Regina Spektor: 'Writing songs makes me so happy’
She’s been described as indie music’s Phoebe from 'Friends’, but singer-songwriter Regina Spektor is a huge talent. Helen Brown meets her.
Regina Spektor doesn’t want to answer questions about being called "kooky".
But the word – first used by the Beat Generation, possibly derived from “cuckoo” – has cropped up in most reviews of the 32-year-old singer-songwriter’s work since she released her debut album, 11:11, in 2001. It’s a word which, on the positive side, expresses Spektor’s refreshingly idiosyncratic approach to her craft and, on the negative, flags up her cutesy voice and childlike tics which have included dolphin impressions and daft accents.
Some hear “engaging eccentricity” and a bold “lack of inhibition” where others cringe at the “pretentious and borderline excruciating” sound of “indie music’s answer to Phoebe from Friends”. All agree she’s “prodigiously talented”: bursting with original ideas, beautifully adventurous melodies and genre-hopping sounds. The question is always about whether she’s ditzing that talent away or using it to express a unique and wonderful personality.
Sitting on a rooftop terrace with her in late May, I can lay at least one of those slurs to rest. Spektor’s music is in no way “affected”. She really is like that: funny, friendly, brainy, sincere, scatty and disconcertingly girlish. She’s great company, despite jet lag and a night spent watching television in her hotel room.
“There’s loads of Russian channels here!” she exclaims. “I don’t even have a TV back home, but it was such a mind trip. I was watching really bizarre things, like a weird old musical – kinda triptastic – where everybody wanted this fur coat. Well, of course, everybody wanted a fur coat,” she rolls her eyes, “it was Russia. But it ended with a big fire in a stable with all this smoking hay and they used the coat to put out the fire.”
It sounds rather like a story from one of her curious, narrative songs, which are seldom simple boy-meets-girl romances and almost never directly autobiographical.
On the lapel of her slimline black jacket she wears a mouth-shaped brooch, mirroring her own large and compelling, cartoon-crimson-painted smile. She peppers her New York intelligentsia conversation – which ranges from the ancient Greek diet through Russian satire, Swedish cartoons and French philosophy – with the “likes”, “awesomes”, and “totallys” of a Valley girl. It’s a bit like talking to a teenage prodigy.
That’s not surprising, since Spektor was a precocious child. Born in Soviet Russia in 1980, Spektor’s mother was a piano teacher at a Moscow conservatory while her father was a photographer and amateur violinist.
Little Regina would cling to her mother’s back like a monkey while she played, or sit in the dark and listen to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Although she began serious classical piano training in her native country aged seven, her studies were halted when the family emigrated to New York in 1989. Then a chance meeting with the husband of former piano prodigy Sonia Vargas led to Spektor taking lessons from the Manhattan School of Music professor twice a week until she was 17.
But her early promise never quite lifted off into a classical career – her hands were quite small and she struggled. But then, on holiday in Israel, she gained a reputation for making up songs for other kids on hikes. She loved the feeling and was soon writing 30-40 songs a year. “Creativity happens in the moments between all the internal noise, which is why it feels so good,” she says. “It’s like you jumped off a cliff and then just – hovered. Like everybody else took a time out and you could look around. Writing songs makes me so happy. They are written in a moment of being tapped into yourself, or into life and so they’re living. And then you plummet down to the ground. I’m always scared I’ll never write another.”
One of Spektor’s most common vocal tics is the repetition of sounds and syllables. Her best known single, Fidelity, has her singing about what breaks her “ha-har-har, ha-har-har heart”. Is that her flapping her wings, trying to hang on to that ecstatic, hovering moment? “Yeah!” she laughs, “It might be that.”
Although music industry types – like Andrew Slater, who would become Capitol Records’ president – encouraged her early talent, she ignored his advice about reducing the length of her songs and waited seven years for a deal which would allow her to use more adventurous, classically-derived structures and unconventional sounds.
As she says: “Mainstream music has been cornered into a dead end. It’s formulaic. When you’re reading beautiful haikus, you never think this is too structured. But when I hear another song that is just like every other, then the structure is like a bad smell. It crushes you.”
Over the five, free-spirited albums she has released in the past decade, Spektor has built a huge fan base, including President Obama. Her sixth album, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, is a delightful mix of moods and genres. Spektor throws herself into beatboxing and making trumpet noises. Big, romantic pop ballads (like the raw, break-up song How) rattle up against experimental pieces about tragic masterpieces locked in museums (“It’s their own fault for being timeless”) and several laments at the passage of time. Spektor recently described herself as “definitely in the club of people who have experienced great tragedy in their life” after one of her closest friends died in a plane crash and her cellist, Daniel Cho, drowned in Lake Geneva the day before she played the Montreux Jazz Festival. There’s a lot about mortality on this record, I say.
“There’s a lot of mortality in the world,” she says, crisply. “I’m very Russian Jewish in that way. Like, even when I was very young that was always in my head . . . time, life, death. I was very excited and smiley – like I am now – but you definitely have a lot of worries as a kid and you develop magical thinking to deal with it, to prevent the bad stuff from happening. As life goes on you accept there’s a lot you can’t control, that things just happen.”
Besides, she stresses, these songs aren’t all new. It annoys her when critics identify “new-found maturity” or “attempts to break into the pop market” on her records because she’s always included a mixture of old and new. “There are always lots in the queue, waiting for their turn.”
She’s written so many songs, she sometimes has to listen to fan recordings on YouTube to remind herself of them. “I’m grateful people film the concerts, otherwise I would forget how I do things. I try not to look at it, though. It’s weird to look at yourself sing. Like watching yourself chew.”
One lovely song that’s been reworked for the new album is Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas), which first appeared on Songs. It’s been given a makeover with steel drums and trombone. Spektor leans forward, wide-eyed to confide: “When I was hanging out with Nikolai [Fraiture, the Strokes’ bassist] and his kids, I totally realised my dream for that song is for it to become a limbo anthem. I would just be in the dreamiest of realities if children would play it at parties and limbo down.”
She smiles. “Y’know, people have forgotten the limbo. I don’t think it’s getting it’s proper space in the culture.” And she does a shoulder shaking limbo impression that I have to imitate. Time spent with Spektor can leave you feeling pretty kooky, too.