If you've never heard Regina Spektor's music, your life is probably a little sadder than it would otherwise be. Spektor, a classically-trained piano player, writes lyrics as wild as Joanna Newsom's and has a voice as strange and seductive as Björk's.
On her album Soviet Kitsch, just given a major rerelease by Sire Records, Spektor pounds piano keys, knocks drumsticks against furniture, name-drops Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and breaks various glass objects-all in 38 minutes.
Born in Moscow and raised in the Bronx, Spektor attended the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase; after graduation, she began playing shows in and around New York City. She gained a group of devoted fans and released two independent albums: 11:11 and Songs. A meeting with producer Gordon Raphael led to the recording session that yielded Soviet Kitsch-and a US tour with the Strokes.
Regina Spektor has been feverishly promoting Soviet Kitsch. During a recent email correspondence with the Indy, she discussed the literary, the surreal, and more.
The Independent: Your songs often include allusions to literary figures: Samson, Oedipus, Ezra Pound. What are your reading habits like? Do you have any favorite books and/or authors?
Regina Spektor: Yeah, I love books and papers and words. My reading habits, like all my other habits, though, are completely inconsistent. So sometimes I read and read and read, and other times I just listen and look. Sometimes I read one book at a time, but often I have a few things going at the same time. I love Chekov, Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy. Bulgakov's Master and Margarita is one of my favorite books-but this feels silly, like I'm naming only a few things in a huge well of loved books/authors. Hesse, Dumas, lots and lots of poetry, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.
Indy: How old were you when your family immigrated to the United States? Do you have any particularly vivid childhood memories of Russia?
RS: I was nine and a half. The half was super-important at the time. I have countless vivid memories of Moscow, and of Parnu (Estonia, where I spent all my summers as a kid), and of immigration through Austria and Italy. It's all this colorful adventure.
Indy: I find your songs very unique and compelling-both musically and lyrically. Could you describe your songwriting process? Which element of a song usually comes to you first?
RS: I guess, usually, I write it all together. The words and the piano part just come to find where they sit together, and the sounds and everything just kind of roll around over and over, until it all settles as a song. Sometimes I'll hum while walking and write a song, but usually I can never figure out a piano part to it later. It just stays an a cappella song. ["Aching to Pupate," from the album Songs, is a great example. -Ed]
Indy: Your press release quotes you as saying that touring with the Strokes was "surreal and educational at the same time." Could you describe one moment of that tour which was particularly surreal? And one that was particularly educational?
RS: I think the Strokes were such brave fans to take me on the road. I had never gone on a tour before; I had never even played a club bigger than 300 people. But they really believed in sharing my songs with their fans. Many, many educational things: I had never been on the West Coast, or to the South, before that tour. And to play night after night opening for a band that you love, and to play venues like Theater at Madison Square Garden, where your name is lit up on the marquee, is pretty surreal. I remember walking toward Madison Square Garden and seeing it just as it light up. Strange stuff.
Indy: Soviet Kitsch has been available at your shows and on cdbaby.com since last year; now it's being released on Sire Records. What brought you and the album to this label?
RS: Sire is an amazing NYC label, and they were starting up again after a long sleeping hibernation period. It was just the right situation and the right people at the right time. I am so happy there right now, and my record is in stores for the first time in this country. They really wanted to re-release it, and I wanted it to get heard.
Indy: Because you were still unsigned when you toured with the Strokes, you had to cover all of your own expenses. This, clearly, was one disadvantage of being an unsigned artist. But were there any advantages to being unsigned? In other words, is there anything that you miss about it?
RS: Mostly, the things I've gained-a lot of support and a company that works alongside me to promote my music-are much more than what I've given up. I was very careful to retain my creative rights; I wasn't going to sign to any label if it would compromise my music and what I was trying to do. But there is definitely a bureaucratic element that comes with working in every company. Things have to go through a chain of people to be approved. So far I've been very lucky, I don't take it for granted. I'm very aware that the tide can turn. Before I was signed, all I had to do was decide on something and then save up money and work with friends to try and get it done. Now it's a slower process, but there are more people helping and working-so when it does get done, it's in a bigger way.
Indy: What have you been doing in the past month or so to promote Soviet Kitsch? Do you have any tour plans?
RS: I've been doing so, so much: playing shows, doing press interviews and TV and radio stuff. Makes me nervous, but it's for a good cause. I'll be playing a US tour from the 24th of March to the 21st of April. Then I fly to Paris three days later. After that I play a UK tour. So I'll be on tour for about two months, ending around the middle of May. Pretty intense stuff.
Indy: Last month I saw you perform here in Providence with the Dresden Dolls. The venue was being very strict about how much time you were allowed. There was a big digital clock on the stage, I remember. It was incredibly sad to see you have to rush through your set. I would love it if you came to Providence again.
RS: Yeah, they were so strict, bordering on mean, actually. I do hope you'll get to see a less rushed show someday. Though I won't be in Providence this time around, maybe I'll see you in Boston, or next time. Take care, yo.
If you ask her nicely, ALEXANDRA DE JESUS B'08 will make you a mixtape.