Lead singer of the genre-bending pop band Pink Martini, China Forbes, 46, was born and raised in Cambridge, the daughter of an African-American mother and a Boston Brahmin father (a descendant of the China trader and railroad magnate John Murray Forbes). The recent film Infinitely Polar Bear, directed by her sister, Maya, depicted their tumultuous childhood, in which they were raised by their bipolar father while their mother pursued a graduate degree and career in New York. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in visual arts, Forbes moved to New York to pursue an acting career, but eventually her college friend Thomas Lauderdale drew her to the West Coast to perform in his then new band. Pink Martini has released numerous albums and performed everywhere from the Cannes Film Festival to Royal Albert Hall. Forbes has released two solo albums, and she lives in Portland, Oregon, with her son.
China Forbes: Yes, it does, but the sad thing is that when people ask me what my hometown is, I say Portland, which feels like a betrayal. Cambridge really is home, but since my father died, I don’t really have an anchor there.
How would you describe Pink Martini to someone who’s never heard of it? The short answer is old-fashioned pop, like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, kind of orchestral, jazz, Latin pop. But that doesn’t really describe it, because of all the other stuff we do. [Laughs.]
You do a lot of mash-ups. What informs that? Well, Thomas is a classically trained pianist. He never thought he’d start a band. So whenever we have a chance to take a little Chopin and merge it with a pop song and it works beautifully, it’s just so satisfying. It’s like cooking. You throw in different ingredients and see what happens.
Where did the name Pink Martini come from? Thomas had just started the band. He was obsessed with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Henry Mancini, and the cocktail revival was happening. He just said, “I love the color pink, and I love martinis. Pink Martini!”
You do a lot of songs in different languages. Is that part of the stated mission? Early on, it was. When Thomas started the band, he wanted to do certain songs from films that were in other languages. He never wanted to do the English version of a song like “Never on Sunday.” It’s not nearly as cool as doing it in Greek. So it started that way, and then when we first wrote a song together, we wrote it in French, because we both studied French. After that, we decided to write one in Italian, because I speak Italian. Then we were going to Beirut, so we decided to do a song in Arabic. Eventually it became this sort of equal-opportunity fan placation.
So how many languages do you speak? Just English, French and Italian, but according to my new app, Duolingo, I’m 50 percent fluent in Italian, which is not true. Their placement test was clearly too easy. I speak French much better than Italian.
Favorite venue you’ve ever performed in? Red Rocks. I got to sing the aria “Song to the Moon” from the opera Rusalka in a stormy, blustery wind, under a full moon. That was pretty amazing.
Favorite Cole Porter song? “Night and Day.” Or maybe “It’s De Lovely.”
Irving Berlin? “What’ll I Do.”
I’ve been playing your version of that song nonstop. How about Frank Sinatra? Either “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Somethin’ Stupid.”
Song you wish you wrote? In the whole wide world? “Every Breath You Take.” It’s also the answer to the question “What song changed your life?”
How so? It just spoke to my adolescent yearning. It was the song that connected to a desperate, pubescent longing. I was just so affected physically by the music. But the song that made me want to be a singer was “Dim All the Lights” by Donna Summer.
Do you think you’re the only Boston Brahmin pop star? [Laughs.] Yes. I have a feeling. But you’d know better than I.
How many musical instruments do you play? I play guitar and piano and ukulele. When I recorded my album, I played the bass and harmonium. I can kind of play any instrument to a degree, except for woodwinds or horns. Not well, but enough.
Musical idol? Renee Fleming.
Musical guilty pleasure? Oh, so many. I love the Biebs. I think Taylor Swift’s really an amazing songwriter. Yesterday, I was on the plane, listening to the most esoteric stuff. My son is 7, and we listen to Sirius pop hits all the time. I was recently pulling into my driveway and heard a song that I was like, “I need to know who this is.” It was this band, Fifth Harmony, that I never took seriously because they started on The X Factor, but this song “Work from Home” is so good. It’s so spare, and it’s this sexual innuendo. I just love it.
Who’s the person from childhood who most influenced you musically? Probably my dad singing three-part harmony with his brother and sister. Then my grandfather would pull out the French horn and play at the dinner table on Christmas. That was also the French influence, because he was French. So it all kind of came together in Pink Martini.
Was it weird having your childhood depicted on screen? It was not weird. It was somewhat validating or cathartic. Growing up, I felt so secretive about what was really going on in our home. My dad’s mental health, and how messy and disgusting it was to me. I wanted everything to be nice and clean, and it wasn’t that way. I grew up with a lot of shame. And now, I don’t have to worry about anyone finding out anything. It’s all out there, and there’s a huge feeling of relief. But also to have people realize how amazing my dad was and not focus solely on the other stuff. To accept that that came along with the brilliance and the charm. Finally, everybody gets to see such a great depiction of him.
Do you think how tumultuous your childhood was makes you a better artist, or that artistry comes from a place of pain? Definitely. I think it kind of has to.
Your mother made history on Wall Street as the first black woman to run an investment firm. Is that a major point of pride? Definitely, because she sacrificed so much. It would have been tragic if it had been for naught. She did well. We did well. It all kind of bore out the decisions she had made.
I heard your cousin Forbesy Russell sing last summer and thought, “Why is she not a professional?” She is. She’s an actress. She was on The Love Boat. I also remember when they came out with Grape Nuts with Raisins, she was in the ad. I was so in love with her. I was 10. She was this corn-flower blue-eyed blond beauty, and she was jogging through Central Park with a Sony Walkman, and they stopped her and said, “Can you please taste this and describe it?” And she goes, “Crunchy, chewy, nutty, sweet!” To this day, she still signs emails to me as “Crunchy, chewy, nutty, sweet.”
Person you’d most like to do a duet with that you haven’t? Donna Summer, except she’s dead. Thomas is always asking people to guest with us, and he aims high. Sometimes we get them. We had discussed asking her, and that would have been incredible. Although I’m not sure I would have been able to go through with it, because I would have just dissolved into a puddle.
Person you sang with who you were completely star-struck by? Well, it was really fun when Faith Prince did a duet with me on Happy Days Are Here Again, because I’d seen her in the revival of Guys and Dolls, and she was Adelaide. I was an actress at the time, and she was in the big hit show and so funny and so amazing, and then later, I was singing with her in San Francisco with the symphony. Also Georges Moustaki, the French singer. I befriended him in Paris and we sang “Ma Solitude,” which is a song my mother loved when I was little. I’ve had a lot of heightened, peak experiences. It’s kind of hard to say which was the best.
Accomplishment you’re most proud of? Besides my son? It may be turning that moment of rejection by a guy named Eugene into the song “Hey Eugene.” Because being able to make something out of a painful situation was a nice turn of events.
If you were a song, what would it be? “Hey Eugene.” That’s so sad, but it’s me. It’s humorous, pathetic, adventurous, brazen, daring, humiliated, hilarious. It’s 100 percent from my life. That song is me. And in the end, it’s vindication.