FOREWORD: Lilting mezzo-soprano, Regina Spektor, a Soviet-bred Classical pianist by trade, became friendly with future tour buddies, the Strokes, when they were making headway in 2001. Now part of the East Village’s still-thriving acoustic scene, I interviewed her just as ‘04s Soviet Kitsch caught on. By ’06, she’d return with the fine Begin To Hope. During summer ’09, her next album, Far, hit shelves and received justified plaudits.
Escaping Jewish oppression in former Soviet-ruled Russia, Regina Spektor landed in the Bronx at age nine alongside her scientist father and music professor mother. Learning Classical piano as a child, Spektor concentrated on the iconic workings of Chopin, Bach, and Tchaikovsky, but a decade thereafter the self-described “nerdy apartment hermit” with a serious jones for punk progenitors the Ramones would be exposed to Blues legends Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson while attending college.
Without a hint of sarcasm, Spektor recalls, “My first recording, 11:11, was a cringe-worthy school project gone awry featuring piano and upright bass. It was embarrassing, but people were upset I only made 1,000 copies.”
Her next project, ‘02s Songs, she claims, “was an accident waiting to happen. My friend Joe Mendelson (ex-Rise Robot Rise), part owner of the Lower East Side’s Living Room, where I’d performed, had a studio. He asked if anyone recorded my songs. Then, he had me archive material during Christmas – since we’re both Jewish.”
As Spektor developed her profoundly individual articulation, producer Gordon Raphael came a-knockin’ for the flexile girly-voiced marvel. Subsequently, the Strokes producer-confidant would hook her up with the famous Manhattan-bred combo, allowing the rhapsodic singer to become an improbable tour opener. His simplistic approach to recording rebukes humdrum studio sterility for the stirring spontaneity of live instrumentation and first take impulsiveness. Strokes vocalist Julian Casablanca lured the coquettish enchantress to do an alluringly dramatic Industrial duet, “Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men,” for the charmingly out-of-character b-side to “Reptilia.”
“When I went on the road with the Strokes, I was just excited to see their show every night. For them to run a practice to have me backup the band was cool. We recorded during a day off in a farmhouse studio while touring Seattle. When we’d get loud, a dog named Elevator would start barking while Julian and I had headphones on. Then, we’d have to re-record,” she laughs.
Signed to Seymour Stein’s estimable Sire Records, the resourceful Spektor embarked on ‘04s stunningly minimalist solo venture, Soviet Kitsch, with Raphael in tow. Its absurdist title spoofs Americans belief in media-fed propaganda concerning stereotypical Communist notions and came from a lyric in an as-yet unrecorded tune. On the front cover, she’s sucking down a label-less Heineken sporting the naval cap her grandfather wore de-mining the ocean during World War II.
Going from topical rainy day folk jaunt “Ghost Of Corporate Future” to clanked stammering bicker “Sailor Song” to twinkling ‘wocka wocka’ pianissimo lullaby “Carbon Monoxide,” the sentient soprano bends cabaret, ballet, opera, nursery rhymes, and traditional Hebrew incantations into ripened rudimentary arrangements with the stately eloquence of a seasoned maestro.
“I feel like I’m this little earthworm eating all this stuff and out comes songs. Some of it’s Classical, but the Beatles, Queen, and Nirvana also inform them.” But she admits, “I’m behind on pop culture. I only found out about David Bowie and U2 last year.”
Sympathetic strings frame pastoral ballad “Ode To Divorce,” a fictional account so tenderly relinquished and majestically heartfelt it seems firsthand.
Spektor counters, “I get angry that lyrics are so autobiographical because songwriters lives are so boring. They should approach a song from outside their lives like a movie script or fairytale. You could have empathy on a personal level. My heartbreak could add more weight, but it’d be dull to write from my perspective.”
Perhaps her greatest vocal showcase, the catastrophic cancer-clogged mini-opus “Chemo Limo,” shuffles across prancing hip-hop swathes, fanciful baroque serenity, and cautiously repenting verses, shifting tempo, mood, and style on the drop of a dime. Dark piano plinks and clacking percussion adorn “Poor Little Rich Boy,” nabbing a spare tranquility lounge-y bohemian minstrel Rickie Lee Jones possesses. For a clamorous rockin’ turnabout, Spektor retrieved punk band Kill Kenada to provide chicken scratch guitar feedback and propulsive drumming to the loose-limbed “Your Honor.”
“I found Kill Kenada through Gordon. We flew to London, had fun, and banged out a song. But I had a hard time fitting it into the album. So I put a little more context into it and had my younger brother whisper with me on a quiet intro. It put distance between the other music,” informs the chirp-y lass.
Contagious initial single, “Us,” soars skyward as torrential orchestral intensification infiltrates tumbling piano. A video made by Tom Petty’s daughter Adria finds Spektor receiving magical powers.
“Yeah. I had a sleepover at his house,” she delightedly reports. “I was eating his cheddar cheese. I only now know who he is. Afterwards, when I figured it out, I loved his music.”
“Right now I’m wearing a white tutu with Signature Required written on it, a handmade Cracker Farm t-shirt, and huge puffy boots to protect me from the snow,” she elucidates. “It’s my homage to the wintry weather. Clothes should reflect the mood and be as thoughtful and fun as anything else in your life. Growing up, it felt sad to pick out garments others wore. It makes you feel less like an individual. I like combining old meaningful Classical dresses my grandmother wore with DIY punk stuff.”
So move over sensitive femme pianists Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and Cat Power, ‘cause there’s a newly dignified player in town.