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Pink Martini return to shake up Savannah Music Festival

EVERYONE'S favorite "little orchestra" is back! Pink Martini, the 12-piece band that combines classical, jazz, Latin, and numerous international influences, has become a critical sensation since founder Thomas Lauderdale established the group in 1994. Savannah fell in love with Pink Martini’s unfussy elegance in 2012. Their 2016 show has sold out once again, but we couldn’t pass up a chance to chat with charismatic vocalist China Forbes.

Though Forbes never received professional musical training, her diverse background in folk, musical theatre, and more made her the perfect songstress to helm Pink Martini. We talked about her recent touring breaks, composing with Lauderdale, and Pink Martini’s grand return to Savannah.

You’ve cut back on touring yourself, is that right?

Yes, it's been an interesting time. I have a child who's seven, and when he was two, I had vocal cord surgery and took a break. Storm [Large, vocalist] filled in for me and we've been alternating ever since. It's been like job-sharing! [Laughs]

Have you enjoyed being able to have that flexibility?

It's interesting. I love performing, so I'm happy that I don't have to give it up, but I couldn't really keep up this pace and be a mother. I never would have seen my son. It's just been a nice way to do both. I look forward to the touring and staying home.

Was there a lot of recovery time after your surgery?

It was surprisingly not that long; the whole thing, discovering I had a hemorrhage to deciding to have surgery was a long process. I didn't know what I wanted to do. Surgery is so scary...and it wasn't required for me to get surgery, it was a choice for how I wanted to go on as a singer. After I did it, I was performing again in three months and could sing three weeks after the surgery, it was kind of amazing.

How did you start out singing?

I imitated all the singers I loved...basically, I imitated Natalie Merchant and Stevie Nicks, then later Ella Fitzgerald when I got more involved in the music of Pink Martini. Originally I was a Donna Summer lover, then became a singer-songwriter and did my folk rock songs that I wrote, then Thomas asked me to be in Pink Martini.

Did you ever imagine yourself performing in a group like Pink Martini?

Not at all! I was in New York, I had a band of my own. I was playing guitar and singing, it was completely different, but because I had been in choir and glee club and a cappella and rock bands, I had such a broad range of experience, so when he asked me to do this, I fit right in. It was a way for me to use all of my abilities, more so than in my own band. Another challenge was the languages: besides French and Italian, I don't speak the languages. I learn phonetically. My technique is to learn with a native speaker, then after I learn the song, I pretend I'm tipsy! [Laughs]

Any songs you’re looking forward to on your next album?

There are some songs I want to record, but I haven't told anybody yet. [Laughs] I'll see if Thomas agrees. Thomas, he's a real artist, a story and place researcher, so he finds a gem from the past and another country.

What happens when you and Thomas sit down to write together?

We laugh, we disagree, we have to compromise. It's kind of emotional. Our goal this time to be open to each other's ideas and more flexible, but also we both stick to our guns when we really believe in something, so it's really hard to collaborate but it's fun. One thing I love is when I write songs, I'm not a great pianist, so they are more simplified chords, and he comes in and does all these voicings I don't know and flourishes and takes it in a more sophisticated direction. That's always fun to see that unfold from the sketch.

What’s in store for Savannah’s performance?

It will be the last show of tour there's always a lot of excitement and special energy on the last night. Ari Shapiro will be there from NPR, he sings with us, he's great! Thomas has been asking everybody what songs do you want to perform we haven't been performing lately, so maybe there will be some surprises.