge, their European promoter. “People need to hear their music, not have it described. People play it to their friends who go out and tell their friends.”
All this makes it even more remarkable – and inspiring – that without being played on network TV or radio, the Portland, Oregon-based group’s self-financed, produced and released album Sympathique has sold over 650,000 copies to date.
Of course, they’ve been helped along the way– their original song Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler was picked up for the Citroen Xsara Picasso commercial, although some might consider a song so perfectly recorded to sound like an old French 78’ that viewers think it really is an old French 78’ to be a slight own-goal. Frankly it’s an own-goal I wouldn’t have minded scoring myself. And I would have positively liked singing the theme song to Clueless or belting Que Sera, Sera for the credits on Jane Campion’s In The Cut.
It’s not a cheap band to tour – there are twelve of them – which creates headaches for the management, but a real treat for those of us who miss seeing large-cast musicals or bands dumped for purely financial reasons. One of the first things I notice is the way they are grouped onstage. Forming a semicircle around pianist Thomas Lauderdale, the band’s founder, and Forbes herself, it looks more of a rehearsal than a show. It ought to be alienating for an audience, but somehow it isn’t. It feels more like we are being treated to the privilege of sitting in on a private performance.
“Thomas likes us to be cosy,” Forbes explains. “It’s good for the harmonies – all the band are involved in singing on a regular basis. Besides – he absolutely refuses to use a monitor.”
Forbes wasn’t with Pink Martini from the start. She and Lauderdale had been at college together in Harvard but had not been close. “I went to Harvard for family reasons – my father and sister had been and it seemed like the thing to do. I was copying my sister really.” China’s sister, Maya Forbes, a Hollywood comedy scriptwriter responsible for hits like “The Larry Sanders Show” was and continues to be a big influence. “She’s two years older than me and I guess she raised me almost more than my parents – she told me all the important things. I pity anyone who doesn’t haven’t a sister.”
“Music was something I liked to do outside my course so Thomas knew my voice,” she continues. “But I wasn’t into his kind of music. He was into film themes and old TV shows. I was a Donna Summer fan – I loved that disco stuff. I also sang in a classical choir and dabbled in folk music. Later on I listened to singer-songwriters like Stevie Nicks and Suzanne Vega. It never occurred to me that I could do this kind of thing. I’m not formally trained – I hadn’t studied voice – didn’t major in music or anything.”
After college, Forbes moved to New York where she formed her own rock band.
“New York is an exhausting place to live, though,” she admits. “The band was going nowhere – Columbia had given me a development deal but they wanted me to be something I wasn’t and by the time they’d finished messing me around neither they or I liked the demo. My father had recently contracted cancer back home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Everything was pointing towards a change.”
Back in Portland, Thomas Lauderdale had started a superior function band which was beginning to see some success at political fundraisers for progressive issues such as civil rights, clean water, public housing and, perhaps unsurprisingly, public radio.
“The first Pink Martini album had come out and started to do really well,” recalls Forbes, “But Thomas was unhappy with the singer and the relationship had deteriorated to the point where he was actively seeking a replacement. They went through a year of trying out different singers – it was like The Gong Show for a while…” Eventually Lauderdale called Forbes and begged her to join.
“When Thomas called I wasn’t initially that keen,” she remembers. I’d never been to Portland, and I saw myself as a solo artist rather than part of an ensemble. But actually I was totally ready for it without knowing. I guess it suited me more than the rock.”
“Portland is great,” she smiles. “Big enough for you not to be bored, but small enough to know everybody. It’s got a sort of ‘summer camp’ feel about it – full of culture and events. I can go to everything in Portland – I always felt slightly guilty in New York that I couldn’t get to see and do everything it had to offer.”
Not that she has much time to enjoy Portland’s delights. Deeply frustrated with a music industry which refuses to recognise what people really want to hear, part of the problem of having a band which doesn’t get played on TV or radio is the constant touring.
“We’ve been away from home 7 months,” she says a little wistfully. “I’ve been to Europe 5 times. We’re playing bigger theatres each time – especially in France – we’ve done really well there. But I miss my dog, my house and boyfriend. A short while ago I was at my wits end with it all. Then I decided to take myself in hand. I realised there was nothing I could do about it so I needed to find a way to enjoy it. I try to stay relatively healthy which helps, but we’ve had a band meeting and I think we’ll star to put a few limits on the amount of touring we do.”
In the States, they have come up with an intriguing way of getting exposure.
“We’ve been working with various symphony orchestras around the country – that way we tour round and perform with different orchestras and have a ready-made audience of their subscribers. Hopefully they’ll become Pink Martini fans too.”
As the band forges its own way through an indifferent music business to create a sound for people prepared to go out and discover it for themselves, it finds itself subtly changing.
“The covers are getting fewer,” says Forbes. “Pink Martini started out as a covers band during the cocktail revival of the 90s. But we started to bring in originals quite quickly – I don’t really know how far you can go just doing covers. We’ve flip-flopped the ratio of covers and originals – on Hang On Little Tomato (their latest album) there are about 7 or 8 original tunes.” She laughs. “But there will always be something Thomas has discovered in his record collection that he suddenly wants to do.”
I mention the truly odd version of Que Sera, Sera on Sympathique. A song I have hitherto detested, it has somehow been transformed to a symphony of sinister undertones. Just listening to its minor chords, its eerie death-march tempo and the ethereal, other-worldly sound of Forbes voice sends shivers down the spine She laughs. “You wanna know why I sound so strange? I was really sick. I had that awful 30 day virus that was going around at the time and besides I hated the song too. I didn’t want to sing it. In the end I lay on the couch, they brought the mic and I groaned into it.” Whatever happened, however it happened, it has transformed a piece of homely fluff into a threatening piece of grown-up fatalism.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why Pink Martini have achieved such international acclaim is their multi-lingual approach. Je Ne Veux Pas Travaillier was one of our first original songs,” says Forbes. “We get friends from different countries to check our languages and we consult in case we’ve made mistakes.”
“I’ve always been a mimic,” she grins. “I’m happiest singing in French – as I studied French at school and my grandfather’s French. But Italian and Spanish too – they’re such musical languages. Japanese is weird – but at least it’s phonetic – not like in Chinese where the tone of the voice is important too.” Singing in different languages pays off – they are huge in countries where people love to hear foreigners sing in their own tongue. Sympathique has gone platinum in France and gold in Greece.
The band still release all their own albums, despite the fact that now they have done the legwork there are plenty of record companies snapping at their heels. China Forbes is pragmatic. “In the early days I was in favour of going with a label but actually there are so many people in the band that the percentage they’d all get would be ridiculously small. Doing it ourselves we get to keep all the proceeds.” The band are responsible for everything – even the artwork. “The album cover is Thomas and his dad when he was little and the photos inside are just Polaroids he took,” she says.
“We don’t do weddings any more.”
Forbes smiles when I mention that that’s a serious milestone. “We still do the odd function – but I prefer concerts and clubs – I love the energy of people standing in a club. Not smoky ones, though. On this latest tour we were playing in Greece.” She winces “Everyone smokes.”
China Forbes sees herself with Pink Martini for sometime to come – but she’s never lost the love of the singer-songwriter feel. She is currently working on a solo album where she not only sings all the songs, but plays most of the instruments too. She counts off on her fingers – “I play acoustic guitar, electric guitar, keyboards, bass, violin, percussion…” She’s lost faith in the big record labels though. Much like the band she loves to play with, she’ll stay independent. “I’ll take my chances. There are radio stations out there who will play different stuff. KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, for example. They have broken so many bands. It’s just a case of going out there and finding it…”
This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in The Singer magazine. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…