The post-lounge music group makes beautiful music in many languages for some surprising reasons.
When Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini was asked if The Von Trapps could sing with his group during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland two years ago, he was thrilled. “I’m obsessed with The Sound of Music like many Americans, and there isn’t a name that one has such as an emotional reaction to as ‘Von Trapp,’” Lauderdale says. These Von Trapps are the great grandchildren of Kurt, the youngest son, and they’re ages 19 to 25. Their grandfather taught them to sing, and their name alone earned them performances with symphonies around the country. “They’re transitioning from being The Sound of Music kids to being their own new vision of The Von Trapp Family Singers that traveled throughout the United States,” Lauderdale says, and part of that process was recording the album Dream a Little Dream with Pink Martini. They’ll perform together Thursday at the Civic Theatre.
Pink Martini started in 1994 during the lounge music revival that drew attention to the lush, stylish, dramatic music of American popular music, often because of its excesses - the overheated kittenishness of Julie London, and zam-sproing percussiveness of Esquivel, and the swinging, boozy caddishness of Dean Martin. Rather than focus on the era’s most novel elements, Pink Martini paid attention to the group’s musicality.
"Part of the problem with the lounge trend is that it wasn't earnest," Lauderdale says. "It had a smirk to it. I think that can only go so far. I grew up listening to Ray Conniff and loving it. It became clear when we were recording the first album that it wasn't about double entendres our double meaning."
“For me, the most important thing is melody,” Lauderdale says. “We haven’t had great melodies in pop music since 1964.” Pink Martini’s first album, 1997’s Sympathetique, picked up on lounge’s exotic side with a number of songs sung in Spanish, and songs in foreign languages became part of the group’s signature. Performing songs in other languages has proven to be a great gesture when the group travels around the world, but it also helps solve a basic problem. Lauderdale could write music and arrange songs, but he struggled trying to write lyrics that weren’t “ridiculous,” he says. The lyrics needed to belong to the world the music evokes, which means a world before cellphones. “One solution to all that is to write entirely in a foreign language. We run for cover by writing something in French. Everything sounds better in French.”
On Dream a Little Dream, Pink Martini covers its most modern song, Abba’s “Fernando.” For Lauderdale, it was a way to address a long-standing irritation, namely, all the references to the Spanish-American War in the song, which seemed like odd subject matter for the band. He did some homework and discovered that the song was written for a solo album by Abba’s Frida Lyngstad, and that it was originally written in Swedish. Those lyrics made more sense and had no references to war, and its those lyrics that The Von Trapps sing on the album.
However, “Swedish is a tough language to pronounce,” Lauderdale says. “The Von Trapps worked for weeks and weeks with a professor in Swedish and guided them through their Swedish.”
The Von Trapps helped to bring a number of guests to Dream a Little Dream, including Charmian Carr, who played Liesl in The Sound of Music. She sang on “Edelweiss” (“More Americans know ‘Edelweiss’ than the National Anthem,’” Lauderdale says), and contributed a yodel to “Lonely Goatherd,” which also includes guest spots by animal wrangler Jack Hanna and Wayne Newton. “Wayne was a friend of theirs,” Lauderdale says. “He was great fun in the studio. He flew in with his wife and mother-in-law and daughter, breezed into the studio, did a couple of takes and there it was.”
Collaborations like these help make Pink Martini exciting for Lauderdale. “There are a lot of things that never would have occurred to me that each of the Von Trapps brought,” he says. The youngest, August, is only 19, and he contributed three songs for the album including its opening and closing tracks. In other cases, they provide the opportunity for spontaneous invention. When he met comedian Phyllis Diller, he on the spur of the moment asked her if she would sing a song with the band. She surprised him and agreed, which forced Lauderdale to figure out what she could do. “I realized it should be the song ‘Smile’ by Charlie Chaplin, who was a friend of hers,” he says. The finished track ended the band’s 2013’s album, Get Happy.
Pink Martini has made it possible to perform with a number of people Lauderdale has admired over the years, including Carol Channing and jazz singer Jimmy Scott, in addition to Newton, Diller, and The Von Trapps. “It’s a bit dizzying, but it’s an opportunity for us to not only work with legends but remind people how incredible they are.”
We have a pair of tickets to give away to see Pink Martini and The Von Trapps at the Civic Theatre Thursday night. Register here for a chance to win. The contest closes Thursday at noon.