The traditional narrative around Regina Spektor is a pretty severe-sounding one, retelling how she and her parents fled to America from the USSR in 1989. Fair enough – it’s an interesting back story – but speaking to her on the phone from Los Angeles, rather than coming off like some po-faced Soviet archetype, Spektor sounds about as all-American as apple pie. Utterances are peppered with enough soft-voiced “likes,” “ums” and “y’knows” to totally belie somebody who is an intellectual, classically trained multi-instrumentalist and a Russian émigré to boot.
Now residing in New York City, fifteen years into her career, Spektor sounds as infectiously enthusiastic as a bright-eyed songwriter about to release her debut album.
In fact, this month, the 36-year-old is back with her seventh LP and first in four years, ‘Remember Us to Life’, the follow-up to ‘What We Saw from the Cheap Seats’ from 2012. Her past couple of records have shot straight into the top 3 of the Billboard 200 and the new album is unlikely to buck that trend. Certainly there’s an ‘event’ feel to the release, with security so tight that I only end up with a copy 24 hours before Spektor and I are due to speak.
It’s worth the wait. Across 11 tracks (and 14 for the deluxe version), Spektor treats us to full-scale orchestral productions of baroque pop that swirl around her characteristically fanciful and neatly-weaved tales. Although Spektor is no diarist with her lyrics – preferring instead to relate her experiences through stories and imaginative characterisation – that album title is no whim. ‘Remember Us to Life’ broadly centres on Spektor’s emotional conflict in coping with the loss of loved ones over the previous few years, all the while bringing up her first child (a son, born in 2014) and enjoying her marriage to musician Jack Dishel (the pair wed in 2011).
The new LP is also something of a departure for Spektor, in that she harnesses her voice’s fantastic range purely for the purpose of singing, as opposed to using it as more of a percussive instrument on albums of the past. This time Spektor also largely does away with electronic influences other than opener ‘Bleeding Heart’, preferring instead a mix of organic pop, jazz and classical instrumentation. Equally though, this is no easy listening affair; rather, coupled with Spektor’s melancholy lyrics, ‘Remember Us to Life’ is a truly affecting listen from the first note to the last.
“It’s about loss and navigating the world”
“I think that [the album is about] loss and navigating the world while a lot of people that I loved have been leaving the planet in all these different ways; some from old age, some prematurely with disease, or tragedy… It’s been very hard to sort of reconcile my optimism with that. I’ve always been aware of melancholy and it’s always been a big part of my life and a lot of art and the music and the writing that I’ve gravitated to has been full of that. It’s never just sweet, it’s always bittersweet. I think that in those last years when I sort of got pummelled with loss, it got harder to reconcile my vision of the world with what was actually happening.
It’s about learning to live with grief and melancholy as an integrated part of your life. I don’t think anybody ever gets over that stuff, but you go through it and then you feel – even though it’s horrible and nobody would choose it – you’re grateful to be fully connected to the world and to still be here. You kind of try to reconcile staying strong and positive with not being in denial of all these things that are part of the world and are really painful too. That’s all in the record for sure, maybe more so than before.”
“Out of murkiness comes art”
“It’s kind of interesting because I felt, how is it that I’m with this baby, and in all this awe of life, and then when I’m writing I’m writing all these really sad songs?
I think that it’s not necessarily like a ‘blender’ you know, where it’s like okay, you’ve put in some blueberries, some strawberries and then you push the button, pour it out and it’s some blueberry and strawberry mush. Experiences are mixed with so many other things when they flow through our system; our subconscious, our hopes, our dreams, the hopes of our parents, the experiences and stories that we’ve heard through our life. It all sort of goes into this murkiness and out comes art. I’m never like, oh, I feel really happy right now, I want to write happy songs.
I’m just grateful to get to write songs. It’s such a good feeling to just tap into something and make art, but it doesn’t necessarily correspond to my daily life. It surprises me too.”
“Motherhood is amazing”
“Basically, it’s absolutely incredible.
I have to say, like, I was really nervous beforehand because I knew that I was gonna be completely in the experience and I was never going to put music first. It’s just not in my personality. I think I just love kids so much and I’ve loved them… since I was a baby, I think I’ve loved babies! So there was a part of me that was really scared that I wasn’t going to prioritise art and make it, and I wouldn’t be able to find time.
But I was really amazed that I did more work and figured out how to use my time better than I had in years, really. I wrote more and I was more inspired. I felt more excited to make art and felt more creative. You’re tapping into the connective tissue of the universe.
Life goes around in cycles and you become a participant in that; you become a participant in generations and the links that connect great-grandparents and grandparents; parents and children. You become connected to the fact that all of nature does this; all animals, birds, plants. At some point all of them are tapping into this procreation thing. We don’t know exactly why and I think it’s different for different people and animals and beings, but it’s just kind of there; the pulse of things moving forward.”
“My parents loved me so much”
“All of a sudden I understood my parents so much better. I didn’t really realise how much they loved me – they loved me so much. I grew up with very loving, giving parents and then as soon as I had the baby I was like, fuck, my parents loved me so much! If they loved me the way I love this baby, I am fucked! This is just too much! I kind of had this moment where I wish I’d known, on that level, earlier.
I knew it intellectually but I didn’t know it, know it. It’s kind of like when you hear all that stuff about love and you’re growing up – you can watch movies and you can read books and you can know these great epic stories like Romeo and Juliet, and then one day you fall in love and you go, ‘Oh… this is that.’ You didn’t really know. [Having a baby] is kind of like that; another room in the house that had been locked has just been unlocked and now you get to step into it and kind of participate.”
“I’ve had time to be myself in the world”
“To me, motherhood has been an incredible experience but I also think that it’s not like… I would never be like, everybody must have a child. It’s this way for me because I wanted it and I was ready. I’ve had so much time to be myself in the world. I’ve had time to explore my art and make records and tour the world and do all these things.
It’s not like I’m thrown into this completely not ready and sacrificing my self-fulfilment and all these other things, so of course it’s different. I have things that a lot of people don’t have. I have a lot of support around me, I have a husband who also wanted this, and we’re both artists and prioritising staying artists and being parents.
There are tremendous amounts of people where it literally changes their life and although they’ll always love the child – that love is always there – it changes their life. Their life changes in this way that they don’t want it to and they’re not happy. I just know how amazing it’s been for me and I feel like it’s an important thing to share – as a musician – that I had these worries and I actually found [after childbirth] that I could make more art. If somebody’s sort of afraid and wants to be a parent but is afraid they’re not going to be able to make art anymore, then I just want to tell them that I feel like I wrote some of my best work having been a parent and it feels really amazing to make art. If that’s the fear, it shouldn’t stop them.”
“I am definitely still myself”
“I have these deadlines for the album and I swear, at one point when something came back last week and it was somehow all formatted all funny, I had to step out into the garden of this place in Venice [Los Angeles] and I had to take a moment to take two shots of vodka in the middle of the day! It led me to day drinking! I was thinking, what’s happening? I’m supposed to be together; I’m a mum, I’ve just finished this record… You know it’s funny though, things like that, they’re almost comforting. If I ever wondered if I wasn’t myself any more, well, I am definitely still myself!
“I wish I had more time”
“Finishing all these deadlines for artwork, for somebody like me who’s so… who wants everything just so, you know… I sometimes wish I was a more casual person about it, but I’m not! But you know, perfectionism does its part; it serves its purpose well, for certain things, even though it drives me a little crazy sometimes. I’m never not grateful that I didn’t notice that, you know, that one sound really popped out at one minute and forty-five seconds, so I’m grateful for that. But I wish I had more time! I always wish I had more time.”
“It’s hard to play favourites with songs”
“We’re doing two versions of the record. There’s gonna be the regular version which has 11 songs on it, but there’s another version… At first I was like, this record is going to have 13 songs on it! But it was too long and I couldn’t sequence it, and eventually I was very happy with the regular one.
But there are three other songs we’re now putting on a 14-song deluxe version and in hindsight, I’m almost kind of upset that one of the songs isn’t on the regular version. It’s a song called ‘New Year’ that I really love. It’s funny because even my producer earlier was like, ‘That should be on the regular record!’ Another one is called ‘The One Who Stayed and the One Who Left’ and that’s a special one to me too.
Then the very last one is called ‘End of Thought’, and it’s the littlest one and in some ways it’s the most different one of the bunch but I really like it too. It’s hard to play favourites with songs! They all have something to offer. Two of the extra songs on the 14-song version got recorded along with all the other songs, and they have full orchestral production on them – they’re not any ‘less’ than the other ones.”
“Music is like food”
“I think the thing that makes me very excited and why I can’t wait for the record to be out is that I think at different times different songs become different things to different people. Once you’ve lived with the record, maybe it’ll switch to other songs, or switch back.
To me it’s a very breathing, living thing that someone invites into their house, kind of like a pet, and they can interact with the record when they’re in different moods, or different times of their lives. Maybe for months they can skip over one song as soon as it starts – something about it just annoys them – and then one day, when the time is right, that song just becomes the exact thing they need, and all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Wow, I never used to like this and now I love it.’
Another song they used to really like, maybe they never ever want to hear it again, you know; ‘I’ve taken all the nutrients from it and it’s got nothing left for me.’ I like that. That’s what music is to me, it’s almost like food – like a supplement or something.”
“My kindred spirits are fiction writers”
“I’ve never thought of storytelling as keeping myself out of the music. I always want to be in it. I am pissed off about stuff [Russia, Donald Trump and world affairs] and I get very upset about it. On ‘What We Saw From the Cheap Seats’ I had a song called ‘Ballad of a Politician’ that was maybe applicable to what’s going on now.
I feel like I’m truly present in all of the songs, but with my emotions I feel like my kindred spirits are fiction writers; people who develop stories and characters – much more so than diarists. I don’t want to have my own daily life in my art, you know? I don’t want to have my ‘get together with somebody’ record and then my ‘break-up’ record – it’s just not interesting to me. The world is big enough to have all different kinds of art in it.
You seek out your tribe; you seek out your people. Maybe Kafka isn’t for everybody but he’s for me; he’s for my tribe. I don’t feel like when I’ve read a fiction writer that they have any less of themselves in there. Even painters, you know, who paint a vase and flowers. They’re people who paint and it’s incredible but I would choose a Van Gogh painting over a vase of flowers because he’s like the Kafka of that; he stretches his perspective, he’s not just painting exactly what he sees, he also wants to add more of himself and his emotions to it.”
“I love the world of fairy tales”
“There’s something that, in my own small way, I’ve been trying to dispel: this myth that somebody who writes this professional diary-type music is more ‘emotional’ and connected to their music than someone who makes up stories in their music, because I don’t feel like that’s true. I think people accept it much more in film.
In music for some reason, you sing ‘I’ – they either want to really think that’s you, or they think you’re at arm’s length about it. I think you could still be saying ‘I’ but like the actor who plays Hamlet, he’s really Hamlet in that moment. He’s not at arm’s length with it. I love the world of fairy tales and mythology, things like that. It could even be those stories of Greek myths – sometimes I read them and I don’t know, they’re so full of life and presence even at this moment. They don’t feel like fiction, they feel like important information.”