The audience in the Amphitheater tonight shouldn’t be surprised to hear songs in as many as 20 different languages. Taking the stage at 8:15 p.m., Pink Martini is a musical group that combines elements of classical, jazz, pop and world music into its 15-member “little orchestra.”
Fronted by Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes, the group formed more than 20 years ago when Lauderdale was working on political campaigns in Portland, Oregon, and found the music at political fundraisers underwhelming and dull. He called up Forbes, his former classmate at Harvard University, and asked her to join his new musical group, originally designed to play at political fundraisers.
Forbes, the lead singer for the group, said Pink Martini crossed languages, cultures, genres and even decades right from its founding.
“Thomas had a real love of film, music and songs in other languages, so on our first record there’s Spanish, French, Japanese and Greek, and we sort of evolved from there,” she said. “It definitely was the vision right away: to be global, expansive, inclusive — not too inwardly focused, but looking at other cultures and singing in other languages.”
Since its founding, the group’s music has evolved, matured and expanded, Forbes said, from playing primarily cover songs at fundraisers and rallies to writing and performing original songs all over the world.
“When we first started out, we were very young and it was a little more fun and ironic,” she said. “Over the years, we got more serious. It evolved into this big, revolving roster of guest artists.”
Forbes realized she wanted to sing as an 8-year-old growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she discovered Donna Summer.
“I started imitating her at the top of my voice constantly,” she said. “I learned to sing by just copying her. I felt very clear at the time that I wanted to be a singer. I didn’t aggressively pursue it as a child, but just sang all my life, constantly, all day long.”
In high school, she started performing in musicals and at coffeehouses with her guitar. Before joining Pink Martini, Forbes wrote personal and autobiographical lyrics, a shift from Pink Martini’s more “universal” lyrics, she said.
“I’ve always used songwriting as a way to process my feelings and to exercise them so I don’t have to hold onto stuff,” she said.
Forbes recalled a specific period in her childhood that she felt defined her personality, lyrics and love of music. When she was 8, the same year she discovered Donna Summer, her father, who suffered from bipolar disorder, became the primary caretaker of her and her sister while her mother earned her MBA at Columbia University.
“It was an incredibly chaotic and tragic shift when my mom moved away and we had to be with our dad our whole life,” she said. “Because of that, my sister and I are both artists. I definitely feel like that kind of event is defining in what one becomes and what one chooses to do. I’m an advocate for becoming an artist as a way to deal with it.”
Forbes said the members of Pink Martini are all passionate about the music they play and have remained close friends, even after playing together for two decades.
“Somehow, we still like each other and are all interested in learning and challenging ourselves musically,” Forbes said.
Pink Martini has performed and collaborated with famous artists from different countries and musical backgrounds, including Rufus Wainwright, Carol Channing and Henri Salvador, and their music has appeared in movies and TV shows such as “The Sopranos” and “Sherlock,” and the film “Mary & Max.” Though they have developed a diverse audience in multiple countries, Forbes said the group is still fairly obscure and rarely heard on radio stations.
“It’s refreshing to see that so many people still appreciate this life-affirming kind of music,” she said. “I don’t know where they are, but they seem to be all over the world.”