Regina Spektor: imagining a new world
If singer-songwriter Regina Spektor were to ever write a memoir, she says it would probably be fiction. Reality for the star is often only a starting point for his relentless imagination. But if she ever will need writing a memoir, ultimately, may be a questionable idea, as much of Spektor’s experience is already embedded in his multitude of brilliant songs. Not necessarily literally, of course. Rather emotionally. For Spektor, this is the feeling of a work rather than its adherence to actual details. But that doesn’t mean his life has been boring. In fact, it’s been tumultuous since it was born overseas in the censorship-rich country of Russia. Spektor, who moved to the United States when he was 9, often had a tough day. For example, his beloved musical father passed away earlier this year. Now, however, Spektor has a new album out in the world: House, before and afterwhich fell on June 24. This is his wonderful and heartbreaking final chapter.
“My system is such that I might go through something emotional,” Spektor says, “but I’m going to write a fun song. For me, that kind of fulfills something. I don’t write autobiographical songs in this direct way. But they’re all autobiographical in the sense that my real emotions and feelings are there. Overflowing in them.
We’re all different. Spektor is quick to admit it. For her, her “happy place” is fiction and her imagination. Others work as journalists and scientists. Literalists. “If I were to write a memoir, everything would be made up somehow,” says Spektor. She explains that she doesn’t believe her perception of reality is accurate. Instead, she says, she’s best used as an explorer, both outer and inner. Distilling his thoughts is his best gift and a chance to understand the world. She even wrote a song – “Left Hand Song” – using only her left hand because her right hand was going through a condition. She wondered if she would ever be able to use her right hand again. But she didn’t cling to that. Instead, the music continued its flow, as much a transport somewhere as a product of labor.
“I think the music is so old,” says Spektor, “and so pre-pre-pre-everything that if you just give in to it, then it’s just the best way to travel somewhere. When you add lyrics to that, that feeling ends up carrying you. Every time I listen to really good songs, I end up going somewhere, and when the song ends, I come back.
Spektor was born in Moscow in the Soviet Union on February 18, 1980. Today, the 42-year-old songwriting virtuoso says her earliest musical memories involved a grand concept. She thought music was God. Hearing classical music in her house and the piano and violin played by her mother and father respectively, she was filled with enormous and swelling feelings. She conceived the idea that music was “in charge of everything in the world”. It was ironic, in a way, since in Russia at that time talking about God was forbidden. Religion was illegal, says Spektor. Later, when she came to America with her family during Perestroika, a time in the late 1980s when Soviet citizens were allowed to emigrate from the country, she learned of the separation between music and God.
“My dad,” she says, “had this amazing collection that he amassed. He was such an audiophile and also such a lover of western music and especially all things rock.
Growing up, she listened to popular music like Queen and the Beatles as well as pop songs from countries like France and Italy, songs she didn’t fully understand because they were in different languages. Instead, they were like sound palaces, shapes. His dad loved to play it hard. A technician in his own right, he tinkered with the camera and audio equipment. In America, when she started to learn English, she could finally understand what John Lennon and Paul McCartney were singing. She had also learned a little Italian during her emigration. And in New York, where her family landed after leaving Russia, she began studying Hebrew and Judaism. But what she lacked was her piano, which she had had to give up.
“We had this little upright piano that my grandfather…” Spektor says, then stops. “My mother, she is a pianist. In Russia, she was a conservatory teacher. She taught music theory and musicology. She loved playing this little upright piano that my grandfather, who died before I was born, had given her when he entered the conservatory.
Like many children, Spektor wanted to hear as many stories about his grandfather as possible. She loved the connection with him, especially through the piano. When her mother played, she would snuggle up, sitting behind her in a chair, straddling her almost like a baby koala. It was a safe place. She listened. Absorbed. Darling. So, of course, she also wanted to learn to play the instrument. This connection to God, to family, to waves of emotion, safety and thought, that was what the piano represented. His father, however, wanted Spektor to play the violin like him. Her parents had a friendly rivalry over it which her mother eventually won.
“The truth is, I had my eyes on the piano straight away,” says Spektor. “It just was – and still is – for me, it’s like a place. Not necessarily an instrument, because it’s so vast and so varied. It has, like, different area codes. It’s is big. Something about that is really heartwarming.
Spektor was never going to be someone who could carry his instrument on the subway and go. The advantage, however, is that she is never alone on stage, she says. She is never alone when she performs. There’s this “huge, big friend” she’s had since she was a baby. So when she had to leave her home at such a young age, the hard part was leaving the people she knew. But the hardest thing then was to leave this piano, forever. Spektor says she perhaps leans too often into the idea of anthropomorphizing objects, giving them feelings, personalities, and lives.
“I hated the idea that she was now going to be out in the world and feel abandoned,” she says. “Like it’s been abandoned or something.”
She didn’t have a piano in New York for two years until the neighborhood she and her family lived in donated it to them. (“These movers brought it four flights from our walk,” Spektor recalls.) There was even a picture of it all in the local Bronx paper that week. A photo of his mother holding his little brother and the movers carrying the piano. When you leave a country like Russia, you have to make sacrifices. In America, some of what was lost has been restored. And today, of course, Spektor’s house is making headlines. Its invasion of Ukraine, at the time of this writing, continues. Spektor finds it all devastating. She is “heartbroken”.
“My heart is with Ukraine,” she said. “That’s where my grandparents come from. I think it’s crazy – one minute there are these beautiful cities with people, the next minute they’re bombed. It’s atrocious. Repugnant. There aren’t enough powerful words to throw at him.
As she mourns the war from afar, Spektor also knows that many in her homeland abhor it too. This is an important nuance to consider from someone who sees nuances and can explain them like a poet-hawk. Indeed, Spektor’s new LP is packed with idiosyncratic, thoughtful, sometimes brilliant and sometimes titillating detail. Her eye and ear are so sharp, it’s easy to wish her voice was your own inner monologue. Songs like the sticky “SugarMan,” the hypnotic “Loveology,” and the operatic “Spacetime Fairytale” stun as if you’ve discovered a hidden amusement park in your backyard. But for Spektor, the disc creation process never really began.
“The genesis of my record,” she says, again pausing. “I don’t even know if my records have a genesis. I think there are people who make records, who write recordings. They write records; I write songs. And then I end up choosing or saving what feels right to me.
Inevitably, on each record, there is a song written something like a lark that lands on the tracklist, another written in his teens, or thereabouts. It’s an eclectic patchwork like a “best of” photo album of his years spent at the piano. “It’s everywhere,” she laughs. Over the course of her career, she explains, she’s noticed that most people appreciate consistent work. So while the songs aren’t written in chronological order, she strives to make the LP feel tight and connected.
“A group of songs ends up together that makes sense together,” says Spektor. “Even if it makes sense just by contrast. I think all my records are consistent. But it’s not because the songs are alike. Each song is its own little world.
Instead of something linear, she likes to think of the process of listening to one of her records like jumping into a subway car. He stops, the doors open and you are at the bottom of the ocean. It stops again, you face the vast Milky Way. It stops again and you’re in someone’s kitchen while they’re scrambling eggs. Spektor’s process and judgment paid off tremendously. Although you might not recognize her in the supermarket, she is one of the most respected songwriters on Earth. It’s a great balance. She’s probably your favorite artist’s favorite artist. In July, for example, she should play at Carnegie Hall. June 11 was Regina Spektor Day in New York. These are peaks. But there are lows like losing your father, which she says can alter you forever. (“I feel absolutely changed,” she says.) Fortunately, for Spektor, in this time of transformation, music remains reliably transportable.
“We didn’t figure out how to go back in time,” Spektor said. “We haven’t figured out how to travel in person to other planets. We haven’t figured out how to be at the center of the Earth or at the bottom of the ocean in person. But the music – the melody and the rhythm – is encoded in this way where it is really the only means of transportation that is outside of consciousness.
Photo by Shervin Lainez