Since emerging on the NYC cafe circuit in 2001, Regina Spektor has been
hailed as a truly special talent. Her new "SOVIET KITSCH" offers ample
proof of the Russian-born, Bronx-bred musician's many remarkable gifts, from her
unique and provocative vocal style which can change in the blink of an
eye to prodigious piano skills garnered through years of classical training.
In addition, Spektor is an enormously idiosyncratic composer and lyricist, combining
eclectic and evocative melodies with intricately structured character studies
that owe more to Chekhov and Gogol than to most modern songwriters. With "SOVIET
KITSCH," Regina Spektor establishes herself as something genuinely rare and
refreshing, an unadulterated, unanticipated original.
"I try to write songs the way a short story writer writes stories,"
she says. "I always thought, 'Why can't I write a song from the point
of view of a man or a criminal or an old woman?' Obviously some of it comes
from personal things, but it's so much more fun when a concept or idea pops
into my head and then I pull on it and out comes this thing that I never expected."
Spektor was born in Moscow , back in the days before the collapse of the Soviet
Union . The only daughter of a musically inclined family â€“ her mother taught
music, while her dad was a violinist and a photographer â€“ young Regina
began her piano lessons at 6, studying and practicing on a Petrof piano given
to her mother by her grandfather.
In 1989, soon after Mikhail Gorbachev began his policy of perestroika, she
and her parents immigrated to the Bronx , New York City . While leaving the
Soviet Union was cause for celebration, it was understood that once the Spektors
arrived in America , Regina would no longer be able to study music.
"We had to sell the piano because we weren't allowed to bring anything
foreign-made out of Russia ," she says. "It was considered Soviet
property. I was so sad."
She tried to maintain her musical chops by playing on an out of tune piano
in the basement of their local synagogue, but most often practiced on windowsills
and tabletops. One fortuitous evening, her father struck up a conversation on
the subway with a professional concert violinist by the name of Samuel Marder.
Marder invited the Spektors to his Riverdale house to hear him and his wife,
Manhattan School of Music professor Sonia Vargas, play a private recital.
"I went up to Sonia and asked her, 'Can you be my teacher?' and she
said, 'Of course,'" Spektor recalls. "She ended up being my teacher
until I was 17. The Japanese have a proverb: whenever the student is ready,
the teacher appears. In a lot of ways, that's how my life has been, there's
been this kind of harmony with things â€“ I wrote a few songs, then someone
heard me and offered me a show; I decided I was ready to tour and then I went
on tour with the Strokes. It makes you live your whole life differently. You
can't just sit around, getting angry because you think you're ready. If you
were really ready, things would be happening."
Spektor attended yeshiva on a scholarship, but always felt out of place."
After two years, she opted to leave yeshiva and attend a secular high school
in Fairlawn , New Jersey (using the time-honored technique of claiming to live
with a suburban aunt in order to establish a fake address).
In the summer of her 16 th year, Spektor went to Israel as part of a Nesiya
Institute arts scholarship. As she and her fellow travelers hiked in the desert,
Regina would make up little songs and melodies to fill the time.
"I noticed that some kids would always try to hike next to me and ask
me to sing particular songs that I had made up," she recalls. "So
I started trying to remember them. By the end of the trip, all these kids were
telling me that I had to write songs!
"It had never occurred to me," she continues. "To me, the mentality
was you sit at the piano and play Bach or Mozart or Chopin. You didn't ever
improvise, so the idea of writing my own music was an intimidating one."
"The way I got into music was totally backwards," she says. "I'd
write a song and someone would tell me, 'That sounds like Joni Mitchell,'
and I'd go, 'Who?'"
As she had always done with her piano lessons, Spektor took the craft of songwriting
very seriously, pushing herself to learn and improve with each new attempt.
She made a tape of her songs which her mother passed along to her fellow music
teacher. He encouraged Spektor to keep at it, and suggested she audition for
SUNY Purchase, an upstate New York college, renowned for its prestigious Conservatory
Spektor completed her studies at Purchase in three years, overloading on classes
in order to save money. Meanwhile, she began playing her first gigs, drawing
a local following for her increasingly powerful material. She was also a favorite
among the Purchase musical community, and in early 2001, Regina teamed up with
jazz bassist Chris Kuffner to record her first collection of songs, dubbed "
11:11 ." She did an initial run of a thousand copies, which she sold at
gigs as a way of supplementing her limited income.
After graduating Purchase, Spektor returned to NYC where she continued playing
out as often as she could. Since performing at open mic nights didn't put much
money in her purse, she spent her days working a variety of secretarial jobs,
including desks at a Soho OB/GYN clinic and a private investigator's office.
After a while, she told her parents that she wanted to devote herself to music
so she was going to quit her job and live at home. While this meant schlepping
back and forth to the Bronx after late night gigs, Regina also knew that she
needed to fully dedicate herself to her musical career. She gigged constantly,
playing literally hundreds of shows in and around NYC, at such venues as the
Sidewalk Cafe, the Living Room, Tonic, Fez , Knitting Factory, CB's Gallery,
and among others. She also supported such artists as David Poe, Ed Harcourt,
and the Dismemberment Plan.
Sure enough, people began coming and Spektor was soon the talk on NYC's burgeoning
anti-folk scene. With each passing day, her music grew, becoming "weirder
and darker" than the jazzier compositions featured on the " 11:11
On Christmas Day 2001, Joe Mendelson, the co-owner of the Living Room, invited
her to his studio to record as many songs as she could, if only to archive her
many compositions. After recording the tracks, David Poe advised her to master
a dozen songs and slap on a cover â€“ the resulting CD, simply dubbed "SONGS,"
became Spektor's calling card, drawing critical praise and enough commercial
success to support her admittedly frugal lifestyle.
"People love that record," she says. "They would come to a show,
and then buy five copies so they could give them as presents. I never had enough
money to do a big run so I'd do 200 at a time, sell them out, and then make
more. Then I started selling them through www.cdbaby.com, I never thought it
would go further than my NYC fans."
Among her fans was drummer Alan Bezozi, who having played with such artists
as They Might Be Giants, Freedy Johnston, and Dog's Eye View, wanted to try
his hand at producing. He suggested collaboration, and mentioned that his friend
Gordon Raphael was stopping in New York on his way home to Seattle for Christmas.
"Alan said, 'Gordon produced the Strokes,'" she smiles, "and
I said, 'Who are the Strokes?'"
At first they only recorded "Poor Little Rich Boy," which sees Regina
playing piano with her left hand, and hitting a chair with a drumstick in her
right. But after seeing her live show at Tonic he then suggested that they try
and record more songs in the new year. He was only slated to be in New York
for one week so the sessions had to include the maximum amount of recording
possible. Fortunately for Spektor, she was kitten-sitting for a friend on the
Lower East Side , sparing her the daily commute to and from the Bronx .
"It was the most concentrated recording work I'd ever done," she
says. "I'd never spent 15-hour days in the studio before."
Spektor originally only planned to record an EP, but it was obvious to all
involved that she had more than enough songs for a full album. In March, she
headed for London to continue recording with Raphael.
"Gordon has ability to capture a sound where the instruments feel really
alive," she says. "Even in the songs that are just piano and voice,
there's a roughness to it, it's a little more dangerous than a pretty piano
Though many of the album's most striking moments are spare, stark solo pieces,
"SOVIET KITSCH" also sees Spektor accompanied by the Brighton, England-based
art-punk combo, Kill Kenada, while other tracks on "SOVIET KITSCH"
feature contributions from some of NYC's finest musicians, including guitarist
Oren Bloedow (Elysian Fields, Lounge Lizards), bass legend Graham Maby (Joe
Jackson, Marshall Crenshaw), and cellist Jane Scarpantoni (Lou Reed, Kristen
"I don't have an overall sound," she explains. "I tend to think
of each song as its own little world, so one song can be a complete punk song,
while another could be a chamber ensemble with strings. It's more fun that way
because I never have to do the same thing over and over again."
After wrapping the sessions, Raphael played "SOVIET KITSCH" to the
Strokes' Julian Casablancas, who was so impressed he invited Regina to join
his band on their sold-out North American tour. Since she was still an unsigned
artist, Spektor had to cover all of her own expenses, from cross-country air
fares to nightly hotel stays. Spektor reckons the experience to have been well
worth the cost.
"It opened my eyes to a lot of things you only see in the media"
she says. "It was pretty surreal and educational at the same time."
In addition to the live dates, Casablancas also invited Spektor to record a
song with the Strokes, "Post Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men,"
which appeared as the B-side to their "Reptilia" single. Touring with
the Strokes also introduced her to Kings Of Leon, who asked her to support them
on their European tour.
Though she received a bounty of attention for her famous fans, "SOVIET
KITSCH" more than establishes Regina Spektor as an artist in her own right.
For her, the interest attracted by her involvement with the Strokes and KOL
is just another example of reaching her goals via circuitous paths. In fact,
Spektor figures her current career as an anti-folk songstress is not dissimilar
from her original plan of becoming a classical pianist.
"This is like a back door into what I've always wanted to do my whole
life," she says happily. "I always wanted to play classical recitals
and concerts, and go from place to place and learn new programs and practice
new things and play hours and hours of piano for people. And now I do that,
except instead of playing the compositions of Chopin and Mozart, I play my own."