Regina Spektor: Magic music from the cheap seats
Moscow-born, Bronx-bred, and now loved by Obama: she tells The Independent about her rise and rise
Regina Spektor is very fond of the word "magical". She says it nearly a dozen times when we're together, using it to describe anything from playing a gig to writing a song. It's a fitting word for her to use: the Moscow-born, Bronx-bred songstress has always come across as ever-so-slightly bonkers, an eccentric artist whose songs have a tendency to reference the supernatural and the divine, as well as a whole host of oddball characters drawn from the depths of her imagination. Sitting on a rooftop in west London on a rare sunny day, we find ourselves under attack from ants. She picks one from me and tells it off in her childlike pitch: "You're not supposed to be there. Oh, you're sweet".
Some have found the 32-year-old's kookiness to be grating, but in person she is charming and fun, all wide-eyed wonder and giggles. Having just released her sixth album, the critically-acclaimed What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, Spektor has graduated to the kind of mainstream artist who appears on major chat-shows and who has a devoted following that includes one Barack Obama. Like her others, the latest record is a curious mix of emotional ballads, political verses and quirky songs which twist and turn dramatically, often finishing far from where they started, in subject and in genre.
She struggles to explain how she writes her songs. "It's kind of mysterious and weird; it just sort of feels a certain way," she says, before stopping herself. "Do you ever get this feeling when you're about to fall asleep? Well, nobody ever remembers the moment they fall asleep but you start having that feeling, an, 'I'm about to fall asleep right now', feeling, and it's a sort of an in-between state? Right before I start writing a song it feels a little like that, a little bit different. It does feel very unique." For What We Saw… Spektor chose to work with renowned hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo, who is most famous for writing with and producing Dr Dre and Eminem. While it might sound like an unlikely union, Elizondo contributed a little to her last record, 2009's Far (he has also collaborated with other eccentric songstresses such as Fiona Apple). Apparently Spektor is a huge hip-hop fan. "I definitely perked up when I found out that he had worked with Eminem because I love Eminem so much," she coos. "That's one of the reason I picked him. And we're both Beatles nerds and both love classical music, so we have a really great musical relationship."
Some people may be surprised to hear that she's so fond of rap. "There's a lot of hip-hop I love but most of it I don't. Most of it I find boring and it doesn't excite me. But when I listen to Biggie or Eminem…" she trails off, shaking her head in astonishment. "I love the playing with the language and the cleverness. I also love the heart. You can just tell with some people that they're just posing or fronting and with other people there's so much heart; their soul is just the coolest. And it's so cinematic. In a lot of ways, there's a lot of music that I find boring because it doesn't tell any stories or doesn't take you anywhere, on any trip, and then you listen to [Jay-Z and Beyoncé's] " Bonnie and Clyde" or all of [Notorious B.I.G. album] Ready to Die and it's so cinematic. And it's funny; I love the humour in it."
Born to Russian Jewish parents – her mother was a music professor, her father a photographer and violinist - she grew up in the Soviet Union, until the entire family emigrated to America in 1989 when she was nine years old. It was a traumatic exprience; their passports were cut up so they couldn't return. Unable to speak a word of English, they settled in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in the Bronx, and Spektor was sent to a progressive Hebrew school. Spektor had trained as a concert pianist before the family emigrated. Forced to leave her piano behind, she practiced on one in her local Bronx synagogue before getting lessons from a friend of her father. But when did she know that her future wasn't to be in classical music after all?
"When I was a teenager I started feeling that I just didn't have it," she says. "There are certain properties that someone has to embody to be certain things. With classical music, you need to at least have some sort of photographic memory to remember all the scores, or really fast sight-reading, or a crazy work ethic and practice 13 hours a day. But if you have none of that then at some point you just have to stop wanting to do it."
She started writing her own songs on the suggestion of schoolfriends, before finding a place in New York's anti-folk scene in the early 2000s. She rejects the idea that, because many of her songs are wild narratives, that they are any less personal than a musician who writes only in the first person.
"I feel like I put so much of myself into the songs," she insists. "So what, if somebody is writing non-fiction, they're more present in their work? That's not right. Fiction writers are some of my favourite writers and I feel like they put all their heart into it. It's just that it's coming through a different avenue. I don't feel like Shakespeare had less heart because he wasn't writing a weekly column about his life's trials and tribulations." That's not to say she's an open book. She's guards her private life (she recently married but is not interested in going into details) but feels a responsibility to create honest, emotional work. "An artist who's making art they don't care about is a type of pollution," she sighs. "Obviously it's not as bad as somebody who's polluting the ocean with toxic waste but it's a type of pollution."
This summer is an exciting one for her. Not only is she returning to Russia for the first time since she left, to do some shows ("I know it's going to be really emotional and I've been putting it off and it's just such a big deal in my mind") but she is also playing London's Royal Albert Hall. "Every time I go past it I squeal," she smiles. "It's so exciting. And mad! There are a handful of venues around the world that are just… magical. And that's definitely one of them."
'What We Saw From the Cheap Seats' is out now. Regina Spektor plays Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 on Monday (www.royalalberthall.com)
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