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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape