At this year’s Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Gala, the headliner will be Pink Martini, a self-proclaimed “little orchestra” from Portland, Ore., that’s been together for nearly two decades. Pink Martini has about a dozen musicians in its regular roster and plenty of recurring guest stars, including NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro (soon to be London correspondent, but more on that later), who will be joining the group at the BSO shindig to sing “But Now I’m Back.” Nifty, right? Moonlighting as a musician. It’s all very Hannah Montana.
Shapiro, 34, started at NPR in 2001, and he spent most of 2012 on the campaign trail covering then-presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. He can be heard on three Pink Martini albums — “Splendor in the Grass,” “Joy to the World” and “Get Happy,” which is due out at the end of September — singing in five languages (showoff). He took a break from listening to President Obama to talk about his musical past, the karaoke skills of his NPR co-workers, and why he’d rather hit the road with the band than jet-set in the presidential motorcade.
Starting at the beginning: Were you always into music — one of those kids who sang along with the radio all the time?
I was a theater kid. I did choirs and musical theater. I took singing lessons and things like that.
Were you in an a cappella group in college? [Shapiro majored in English at Yale].
Did it have a ridiculous name?
You’re really digging here. It was called Mixed Company.
Is it cool now to say you were in a group like that? It feels like a cappella is having a moment, what with “Pitch Perfect” and all.
It’s not like saying you played varsity football.
So you weren’t a big fan of the movie?
Maybe my expectations were set a little too high. Rebel Wilson, I love her. Everyone needs a little more Rebel Wilson in their lives.
How did you get connected with Pink Martini?
It all started at a barbecue at my house. When Pink Martini was in town to perform at Wolf Trap about four years ago, this other band from Portland, Oregon, Blind Pilot, was in town. And I’m from Portland and was friends with them so I threw a party for them. Pink Martini and Blind Pilot were there, and the barbecue sort of went late into the night. Eventually, it moved upstairs and turned into a singalong around the piano at my house. And then, the next day, Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini called me at my desk at NPR and said, “We have this concept for a song on the next album that we want a man to sing, why don’t you sing it?” [Editor’s note: The lead singers of Pink Martini are female.] I never thought that would happen. I’d been a fan of Pink Martini since I was a kid in Portland. So this seemed like some crazy fantasy. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Portland to record a song they’d written. I thought it would never make it on the album, but it did. And I thought that would be the one-time thing . . . but they wanted me to perform it live with them. In 2009, I made my first appearance on stage with Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl, in front of 18,000 people.
And it all took off from there?
Thomas said, “If you're going to keep performing with us, we’ll need to find new songs for you to sing.’ So “Get Happy” is the third album I’m on, and I’ve toured the world with them.
Between “singing on stage in front of 18,000 people” and “interviewing the president,” which is more nerve-racking?
I find performing with Pink Martini to be exhilarating. I get an adrenaline rush from doing it. Nerves are an element of that, but to describe it as nerve-racking makes it sound stressful or anxiety-provoking in a negative way. I find performing with Pink Martini to be stressful in a positive way, scary in a good way. Which I think is part of the fun of performing generally: the excitement of live performance, and everything that can go wrong, and the real-time response of an audience, and the synchronicity of everyone on stage together.
Were your colleagues at NPR surprised to learn about your singing gigs?
At this point, the cat’s pretty much out of the bag. Over the past few years, the band has performed a couple of times at the Kennedy Center, [and] we’ve done other shows around the area. The band has been on NPR a few times since I started performing with them. And every now and then, my editor will mention in a note to the desk, “If you have anything coming up that you need days off for, like a performance at Carnegie Hall, let me know.”
Has it surprised you?
I never imagined that this would be a regular side project that would go on for an extended period of time. . . . It seemed so presumptuous to me that I could be part of this band for so long. But it’s really dovetailed so beautifully with the rest of my life, in a way that lets me take a break from the very cerebral stuff that I do in my day job. I get to do something that is challenging and fulfilling in a completely different way. And I take my vacation days to do it. While it doesn’t feel like vacation per se, I come back feeling so refreshed and ready to jump back into the Washington-ness of my life here.
Is there a big music scene at NPR? Enough to start a house band?
David Greene is a pretty awesome karaoke singer. . . . Also, the NPR music crew here is so plugged in with so much good music. Bob Boilen, of course, who runs NPR music, has his own band, which will occasionally perform. Paul Brown, the newscaster, is really involved in the Appalachian folk music scene, too.
What about your fellow reporters on the Romney bus or in the White House press corps?
I’ve never seen the musical stylings of folks on the Romney bus or the White House press corps. The extent of the music on the Romney bus was people singing along with the Rebecca Black song “Friday.”
A nd what was the song he played at all the rallies? It was Kid Rock, right?
We had to listen to “Born Free,” the Kid Rock song. I used to joke that we should have a drinking game, that everybody would have to recite the next word in the lyrics and if you missed it, you had to drink. [But] we would have all been completely sober.
What kind of music do you listen to now that you’re no longer stuck with Romney’s playlist?
It’s cheesy to say, but I really do love the stuff on the new [Pink Martini] album. This is the first album that’s had both China [Forbes] and Storm [Large] sing lead vocals. . . . The Von Trapp grandchildren are on it. Phyllis Diller’s last recording before she died, a cover of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” is on there.
Which is better: traveling with Pink Martini or traveling with the president?
The thing about traveling with the president is that you know where you are in the pecking order, and it is the bottom. They are not there to accommodate you. And when you’re traveling with Pink Martini, it’s not necessarily luxury — we fly coach and we travel in a bus — but we are not at the mercy of the president.
Congratulations on the new London gig. How did that come about?
I learned that Phil Reeves (the current NPR London correspondent) was moving to Islamabad a couple of weeks ago. . . . I’d always expected to stay on the White House beat for five years or so, and I’ve been on it for 31 / 2. This is a job that rarely opens up. I can’t think of a better next step after covering the White House.
When will you start?
I’m going to start in early January. Pink Martini has a concert in London in mid-October. I haven’t told the band this yet, but I plan to stand up on stage and tell the audience that I’m looking for an apartment and we’ll be signing CDs after the show. So if anybody has any leads on where I can live, they should come find me.
8:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral Street, Baltimore. www.bsomusic.org.
For tickets, call 410-783-8000.
This article previously stated that the concert starts at 6:30 p.m. and the number for tickets is 410.783.8035. That time and number is for the pre-concert fundraiser.