The diverse musicality of Pink Martini

As the lead singer of Pink Martini, the hip Portland, Ore.-based band known for its cosmopolitan, multi-cultural sound, China Forbes is used to relying on her voice.

Forbes has been touring with the band for more than 15 years with few breaks. But when a health complication took her out of commission in March 2011, she was forced to reevaluate her career, her personal life and her somewhat strained professional relationships.

 “I was always really unhappy going on tour and leaving my son, and wasn’t even enjoying singing anymore,” said Forbes, who took a yearlong leave of absence to undergo surgery on her vocal cords.

“It was a nice forced pause where I could reflect on what I really wanted,” she said, such as spending more time with her 4-year-old son, Cameron, and husband, Adam Levey.

Forbes now shares vocal duties with Storm Large, the Portland-based chanteuse and former reality show contestant whose band specializes in lounge covers of punk and heavy metal songs.

“It’s been great. It’s more fun than it ever was before,” said Forbes, who performs Wednesday with Pink Martini at the Cohan Center.

Multilingual music

Portland native Thomas Lauderdale founded Pink Martini in 1994 to provide better soundtracks for political fundraisers in his hometown. A year later, he approached Forbes, his former Harvard University classmate, and invited her to join the group.

“When I first heard from Thomas about Pink Martini … I just thought it was a fun diversion from my own band in New York,” she recalled. “I didn’t think I’d do more than one weekend with him, and then he kept persuading me to come back.”

“I didn’t see it lasting this long,” she acknowledged, “but I didn’t see it ending.”

The first song Forbes and Lauderdale wrote together, the French- language “Sympathique,” became an international smash — and the title track for Pink Martini’s first full-length album in 1997.

Over the years, the “little orchestra” has released a total of eight albums that blur genre barriers between classical, jazz, Latin and old-fashioned pop music. Their hits, which include “Amado Mio,” “¿Dónde Estás, Yolanda?” and “Hey Eugene,” have appeared in films and television shows alike.

Pink Martini’s latest release is “Get Happy,” released in Sept. 24.

The album, as Lauderdale explained on the band’s website, is meant to be contemplative, beautiful and “genuinely uplifting” — expressing the need for optimism in an otherwise bleak world.

As Forbes put it, “life can put a smile on your face or knock the smile off. You have to work to keep it on.”

According to the band’s website, Lauderdale and audio engineer Dave Friedlander flew to Los Angeles in January 2012 to record the album’s first track, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” with stand-up comedian Phyllis Diller. It turned out the final recording for Diller, who died that August.

Forbes said “Get Happy” is “Thomas’s spirit of inclusiveness writ large,” Forbes said. “He’s always wanted to have all of his friends on an album.”

Guest vocalists include Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, the great-grandchildren of Georg and Maria von Trapp of “The Sound of Music” fame, and National Public Radio White House correspondent Ari Shapiro.

“Ari is now almost a band member,” said Forbes, noting that the Portland-raised radio personality can also be heard on 2009’s “Splendor in the Grass” and 2010’s “Joy to the World.” “He’s known us since he was a teenager.”

True to Pink Martini tradition, “Get Happy” features songs in nine different languages, including Chinese, Farsi, Turkish and Romanian.

Forbes, who said she speaks “a decent amount of French and a small amount of Italian,” can sing in almost 20 languages — although she’s sometimes forced to learn lyrics phonetically.

 “Thomas has helped me believe in myself and try things that I don’t think I can do,” she said. “I can sing in more languages than I thought I could sing in. I can try any style.”

Forbes’ experience with Pink Martini has also broadened her songwriting abilities, helping her to expand from completely autobiographical material to a more universal romantic sound.

“I’ve definitely become a better person being in this huge band of people who are all so different and so talented,” she said. “I feel like I’ve become incredibly diverse in this band.”


Pink Martini

7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Cohan Center, Cal Poly

$34.20 to $85

756-4849 or www.pacslo.org

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.