Regina Spektor - Refugee from Soviet kitsch

Regina Spektor's family fled Moscow for the United States but, she tells Fiona Sturges, it was a conversation on an Israeli mountain that began her transition to New York alt-folk darling

One minute there's nothing, and the next there's a song, explains Regina Spektor, dreamily. "I never know where it comes from. It's as if the words are there in the air around me and I happen to be in the right place at the right time. I feel joy, even euphoria, but also fear. I think: 'What if it doesn't happen next time?'"

The Moscow-born, Bronx-bred musician is trying, with some difficulty, to explain the process of songwriting. But it's as much a mystery to her as it is to those of us who listen. As she tells it, each of her songs are born of a unique coincidence of time, place and the channelling of mystical forces.

Spektor is small and doll-like, with Shirley Temple curls framing a heart-shaped face. Even in the grips of a heinous hangover – last night she performed a new number, "Blue Lips", on Later... with Jools Holland, and then partied into the night – she has a twinkle in her eye that suggests a woman of keen intelligence though ever so slightly away with the fairies.

"Quirky", "kooky" and "oddball" are words frequently applied to Spektor, though they do little justice to her talent. Taking in Weimar cabaret, Russian polka, whimsical folk and sultry blues, her music is heartfelt, eclectic, and laden with atmosphere. She is a brilliant storyteller, conjuring eccentric characters and painting lurid backdrops in the vein of Nick Cave or The Handsome Family. Her influences are as much literary as they are musical. She has described her songs as short plays, which goes some way in conveying the complex plots and sub-plots that lie within. Her singing is as varied as her music, shifting from a hushed whisper to Björk-like ululation and back again. As one rapt reviewer put it: "When she opens her mouth, the universe comes out".

Those who admire Spektor do so with fierce devotion. Recently an impostor used her name to set up an account on Twitter and provided frequent and convincing updates to a following of 30,000, leading to Spektor's inclusion in The Times's Top 50 celebrity tweeters list (the account has since been de-activated). It was proof not only that Twitter can be a playground for fantasists, but that Spektor's fans really do hang on her every word.

They are not above passing judgement either. Last year Spektor performed at a benefit for Planned Parenthood, a charity organisation which is pro-choice. Following the show her manager was inundated with letters from fans who felt that Spektor should not have taken part.

"It was a surprise to me because I had assumed that people who listened to my music would share my views," reflects Spektor. "I'm a strong believer in the many sides and stories, and they had a right to tell me that. But it made me realise there's so much I assume about people, and they assume just as much about me."

Spektor has long resisted attempts both by journalists and fans to pin down the singer behind the songs. "When you're using your own voice people think you are talking directly to them and about yourself," she says. "But I don't want to obscure anything. I have a hard enough time talking about myself in interviews as it feels it might take away from the freedom of the music. I try to stay out of the way of the songs as much as I can."

Her new album Far, the follow-up to 2006's platinum-selling Begin To Hope, offers little in the way of clarification, drawing as it does upon a range of perspectives and voices. There's the divine supplication of "Laughing With", which reflects on life's fundamental horrors and then exhorts us all to lighten up, and "Folding Chair" which archly paints a portrait of domestic and spiritual harmony ("I've got a perfect body but sometimes I forget") and culminates, spectacularly, in Spektor impersonating a dolphin. In "Blue Lips" the singer homes in on human shades – "blue lips, blue veins," – before zooming out to "the blue colour of the planet from far, far away." It's a work of concentrated passion and originality.

Spektor worked with four different producers on the album, one of whom was Jeff Lynne, of ELO and Traveling Wilburys fame. Spektor knew nothing of his history but after hearing Tom Petty's Highway Companion, which Lynne produced, requested to work with him anyway. While most artists look to a single producer to give the songs on their album a sense of cohesion, for Spektor it was the opposite. "You might want to have some cohesion in your outfit but not in your music," she smiles. "I never write songs for an album and there's never any great concept. The songs that end up on my albums are there because I like them best. If I could have used more producers, I would."

Spektor has always been a prolific songwriter though she confesses that with her current schedule of promotion and performance, the stream of songs has moved "from an open faucet to a steady drip. They still accumulate and I have a huge backlog. There are many songs from the old days still waiting their turn. I would need two years in the studio to record them all."

While she grew up in the Soviet Union, writing pop songs was a long way from Spektor's mind. From birth she was in training as a concert pianist, and played a Petrof piano handed down from her great grandfather. The family lived a comfortable life in Moscow – her father worked as a photographer and her mother was a music professor. But in 1989, nine-year-old Spektor emigrated to the United States along with her parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and set up home in the Bronx. Their passports were destroyed by border security, ensuring they could never return home. "It was pretty intimidating," Spektor recalls. "Even then it was seen as a real betrayal to leave."

The family had a boom-box on which they listened to old cassettes of the Beatles, Moody Blues and Queen. The young Spektor was also entranced by the hip-hop and Latin music she heard.

Having left her beloved Petrof behind, she practiced piano on an out-of-tune upright in the basement of the local synagogue until her father befriended a Manhattan music professor. His wife was a Peruvian pianist and she agreed to give Regina lessons.

Spektor studied diligently throughout her teens despite the growing feeling that she would never make the grade as a classical pianist. As a consequence, she spent several years "as a very worried little person. All I could think was, 'what the hell was I going to do with my life?'" It never occurred to her that she should sing and write songs, and it took other people to point out the obvious. During a five-week student trip to Israel in 1996, a group of friends overheard her singing as she hiked up a mountain.

"They were really supportive. They would say, 'you have a really good voice, you should do something with that'. After a whole bunch of kids had said this to me I thought, 'holy shit, maybe this is what I should be doing'. They said, 'you should play an instrument,' and I said, 'but I do play an instrument!'"

In the late Nineties Spektor began performing at open-mic nights in Manhattan and found her spiritual home on the Lower East Side's anti-folk scene, which also fostered the careers of The Moldy Peaches and Ben Kweller.

"It wasn't a style, it was a community and an attitude that connected people," she recalls. "It was, like: 'We don't care about the industry and the mainstream. We do whatever we want to do and if people want to listen, that's great'. It was more about words and less about music. Skills were sort of uncool.

"I loved that scene, as it was a very nurturing place to be. Everyone was broke but everyone went to each other's shows, nursing the same beer all night to save money. You would see some great moments in music, even if there were only nine people watching."

In 2001 a friend of a friend invited her to his studio to record a few songs. Spektor put a dozen tracks on a CD and began selling it at gigs. At the same time she took series of temporary jobs. One summer she worked on a butterfly farm, another at a gynaecologist's office. For a time she even worked as an assistant to a private investigator. All the while she lived a sparse existence, collecting free make-up samples at drugstores and skipping meals.

Spektor looks back fondly at the camaraderie of the Lower East Side days, though she is equally cautious about romanticising the past. "I don't want to fall into that trap," she reflects. "It's easy to forget what it was really like being flat broke and spending hours on the subway every day getting in from the Bronx. I miss the time I had which allowed me to write songs and to see friends and family. But now there's so much that I get to do. I get to go to festivals and meet musicians that I've only ever dreamed of hearing live. I get to work with producers of an incredible calibre. All of a sudden I'm playing on Jools Holland and I get to have four wonderful string players. Now I perform in front of thousands. I wouldn't trade that for anything."

'Far' is on Warner Bros. Regina Spektor will perform at Latitude and T in the Park

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker