IIt’s tempting when talking to Regina Spektor to just step aside, because she talks so happily. I ask a simple question about, say, songwriting and am redundant for the next few minutes as it builds into a great conversational aria of anecdotes, aphorisms, metaphors, theories and jokes, at the end of which she apologizes for not answering the question when in fact she answered not only that one but half a dozen that I have yet to ask. She has a talent for wonder.
“I have the kind of mind, I realize, where I’m almost hypnotized by the world,” she says. “There’s a part of me that’s the immigrant girl: let’s get things done. And then there’s another part of me that just floats.
This spirit is also in his music. Spektor revolves around the big things – life, death, love, time – that most songwriters tend to approach sideways, like staring at the sun. She’s written at least half a dozen songs that I can’t hear without crying, which puts me in good company. His ardent admirers include Peter Gabriel, Neil Gaiman, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who chose his 2006 hit song On the Radio on Desert Island Discs and called her a “genius”. The on-screen music coordinators love it (Leftovers, The good wifethe theme matches Orange is the new black) but even on their own, rich in stories and images, his songs can sound like movies.
Spektor talks to me from a friend’s house in New York because it’s quieter than hers: she has two young children with musician Jack Dishel. For her, 2019 has put a ceremonial seal on her relationship with the city she first entered as a nine-year-old refugee from the Soviet Union in 1989. In addition to completing a residency on Broadway, she was honored with Regina Spektor Day. by Mayor Bill de Blasio (June 11) and a star on the Bronx Walk of Fame. “I feel like I should always wear an ‘I heart New York’ t-shirt,” she said with a fluffy look from outside the borough, Russian doll accent. “It was a beautiful series of events. And then…” She raises her hands. “Covid!”
Spektor fled the city during the pandemic and recorded House, before and after, his eighth studio album and first since 2016, in a converted upstate church. It may be his best album and certainly his greatest, with a glorious orchestral sound that lives up to its themes. There’s even a tap dancer in the nine-minute Spacetime Fairytale cosmic extravaganza. It is therefore surprising to learn that she recorded it alone but for producer John Congleton and engineer Ariel Shafir; the orchestra was actually in Macedonia. “It’s the loneliest recording I’ve ever done,” she says. “I was one of the safest Covid people anyone has ever met so I never even set foot in the control room. If the piano tuner came, I would leave for three hours. She sighs. “It was quite a thing.”
Two new numbers, Loveology and Raindrops, go back nearly 20 years of an extraordinary surge of songs, present on every album since. She spoke a lot about this period with her husband: “We came to the conclusion that my whole life was around me. I had no responsibility. I would read a book; I would write a song. I would have a conversation; I would write a song. I was looking at two people sitting on a bench; I would write a song. I was like a worm. Songs are my by-product in this world. I leave a mark.
Now that she has a family, she has “crazy fantasies” about a day spent reading, playing the piano and taking walks. “I always felt time, even when I was little,” she says. “I feel the weight of it: that’s it. Which gift ! What responsibility! Things like mortality, myth, the vastness of humanity, all those existential things, they’re very present. I’m grateful for art, but I’ll always end up choosing to cuddle with my kids instead of running away to make art. That’s probably why I earn so much less.
SPektor’s father, Ilya, died in April, just before she was due to play a major comeback show at Carnegie Hall. He would have attended that one, as he has frequented so many others. She recalls her parents paying to press 1,000 copies of her self-released debut album in 2001 11:11, the boxes stacked in their small apartment in the Bronx. She remembers that they invited their friends to her first show at the SideWalk Café in the East Village to make sure she had people. “I think they took me back because those nice Russian Jews kept ordering vodka tonics,” she laughs. “My parents came to all the concerts. I was the only person at SUNY [State University New York] Buy Conservatory whose parents were thrilled for them to become musicians. Recently, she composed a box set for the 20th anniversary of 11:11 and Ilya gave him a cache of videotapes he had made of his early shows. “There were about 30 songs that I only remembered writing when I heard them.” She called the bonus discs Poppa’s Bootlegs.
Looking back, Spektor’s breakthrough seems unlikely: a classically trained pianist adopted by the most acclaimed rockers of her generation. In 2003, she was introduced to Strokes producer Gordon Raphael, who recorded some demos and played them to the band. Within months she had a recording contract and was touring with the Strokes and the Kings of Leon. “People will write to me, ‘My daughter plays the piano, can you give me some advice?’ I’m like, randomly meeting Gordon Raphael! He happens to work with this band that everyone in New York loves, that you’ve never heard of because you live in the Bronx and you know nothing. Then this magical thing happens.
Audiences were initially frosty towards this unknown singer-songwriter, but the bands were adorable. “I guess my destiny was to be the underdog, but you look around and realize it’s all underdogs, really. Groups, scenes, all that is mythologized and organized later.
Spektor is loath to explain what her songs mean, except to say that it’s never what she originally expected them to mean. She mimes shaking dice in a cup and rolling them, not knowing how they will land. “It’s hard for me to be an adult on press days. People say, ‘What were you thinking when you did that?’ She makes a panicked face. ” I did not think ! I do not even know! So many people want to know you had a plan.
On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Spektor posted an anguished statement on Facebook. She has grandparents from both countries; after the Chernobyl disaster, relatives in Kyiv stayed with his family in their tiny apartment in Moscow. “One thing that often happens with Jews is that we come from all over,” she says. “The idea of nationalism just isn’t there because you’re still blown away by the grace of the nation you’re in – now you’re in favor, now you’re not in favor; now you’re alive, now you’re dead. She says there is an “obvious and insane culprit”, but that it is wrong to assume that the average Russian fully supports the invasion. “It’s not like when I went to protest the war in Iraq, I was facing 15 years in prison… I don’t know if I’m the kind of person who could throw himself into the whole machine to try to solve it. ‘Stop.”
The invasion, like his father’s death, happened after the album was finished, but you can hear the relevant emotions in the songs (Becoming All Alone’s booming plea of ”Stay, Stay, Stay “; “bombing and sheltering go together” in What Might Have Been), just as you can hear them in his most devastating song, 2009’s Laughing With: “Nobody Laughs at God in a Hospital/Nobody Laughs of God in a war”. She writes stories, not diary entries, and they keep changing.
“I used to be a little sad when I realized that in our culture there was a big divide between fiction writers and truth writers,” she says. “For me, fiction is a true vehicle of feelings and realizations about life. Because this place is very strange and mysterious and most of the time we have no idea what is going on there. Every once in a while we get a glimpse and then realize, oh, actually, it was the mirror image of a sliver of a tiny mirror that’s millions of miles away. It is very difficult to be here, because you are witnessing the cruelty; you watch the next 100 years of war unfold. If you wanted to, your whole life could be a horror in slow motion. But at the same time it’s so good here. There are so many wonderful things here and you can fill your days with them. She takes a deep breath, as if she’s just climbed a hill and is enjoying the view. “I guess it all ends up being in the music.”