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LAist Interview: China Forbes of Pink Martini

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China Forbes is the ultra-fabulous frontlady of Pink Martini, a 12 piece “little orchestra” based in Portland, Oregon. Pink Martini is the kind of band that serves up a little sumthin for everyone – their multi-lingual repertoire ranges from lounge to Latin, classical to cosmopolitan and they’re huge stars in France. This Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 14, 15 & 16) the band hits the stage at the Hollywood Bowl accompanied by our very own Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and featuring special guests Carol Channing (who we interviewed yesterday), Henri Salvator and the March Forth Marching Band.

LAist got to talk to Forbes, a self-described homebody, before she headed off with the band to tour the US this summer and Europe in the fall.

Hey Eugene is your third album. How is it different from the other two?

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It’s really different. The first one, Sympathique, was Thomas’ (Lauderdale, the founder of the band) compilation of his favorite cover songs with a few originals thrown in. The second, Hang On Little Tomato, had tons of originals but still had the same sort of Pink Martini elegance to it. Hey Eugene veers into different territory. It’s much more lively while the others are more soothing and elegant. "Dos Vedanya Mio Bombino (Farewell my Bumblebee)," is this big rollicking almost musical theatereque song. It actually features the March Forth Marching Band who are playing with us at the Bowl so that will be fun.

You wrote the title track about some guy who took your number at a party and never called. Did he finally call when the album came out and you’d made him all famous and stuff?

No. Every one wonders that but he never did.

What the hell does it take to get a guy to call you back these days?

I guess a lot more - international fame, radio fame, I don’t know. It was 12 years ago though. Still, it was one of those magical nights where you meet someone and really connect. We couldn’t get over the fact that we were at the same place at the same time, we danced the night away and at the end of the night he asked if it would be too soon to call me the next day. And then I never heard from him.

Carol Channing is one of your special guests. I love her - is she singing with you guys?

Yes, she's coming out during the set and doing a song with the band and then we're doing a duet. I grew up totally loving her, I loved Free To Be You and Me. I learned a lot performing with her in the past. She's such a musical theater expert. She never misses a performance and told me this funny story about how she's sure the one performance she misses will be the one where the journalist shows up and gushes about how great her understudy is.

What is the song writing process like when there are 12 people in the band?

We don't write together as a group. Thomas and I write together and sometimes other people write songs on their own or with Thomas. Because the band started as a cover band, it's kind of a new thing. Even Thomas had never written a song before, he was a classical pianist. When he brought me in, I was a singer songwriter and I helped bring that to the band. He and I come from such different backgrounds that I love the atmosphere of the songs we write together.

Hey Eugene has you singing your first song ever in Arabic - what was that like?

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It was so scary. I always say no to everything at first - Thomas always says yes so I feel like I have to say no even harder, but in the end he won. He found a professor from Portland state university, Professor Sbait, who tutored me, wrote diagrams and cue cards and explained the sounds to me. He even came into the studio with us.

How many languages do you think you have songs in at this point?

I think I've sung in 12. We haven't necessarily recorded in all of them, but at least 12.

The Hollywood Bowl is one of my favorite places to see a show in LA. What's it like performing there? Do you sense all the joyous picnicing going on around you up there on stage?

I love the Bowl. You really rise to the occasion when you're in amazing concert halls like that. This if the 4th time we'll be playing there but this is the first time we're the only band. Including the orchestra, of course. That's really exciting. We're going to part of the fireworks finale so its going to be so exciting. I love that get to play for 3 nights and have a nice long stay in LA.

So you're playing with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. You guys are on tour so you can't show up early and practice. How does that work?

We do practice. The classical musicians are so quick to learn that we have one rehearsal on the day of the first show for about 4 hours. We play through the whole set with the conductor and sometimes we run out of time and don't get to do the whole set which sounds scary but the musicians are so accomplished they can just sight read. I'm excited for this show because we have some brand new orchestrations that we haven't heard yet.

The new album features a duet with you and jazz legend Jimmy Scott. What was it like singing with him?

It was sort of unbelievable to sing with somebody who's literally from a completely different era and is a legend. It was like I was singing with Billy Holiday. It was so typical of Thomas to pull something like that off. He's the kind of person who dares to dream things that no one else would and actually pulls it off. We cover a Henri Salvatore song, "Syracuse," on the new album. He's sort of like the Nat King Cole of France and one time when Thomas and I were in France, he went off to buy a pack of cigarettes and ran into Henri getting out of a cab. He handed him our CD and now he's stopping off on his way back to France from Taiwan to sing with us. It's like Thomas just sprinkles fairy dust and makes his dreams come true. He's amazing.

What's your favorite thing about being in a band?

I think making records. I don't love the travel, I wish I could be beamed around. The making records part is the most fun and creative because I'm home and working hard and I like having a schedule. I love being in the middle of being deeply involved in a project that's demanding and creative like that. I have so many ideas for records I want to make.

Any advice for anyone out there who wants to be a singer?

I've learned the most from performing live, so I would say get gigs and perform as much as possible. That's where music school is. But also play an instrument so you can be autonomous. I just sing in Pink Martini but I play guitar and can write all my songs on my own. It's good to be self-sufficient.

Photo credit: 2005 © Adam Levey