Piano Appeal

Regina Spektor sells out — in the good way.

Nov 8, 2006 at 4:00 am
"Denver's really weird-looking," muses Regina Spektor, calling from her tour bus. "I'm looking out the window right now. When everything is so new all the time, you go into this mode where you're always taking in, and you feel like you can't really be putting anything out. At least I can't."

As she cites "trees racing by" and notes the scenery "becoming city-ish," it's apparent that Regina Spektor's conversational banter is as idiosyncratic as her music. The 26-year-old chanteuse has emerged as one of the principal voices of New York City's revived anti-folk scene, but her songs also nod to punk, and she performs using a red baby-grand piano. Hiccups of erratic syncopation jar her delicate, peculiar singing voice; her soprano is not unlike an old 45 RPM record someone scratched intentionally.

Born and raised in Moscow, Spektor and her family relocated to the Bronx around her tenth birthday. Just a decade later, she began playing cafés and clubs in the East Village and passing out free CDs to anyone who would take them. But much like kindred spirits Nellie McKay and the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, Spektor soon found a supportive cult following. Her third self-released disc, Soviet Kitsch, was a sleeper hit that twisted its way through the underground until finding a home on major label Sire.

Although Kitsch's breakthrough helped land Spektor an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and airplay on shows like Grey's Anatomy, the breadth of her success has yet to resonate: "For the most part, I'm pretty surprised when anybody has heard my music." And yet, as she releases her second major-label CD, Begin to Hope, Spektor's unquestionably become the latest role model for women of the boomlet generation who file her CDs next to their Fiona-Tori-Ani discography.

"I think that's pretty amazing," she muses. "It makes me go through my mind and make me hope I'm not sucking. You just want to be good. I hope I am good" — she exhales — "...a good influence, if I am one."

The frequently sold-out shows Spektor plays certainly hint that she's resonating with a diverse cross-section of the population. In fact, her gigs don't attract a homogenous crowd of goths, punks or preps. Just as she transcends musical genres — and her sundry musical influences spark and pop throughout her music — her fans transcend social subcultures.

"I get very nervous before shows," she says. "But then once I'm at the show, I'm really having fun. And everything is new and you have no idea what the club is going to look like — and you don't know if it's going to be a cool audience — although for the most part, my audiences are amazing. They're awesome; I don't know where they come from. They're so fucking cool."

Perhaps one explanation of Spektor's widespread appeal is that she isn't inclined to write autobiographically. ("Why pigeonhole yourself like that?") While many artists espouse beliefs or recount heartbreak, Spektor elects to write wry, reflective narratives filled with quirky commentary and illustrative detail, causing her albums to resemble collections of short stories or character studies.

"I'm much more attracted to fiction and novels and movies — things that are less autobiographical and more mythological," she says. "I guess they're not fantasies that are made up altogether, but observations. Characters that I've seen or glimpsed."

But that's not to say that nothing autobiographical ever finds its way into her lyrics. "Oh, there's some stuff that kind of sneaks into songs that really happened," Spektor admits. "There are definitely certain things where my sister might say, 'Ohhh, I know where that came from.' But after awhile, the line gets really blurry — even for myself. You're an actor and you're becoming your roles and you're saying certain lines...but in that moment, it did happen. Like, when you go to a play and watch an actor from the stage and they're saying their lines, it's really happening for them. They know what it's like. They've lived through it. Whether they have actually lived through it or not, they've lived through it."

Still, it's impossible to deny Spektor's originality as a storyteller — and that her lyrics seem legitimately influenced by the everyday. On the Hope track "That Time," she rattles off a series of memories that starts off ominous ("Hey, remember the time when I found a human tooth down on Delancey?") and end up whimsical ("Hey remember that month when I only ate boxes of tangerines?/So cheap and juicy! Tangerines!").

When asked if she actually lived off of tangerines, Spektor bursts into hysterical giggles. "Yeah! Who hasn't? Boxes and boxes!" She sighs. "Mmmm."

Despite this quirkiness, Spektor isn't listening to those who put her on a pedestal and say she's doing something that's never been done before, creating an unheard sound or breaking down musical barriers. Rather than accept herself as a groundbreaking artist, she humbly and wholly attributes her talents directly to her influences.

"Anything from classical composers like Chopin and Tchaikovsky to also the Beatles and Queen and Nirvana and Radiohead and Billie Holiday and Tom Waits and Patti Smith and millions of awesome people. Bob Dylan!" Spektor pauses and becomes thoughtful, almost solemn. "We're very, very lucky. We have so much great music in the world to listen to.

"It's very important if you want to be in any sort of artistic vein to partake of the great minds that have done things in that medium — or any art medium," she continues. "I'm just as influenced by sculptors and painters and movies as I am by music, if not more so. It's all art.

"It's very silly to throw aside wonderful art that's been created and not stand on the shoulders of great people just for your own ego. You can't just say, 'I am completely isolated and this is my own thing that has never been done before.' I don't know, I might be wrong, but me, personally, that's not at all what I gravitate towards."