NPR White House correspondent gets his groove on


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WASHINGTON -- At Saturday'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, who will be joining the group at the BSO shindig to sing "But Now I'm Back."

Mr. Shapiro, 34, started at NPR in 2001, and he spent most of 2012 on the campaign trail covering Mitt Romney. In January, he'll move to London, replacing NPR correspondent Phil Reeves there.

Mr. Shapiro 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 this month -- singing in five languages. He recently took a break from listening to President Barack Obama to talk about music.

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.

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 [in Virginia] 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?" [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.

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."

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."

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.

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