Pink Martini Keeps It Positive with Je Dis Oui!

We talk to the band’s founder, Thomas Lauderdale, about happiness, politics, and why conga lines are a must.

By Fiona McCann November 15, 2016

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At Thomas Lauderdale’s house in Portland’s Old Town, volunteers are flat-out felting. They’re working on limited-edition posters for Pink Martini’s new, ninth album, Je Dis Oui!, which drops Friday, November 18. (You can buy those posters at the band’s concert on Wednesday at the Keller Auditorium.) The weekend drive to do the same to thousands of CDs—glue on felt flowers by hand—is over, and those, too, are now on sale as part of the band’s bid to entice people away from Spotify streaming and back into purchasing a physical product to support the musicians that created it. 

It’s perhaps unsurprising that a band known for its constant collaboration should choose to involve friends at every level of production. The album itself—a joyous, multi-cultural romp through eight different languages and buoyant arrangements—includes vocal offerings from NPR’s Ari Shapiro, fashion queen Ikram Goldman, civil rights activist Kathleen Saadat, and Canadian singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright, alongside those of the band’s inimitable leading ladies, China Forbes and Storm Large. (Can't wait till Friday? You can stream it on NPR's First Listen.) 

“This album is full of friends at every turn,” says Pink Martini bandleader and pianist Lauderdale, who talks of the random, serendipitous nature of its coming together. Three of the songs were written for an upcoming French film, Souvenir, starring Isabelle Huppert. “Those were an anchor,” he says. Then there was the guy who he met on an airplane one time who runs a television company in Abu Dhabi and wrote lyrics in Arabic for the 1997 Pink Martini song “La Soledad,” sung on this album as “Finnisma Di” by Shapiro. And there’s Saadat, making her recording debut at age 75 with the rumbling and heartfelt “Love for Sale.” "She means every single word,” says Lauderdale. “That’s really rare. I work with great singers but Kathleen’s delivery of the lyrics is so authentic. And meaningful.”

There are a lot of “really great friendships” in Je Dis Oui!, he says, but also “a lot of politics,” the latter no surprise given Pink Martini’s origin playing political fundraisers.

“The band was started because of politics, and I’ve been political throughout,” says Lauderdale. But, says the pianist, he’s learned from his earlier outspokenness about America’s political landscape. “I once made the mistake of saying an anti-George W. Bush thing in Jacksonville, Florida, and that’s a military headquarters, and I kind of thought, ‘I need to pull this back a bit,’” he recalls. Just this past summer, after North Carolina passed a law barring transgender people from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, he had to talk singer Storm Large down from a similar onstage rant. “What I said to her then was that what we need to be doing is finding the commonalities, not contributing to the divisiveness,” he says. “Now that the election has happened, I have to follow my own advice and resist the urge to be outraged.”

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Image: PInk Martini

There are, he says baldly, a lot of Pink Martini fans who voted for Trump, so he’s trying to be empathetic. “Obviously, we’re at the intersection of politics with entertainment, which is what Donald Trump certainly understood,” he says. With his own background straddling entertainment and politics—he worked on former Governor Neil Goldschmidt’s successful election campaign, and for Mike Lindberg during his time as city commissioner—the lure of public service is strong. Is he considering running for office someday? “Maybe,” is his circumspect reply. For now, he’s got a show to put on.

“There’s going to be dancing,” he says when asked what’s in store for the Keller audience this week. “At a certain point, the backdrop is going to rise and there’ll be a bunch of space where people can come up onstage and turn the show into a dance party. We’re really insisting on conga lines.”

As well as such mandatory dance moves, there’ll be multimedia elements, special guests, a set list that runs the gamut of Pink Martini’s two decades of material, “and clowns.” Clowns? “No, no clowns,” laughs Lauderdale. 

No clowns, but lots of laughter, then. Because, our current political situation notwithstanding, Thomas Lauderdale is really happy, and that happiness is clear from Je Dis Oui! “It’s my happiest album in years,” he says. Why? He credits love. “I’m going out with a great guy named Hunter Noack, who’s a pianist, who I met three years ago at the US Ambassador’s house in London, but he happens to be from Sunriver, Oregon,” he says. It’s the kind of serendipitous encounter that happens with uncommon frequency to Lauderdale. The result is that, some three years later, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” Which is why, with positivity so hard to come by post-election, Je Dis Oui! (translated from the French as “I say yes!”) packs such a powerful punch. “'No' is such an unpleasant word,” says Lauderdale, unstoppable at just 46. “No makes me that much more determined to find a way to yes.”

Pink Martini plays the Keller Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 16.

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