Every musician has his or her own aesthetic. Some strive to be edgy and different, others seek the virtuosic. Still others look for words and melodies that combine to transform consciousness or to make lyrical statements of emotional or political significance. But every once in awhile a musician comes forward transfixed with a singular dominant aesthetic vision.
Pianist Thomas Lauderdale is just such an artist. His philosophy has been one-pointed from the very beginning: a song’s lyrics and melodies must be beautiful. Period. They must be completely and overwhelmingly melodically beautiful throughout. That vision is the essence of what Lauderdale has accomplished since founding his “little orchestra” Pink Martini 25 years ago.
Lauderdale was raised in the heartland – rural Indiana. His father ran a nursery by day and was a minister on Sundays.
“Dad was into plants and God,” Lauderdale says, “so that’s what I grew up with.”
At the end of Sunday services, he recalls sitting at the piano trying to plunk out melodies he had just heard. His mother, a casual pianist, noticed.
“My mom took it as some kind of a sign,” Lauderdale says. Piano lessons ensued at age 6, and when the family moved west to Portland, Oregon in 1982, he began studying with Sylvia Killman, a mentorship that continues to this day.
“She’s been my piano teacher since I was 13,” Lauderdale says. “She just turned 94, and she’s still doing great.”
Enamored with progressive social causes such as civil rights, affordable housing, cleaning up the Willamette River, libraries and education, Lauderdale was politically active in a number of campaigns starting in high school, with the intention of eventually running for office.
“After college, I actually wanted to be the mayor of Portland,” he recalls, “but working in the campaigns and political fundraising can be so dreary. And the music at those rallies really sucked.”
Therein was the impetus for forming the band. Lauderdale had become the de facto social director of Portland’s underground political scene, staging rallies, parties and functions at coffeehouses, private homes and auditoriums citywide. In 1994, he called a vocalist he had met at Harvard named China Forbes and the die was cast to improve the quality of political rally music in Portland.
“I had started to veer away from my exclusively classical piano training in college,” says Lauderdale, who studied history and literature – but not music – at Harvard. “And I remember that she had a voice that could soar, but it wasn’t operatic in quality. I really loved that about her voice, just like I do today.”
Forbes moved to Portland from New York City to join in, and the nucleus of a compositional partnership was formed that would become an international sensation.
“In the beginning, we just played weddings, rallies and functions,” Lauderdale says. “We were just a local party band. We started up in 1994 and we never played outside of Portland until 1997. I never thought we’d actually have a career.”
Forbes’ and Lauderdale’s first sojourn into songwriting yielded the 1995 single “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler” (“I Don’t Want To Work”) which shot up the French pop charts and gained a nomination for Song of the Year at France’s Victoires de la Musique awards. To this day the song remains a mantra and rallying cry for striking French workers. Their writing partnership now contains a portfolio of some 200 songs penned in 25 different languages over nine studio albums.
“China and I have our opinions, but each individual musician in the band brings their individual voice and ideas,” Lauderdale says. “China has written almost all of the lyrics, and she writes so beautifully. For me, the process is always melody-driven. Every melody must be distinct, memorable and incredibly beautiful.”
Pink Martini’s last studio album was Je Dis Oui! (I Say Yes!), a 15-song effort involving eight languages. The group’s most recent recordings were issued earlier this year as two five-song EPs to welcome two new singers into the fold: Tomorrow, which features the vocals of Jimmie Herrod, and Besame Mucho, featuring both songwriting and vocals by Edna Vazquez, both of whom have been regular guests on tour with the band over the past year.
After achieving such worldwide notoriety, you might think staying motivated could become a problem.
“Not so,” Lauderdale says. “These days the band sounds better than it has ever sounded, and I haven’t always felt that way. I draw my inspiration from that.”
But this multi-generational, multi-lingual, multi-genre ensemble’s most profound influence lies in touring, not in its recordings.
“Pink Martini is an American band, but because we spend a lot of time abroad we have an incredible bonafide diplomatic opportunity to represent a broader, more inclusive America, the America that is the most heterogeneously populated country in the world,” Lauderdale says. “Except for the Native Americans, all of us are immigrants here from somewhere, from every country, of every language, and of every religion. We seek to expose that inclusivity.”
PINK MARTINI 8pm Tuesday, Dec. 3. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $68-$117. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com.