Regina Spektor Interview

Regina Spektor Interview reprint from womanrock.com

It’s increasingly difficult for me to conceal the amount of sheer dumb fan awe I have for Regina Spektor. For whatever reason, this sprite has emerged from the “anti-folk” music scene in New York at just the right moment—just when you thought women musicians were genetically predisposed to exploiting their T&A factor and making girl noises instead of melodies. Spektor possesses a sense of humor and boundless creativity and musicality on a level I haven’t heard from anyone in ages. I’d like to keep it positive and just talk about the new hope I feel for the world now that Regina has proven that all things are possible again—that popular music can be visionary, nuanced, and spontaneous. But I have to say that the post-riot grrl and post-rock indie vixens are like the sad, painted dancing girls at the end of David Lynch’s new film, Inland Empire. They seem robotic, programmed to rock—and angry as a fashion statement. Those of you who may only provisionally trust my musical taste (it’s “boutique,” too “soft,” too avant frou-frou) owe it to yourselves to check her out. She doesn’t harmonize; her arranging is spare, raw; even the studio tracks seem like single takes. She does things with her voice that are pleasingly extra-musical. Please don’t judge her output on one song, or even two or three songs. As you’ll see below, she doesn’t stay in one place very long and is one step ahead of the people who make a living labeling sub-genres. Her recent stuff is available on iTunes. For even more obscure gems, there are always the fan sites. I recommend finding “Loveology” and “Just Like the Movies.”

The following is a reprint of an undated interview from the Web site womanrock.com:

Making Stuff Up: An Interview with Regina Spektor

by Rod Alonzo

I met Regina Spektor at a small French café on E. 5th Street where I interviewed her for this column. Afterwards we ambled over to Sidewalk Cafe and Regina gave an impromptu performance at the Monday night “Anti-Hoot”. She sat at the piano with the air of someone who was presiding over a religious ceremony. Instantaneously she was in the performing zone. Her song unfolded with two people eyeing each other at a Meat Packing district bar. The song deftly rose into a beat-poet realm as Regina interchanged and exaggerated the words creating new meanings and revealing surprise emotions that we didn’t know were there at first. Her performance reminded me of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” in that she became the channel for the souls of her characters; she takes the listener into their world. Her music is exciting and unique. Her shows are not to be missed.

WOMANROCK:

What standards do you use in arranging your songs? Do you try to avoid clichés? You have a unique sound.

Regina:

I do try to avoid things. I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re clichés. I have this fear of getting stuck and doing the same thing over and over again I’m always trying to push the dexterity thing. When I was a kid I studied classical piano. I never thought to combine it with singing until much, much later. When I started combining it, it was so crude and awful. From then on I was trying to have independence so that I could play the instrument and sing against different rhythms and have it free. I’m always trying to push that.

WOMANROCK:

So classical music plays a big part?

Regina:

A big, big part. I started to write before I went to SUNY Purchase music conservatory. As an audition I submitted what I now think are really awful songs, but I guess they saw something in them. Maybe they’re not that bad. When I was at Purchase I heard a lot of Jazz and Blues for the first time ever. I ate it all up and then spit it all out in my own way. My first record, which I made in college, is very Jazzy and Bluesy.

WOMANROCK:

By Jazzy you mean Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald?

Regina:

Yeah. My singing and my songs were very influenced by all of that. People would come up to me and ask, Is that a Billie Holiday song? I’d say, No, it’s my song. The lyrics would be in my style, but the songs would be very jazzy. Then I started listening to Tom Waits, Bjork, and Radiohead. And then I started listening to all of these anti-folk people and really felt at home at Sidewalk Cafe and became friends with a lot of talented people there. I realized that I was doing it all wrong and needed to find my own voice. There’s a part of me that’s really into performance art, so it’s almost like acting. It’s really fun to assume the role of Billie Holiday or Edith Piaf or someone with an accent.

WOMANROCK:

So you’re not just performing the song when you’re on stage; it’s a theater piece?

Regina:

That’s what I try to do. It’s in my nature. I think of accents and play around and make weird sounds with my voice. I don’t want to have one voice. I don’t want to have a sound. I want to be able to sing a song and have people ask, Is that her?

WOMANROCK:

When you re composing the song, do you have a set character in mind?

Regina:

It’s not that sophisticated. The reason I really relate to Eminem or Tom Waits is because I get into this headspace and become Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Not with every song, but with a lot of them. Most of the time the songs are not about me. I use a lot of imagination. Imagining this little world and these people. I relate it much more to short stories or little cinema pieces and making up characters rather than songs.

WOMANROCK:

If you’re not writing about your own life, how do you zero in on what you want to write about?

Regina:

It’s like this curiosity. I love people and their quirks. I make up one characteristic and see how it would influence his whole view. I don’t know he’s a dentist who practices but he doesn’t have a real license. But his wife is his assistant and she is a real dentist. So she’s got his back. I’m interested in what they do together and why they do it. It’s really fun. I can just make stuff up. People are so kind and good to give me an hour of their lives so I can just rant and rave. It’s so much more interesting to write about that than myself. I think most of them are sympathetic characters because I think most people are sympathetic.

WOMANROCK:

I’m not familiar with your life story. Weren’t you born in Russia?

Regina:

I was born in Moscow and then we immigrated when I was almost ten. We went to Austria and then Italy and then we were allowed to come to America. We came to New York and then we moved right to the Bronx. That’s where I live with my Mama and my Poppa and my brother and our new cat. I’ve traveled a lot, but I haven’t seen enough of America. I’ve seen much more of Europe at this point.

WOMANROCK:

When you re traveling do you watch people and write down your observations?

Regina: I’m not organized at all. I always try to write things down but then I stop. Sometimes I write it in my head and since I don’t have access to a piano they become acapella songs. When I travel I’m a big museum freak. I spend hours there. I also spend lots of time on trains. People tell you so many things on trains. I’ve met some amazing people on trains.

WOMANROCK:

Was Russia the Soviet Union when you lived there?

Regina:

Yeah.

WOMANROCK:

Do you consider yourself Russian?

Regina:

I’m a Russian Jew. It’s a very big part of who I am. It’s a very specific thing being a Russian Jew. I’m very lucky. It’s a rich culture. Plus I have the Russian language so I can read all of the literature as well. I now have such a clear division in my life between when I was in Russia and when I’m here. It’s really cool.

WOMANROCK:

Do you feel the Russian chapter in your life is over or do you still feel invested in it?

Regina:

When I came here I was thrown into this all-American community. We were in a place where there were no Russians. We were in the papers because we were the first Russians in the Bronx for twenty years. It was so important to learn English and become American. I was reading a lot in English. I wasn’t really talking to Russians so much. Then I switched schools and was in with a lot of Russian kids. I feel more Jewish than Russian. I think I feel like an American Jew who came from Russia. It’s a rich place.

I think about Russian history a lot. It’s so full of art and decadence. We have this collection of reproductions by this artist Illya Repin. I look through his paintings and make up stories about them. I also love Russian literature. Tolstoy does something in Anna Karenina that I wish I could do. He has so many phrases where he just switches to French and then something in German or Italian. There’s this worldliness. It’s not like you re talking down to your reader or thinking, They won’t understand this. Why don’t I dumb it down for them? Let’s respect them. Let’s say they’re as intelligent or more intelligent than I am. I’m really against the idea that music has to be really accessible. I think people are more intelligent than all these labels think they are.

WOMANROCK:

How do you educate yourself musically?

Regina:

I don’t buy a lot of music because I can’t afford it. I’m very lucky because I have a lot of friends that will make me mixes or take me to a show or explain things to me. I’m so grateful. I love it when people show things to me.

WOMANROCK:

Are there any musicians that you really love to go see?

Regina:

So many. This amazing band called Doofus. The Tracksenberg Family Slide-Show Players I love.

WOMANROCK:

Would you say your foundation in music is informed by Russian Classical music or Jewish music?

Regina:

It’s definitely informed by classical but I wouldn’t say Russian classical. I do feel those Slavic melodies like Prokoviev and Tchaikovsky are in there. I also feel just as strongly towards Chopin and Mozart. I really love Mozart. I’ve also listened to Klezmer and Yiddish songs. Other big influences were the Russian singer/songwriter bands that were very underground. Not really public. Vladimir Vosotsky really influenced me. He is so amazing. I wish I could communicate what he does. His lyrics were amazing poetry.

Then I heard people like Bob Dylan. I listened to a lot of Beatles and Queen when I was a kid cause my dad had all of these illegal tapes. They weren’t really available. Like the Moody Blues and Italian and French pop! My dad was a photographer and went to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. He snuck a lot of tapes back and would get together with his friends and have dances that weren’t allowed. They didn’t really have the acid revolution. They were always ten years behind. They wore bell-bottoms in the 80s! There was also this innocence about it. No one had any clothes that were fashionable so everyone was funny looking.


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