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June 11, 2010

Maria Semple Interviews China Forbes of Pink Martini

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Maria Semple is an author, and her debut novel This One Is Mine was recently released in paperback.

China Forbes is the lead singer for Pink Martini, and also records as a solo artist.

Author Maria Semple interviews musician China Forbes:

Maria Semple: I know China Forbes through her sister, Maya. Maya and I both wrote for TV in LA. She was younger than me, prettier than me, and the show-runner for The Larry Sanders Show while I was on a crappy show like Suddenly Susan. In other words, it was very big of me not to hate her. Actually, we became close friends. She married one of my other best friends, Wally.

With close friends come their families. Maya's little sister, China, came to be in bits and pieces. I mostly heard about China when she was down from Portland staying with Wally and Maya. The information that made it to me involved sister fights that sprang up for no reason and dishes piled in the sink. So, in my mind, Maya's little sister was a dramatic slob from Portland.

At some point, Maya invited me to Luna Park in West Hollywood to see China performing with a band she formed with a bunch of friends, Pink Martini. The place held fifty people, I knew it mostly from comedy shows. I stopped by after work. I was exhausted and the show didn't start forever. Finally, Pink Martini, all twelve of them, took the stage and opened with Ravel's Bolero.

Have you ever seen Pink Martini perform Bolero? You should. It's truly awesome. And there was Maya's little sister, China, gorgeous and the total diva I imagined her to be, doing nothing but standing in the middle of it all, playing the tambourine. As Bolero built, built, built, then reached its chaotic, smashing conclusion, our breaths were taken away.

Maya turned to me and mouthed, "Aren't they great?" with a kind of giggle. (One of life's great joys is Maya's delivery-- she's so happy and always kind of giggling no matter what she is saying.) Thank God, Luna Park wasn't the place to hold a real conversation, so I nodded enthusiastically and went along with Maya's tragic pride in her sister, whose contribution seemed to be standing there looking pretty among the dozen brilliantly talented musicians.

It was late. I left after one song, thinking, Poor China, Poor Maya.

Over the next bunch of years, I saw China lots. We had many dinners, hung out, and made several pathetic attempts at the crossword. She was a real match for Maya in terms of sweetness, infectiousness and wit. She'd tell me about her band, the European tours, the record that was a smash in France. Again, I nodded and smiled.

So imagine my shock and delight the next time I saw Pink Martini, this time at the Wiltern. China Forbes wasn't just a tambourine player, but a singer, too. Not just a singer, but a chanteuse of epic proportions! She has a fabulous voice, sweet and careful at first. But don't let that fool you. It's a voice capable of anything.

If you haven't heard Pink Martini, then you've never eaten in a pricey sushi bar, or walked through a W Hotel lobby after sundown. Their music is international, romantic, luxurious, rocking, sophisticated, but still retains a total sweetness. They're the brainchild of Thomas Lauderdale, who put together a new kind of big band to play Portland political fundraisers in 1994. He picked his old Harvard classmate, China, to sing. They've steadily grown into an international touring sensation, selling millions of CDs and selling giant places like Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, Royal Festival Hall, Hammersmith Apollo and Carnegie Hall.

They're on tour now. If you haven't seen them, you truly must. Bring your friends, parents, anyone. It will be an intoxicating evening, full of surprises.

China and I had an email chat recently. Here it is.

You've recorded songs in Japanese, French, Italian, Arabic and Spanish. How do you even decide to sing a song in Arabic? Is it important for you to connect to the lyrics? If so, how does that happen-- do you have a translation and memorize it? When you sing it, are you connecting to the lyrics, or are you just singing it phonetically?

China Forbes: Basically Thomas has decided to punish me for not doing my homework in college by foisting new and ever more challenging languages on me. Arabic was the most challenging of all. He found the song somewhere and when I first heard it I thought there was no way I could do it. But Thomas has an amazing capacity for persisting and believing in people more than they believe in themselves. He knew I could do it, and I did it.

It's a great song. I've got to say my favorite songs are the ones in English because your personality really comes through.

When I sing in English it is very important for me to connect to the lyrics and I have gotten more connected over the years. When I sing in a language I don't know at all, it is pretty much a pastiche of sounds, like a pattern I memorize and the whole thing can fall apart like dominos if I miss one word, as it did with the Arabic song on stage in Syria.

Oh no!

Too much pressure. Luckily I do speak French, and a bit of Italian which comes in handy.

What's the decision process like for what songs get recorded? Is it a benevolent dictatorship with you and Thomas making the decisions? Is it more democratic with all the other members of the band getting a vote? It must be really complicated with twelve musicians.

The process is vague. But yes, it is a dictatorship which is partially benevolent. Thomas has final say in what songs make the cut. I had to wait for years before he was ready to record my song "Hey Eugene" and another song we wrote called "Sunday Table" was released about 12 years after we wrote it.

Those are two of my favorite songs! That rotter, Thomas.

Sometimes it takes us that long to figure out an arrangement that works. The band has not yet voted on songs and I don't think we will ever go in that direction.

"Sunday Table" I particularly love. First, I love those two words-- Sunday Table-- you can picture it perfectly in the context of the song. Second, it's a song where your voice starts out so sweet, almost singing down to us, then you open it up at the end. I swear, I've heard that song dozens of times and I'm still scared that you're not going to be able to go all the way you want to go with your voice. Yet, there it is every time. Not to belabor that song, but I find the arrangement of that song so interesting. I keep imagining it as a rock song, or a folk song. It can totally work as both-- but you gave it a kind of sixties feel. How did that come about?

The song always felt like it should be a bossa nova, an urban response to "Girl from Ipanema". We tried many version and changed the percussion, added guitar, took it out and put back in the piano. I guess in the end it has a sixties feel which makes sense as Thomas adores the sixties!

It's making me crazy that you haven't recorded any Stephen Sondheim songs. Come on!

Isn't it rich? My fault I fear... Well, maybe next year.

"Later. When is later? All you ever hear is later." For the record, I want to hear "Barcelona" from Company sung by you and Timothy Nishimoto. So, do you have a favorite part of the process-- writing, recording, producing, performing?

Writing can be torture, especially lately. I have always been more of a muse-driven writer than a disciplined one. And that muse is unreliable. But when I get into a creative mood I love writing and when I write something good it is the best feeling ever.

Isn't it, though? But as a singer, the writing is only a small part of it.

I absolutely love recording and also performing, but touring is not my favorite part. Sadly in order to perform one has to travel quite a bit so there is no way around it. I like to wing things and be a bit thrown off on stage because finding myself in those scary suspended moments is when I am most present and at my best.

Do you consider yourself more a writer, a vocalist, a performer? Or doesn't it really work like that?

I guess all three... Sometimes I call myself a singer-songwriter, sometimes a performer. But if pressed to choose one I would probably say "singer".

You've performed throughout Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa with 25 world orchestras. Do you feel any sense of responsibility as Americans when you visit places that don't think too highly of us?

Yeah...We used to call ourselves "musical ambassadors" and felt that our inclusive and multi-lingual repertoire delivered a very positive message about America, that we were aware of other cultures and open to other parts of the world. It is always amazing to visit countries where there is tension with America and the band may be fearful and in the end we are invariably embraced by the public at our shows and there is never a problem. There is so much fear-mongering in the media it really doesn't represent the experience of being there.

I'm fascinated by the logistics of touring with a twelve-member band. Does half your life become doing head-counts at airports and on buses? Is it a well-oiled machine by now, or is it always a little like herding cats?

There is definitely a herding aspect and a head count is important as we have left band members at truck stops a few times and people have even missed flights on show days (I won't name names). With two buses it can be pretty hard to keep tabs on everyone but luckily we have a crew who manages all that and it is fairly well-oiled by now. In the early days when Thomas had to oversee everything from the music to the management it was completely unpredictable. I even had to share a room with Thomas in the first few years which was hilarious as he chain-smoked clove cigarettes and stayed out all night and I was always going to bed early to rest my voice and trying to avoid smoke... we couldn't have been a worse domestic match!

How did you end up on stage with Carol Channing at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall? What did you sing?

Carol Channing was our special guest who stepped in at the last minute to replace Kitty Carlisle Hart who had fallen ill (shortly before she died). Carol was fantastic and just delightful to work with. She and I sang "There's No Business Like Show Business" and boy does she know about that! Her dance moves were unforgettable.

Do you feel like you're a Portland band? How does Portland fit into it all?

Definitely a Portland band. None of us auditioned to be in the band, we were just picked up by Thomas in the streets, at clubs, through friends, all in that neighborly Portland way. I met Thomas in college and in the mid-90s he called me up and got me to come from New York to this unknown city I quickly fell in love with. Portland made it possible for us to stay independent and afford to live while keeping this unwieldy band going. Few cities as cool as Portland are also as livable and affordable. We couldn't exist anywhere else.

Your website it says you're looking for a trombone player? Have you found one?

We have our long-term trombonist Robert Taylor, but because he is a full time member of the Oregon Symphony, we need alternates... Do you know anyone?

No, sorry! Your sister, Maya, is a wonderful screenwriter. (And a fellow doll like you!) Your cousin is Ed Droste, singer-songwriter of Grizzly Bear. Is it just dumb luck, or is there something about your family that spins off these great high-functioning artists? You and Maya wrote "Dosvedanya Mio Bombino" which was on Hey, Eugene. Do you and Ed ever collaborate?

China Forbes: Yes, Maya is brilliant and she practically raised me. She influenced me musically a lot and I basically copied her every move until I decided to go in a completely different direction from her. I take full credit for raising Edward who was my little protege until he completely surpassed me in indie cred hipsterness which I never had and boy did he want. I am so proud of his success. He and I constantly collaborate in our relationship because our interactions are all thru-sung, like Sondheim! We sing every conversation in crazy voices... We have not collaborated professionally...YET.

Oh my God, you must make your next project "China & Ed Sing Sondheim in Weird Voices." You've released two solo records. What does that enable you to do creatively that you can't do with Pink Martini?

Whine about my personal life.

Isn't that all we artists are in it for, anyway?

There's really no room for that in the elegant fantasy that is Pink Martini. And also I get to play a lot of the instruments and write all the songs and make all the decisions for once. It can be a lot of fun.

What's next?

The Pink Martini holiday album of course! Soon to be in all Starbucks locations worldwide.

Always love a holiday album, Can't wait.

Maria Semple links:

Maria Semple's website
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist for This One Is Mine

China Forbes links and free and legal mp3 downloads:

China Forbes' website
China Forbes' Wikipedia entry
Pink Martini's website
Pink Martini tourdates
Pink Martini albums

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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