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] "[03] 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)

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
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.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own