New album, peer kudos and a return to her Russian homeland
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
Regina Spektor just got back to New York from London, and she's exhausted. "I was averaging about three and a half hours' sleep a night," she says. "And I usually like to sleep; I don't give it up for anything."
But Spektor, 32, has work to do. Her sixth album, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats," is released this week, and it continues her pattern of each release drawing more attention than the last. The classically trained Spektor emerged from the East Village "anti-folk" scene a decade ago, quickly gaining the support of such "it" bands as the Strokes and Kings of Leon. Her breakthrough came with 2006's "Begin to Hope" album, which reached the Top 20 and included such songs as "Fidelity" and "Samson," which became familiar through high-profile television placements.
But she never abandoned the oddball approach that is so beloved by her fans: "Cheap Seats," produced by Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple), sees Spektor breaking into other languages, on "Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)," or suddenly busting into human beatbox breaks, on "All the Rowboats," a song which depicts paintings as prisoners eager to break out of their museum jail cells.
The frequent focus on her eccentricities, however, can overshadow the fact that Spektor is simply one of the finest songwriters of her generation. This hasn't escaped the notice of her elders: Peter Gabriel covered her song "Apres Moi"; Jeff Lynne served as one of four producers on her last album, "Far"; and Tom Petty, who said that she and guitarist JJ Cale are the two most talented musicians alive, recently took her out as an opening act for part of his current tour.
The release of "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats" isn't even the most exciting thing on Regina Spektor's mind right now. In a few weeks, she will be returning to Russia, where she was born, for the first time since her family fled the country in the 1980s. She's desperately trying to contain her emotions about the trip, and to set her expectations for a place that has entirely transformed from the Soviet memories of her youth. "It's not just a different country now," she says, "it's even a different name for the country!"
MSN Music: Did Tom Petty's audience know what to make of you?
Regina Spektor: It was amazing -- like, as dreamy as it could possibly have been. I was so sad to go. He wanted me to stay longer, but because of the timing with the record, I couldn't.
A lot of people said it doesn't seem like a normal fit, me opening for Tom Petty, but his music has so many songs that are stories, the lyrics are so important, and they're so diverse, from "Good Enough" to "Spike" to "Something Big." I think his audiences are really interested in songs, really open to listening.
It was so inspiring, so much fun, the audiences were really supportive. And I got to see so many places I've never seen in America. A lot of these places were just words to me: Albuquerque, Wichita, Little Rock.
What does the album title mean? Do you still feel like you're watching from the cheap seats?
It's funny: At the first two shows in Denver, I forgot to say my name or the name of the record. My booking agent came to the show, basically to make sure I was OK, and she said that people were coming over and asking her the name of the band. I forgot that no one knows who the f--- I am. So after that, I said my name, introduced the band -- all the stuff you're supposed to say, that feels really weird -- and when I said the name of the record, the people up top would all cheer.
I actually had the title long before I had the record, maybe a year and half, I just didn't really say it until the last minute. It's a combination of being superstitious, and everything just has to feel right. I'm such a cat like that -- it's not always theoretical or clinical, there are things I just decide because it feels right and then I proceed.
Are you writing all the time, or do you write when there's a deadline?
I don't write when there's a deadline. Many times I wanted to, for films or whatever. I'll go see it, but even if I like it, that's just not how I write. With the Narnia film (2008's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," which featured her song "The Call"), I went home and wrote the song, but that's an anomaly. I write in life, at my own speed -- not every day, but consistently while living life. And I accumulate songs, and when it's time, I pick from this crazy amount of songs. There's lots of songs just waiting their turn, while I'm trying to figure out what's going to fit what, the right thing for the right time.
So how do you know when it's time to make a record?
Well, it's kind of always time to make a record. If I locked myself in a studio for two years, I might catch up with all the songs I have. But after I make a record and then go tour, when I get off the rollercoaster, I get into life and start to write, so I'm not unfulfilled creatively. So then it's easy to wait, but I do love recording. It's such a different thing from touring or writing -- they're really three very distinct jobs, with very different vibes and states of mind.
Then when I get over that hurdle of "I'm going to make a record," it's very hard for me to stop. I want to keep going and make three records in a row, rather than move to that next process.
How was it different working with four producers on the last album and staying with one for this whole record?
Before then, I'd done everything from self-produce to, on "Begin to Hope," it was just the two of us, me and David (Kahne). So when I did "Far," I wanted to have it be very piecemeal, just about the songs and not so much about the record. I wanted to learn from different people and have those concentrated one-on-one experiences over and over instead of with one person.
But with Mike, it felt like we got interrupted. We were so on the same page, it was crazy. We were so in sync, this was probably the fastest I've ever worked when I wasn't on the clock because of money.
So each thing has its own plusses and minuses, like most things in life. I would do it again the scattered way, and I would do it again the whole way.
When do you leave for Russia?
I'm going in July. I'm playing a festival in St. Petersburg and my own show in Moscow. I've started doing interviews in Russian, which is such a mind trip. It's such a big deal in my mind -- to be going back and playing music, my mom is coming -- I just have to hold it together and not be a crying mess.
I'm really excited, but I'm bracing myself for how big a deal internally it actually is. You know when they announce a hurricane warning and people start taping up their windows? I'm bracing for an emotional hurricane.
Alan Light is the co-author of Gregg Allman's best-selling memoir "My Cross to Bear." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.