Regina Spektor Interview

September 28, 2006 | Skip To The Comments (25)

Here's the entire unedited Regina Spektor interview from my Missbehave piece that came out this month. I did the interview via phone and Regina was an absolute doll. One of the nicest, most real and gracious people I've ever worked with. She was super easy to talk with and we got along pretty well right from the start, which is often rare considering, for an interview, two complete strangers are are sort of just forced to talk to one another and get along to produce an entertaining story.

Regina Spektor:

Rob Brink:
Is this Regina?

Yeah it is.

Hi it's Robert from Missbehave magazine.
Hi Robert!

How are you?
I'm good how are you?

I'm ok; just wanna get this interview goin'. I know you don't have a lot of time.

You sound like you just woke up.
Ya I did. Totally.

I was actually surprised they scheduled this thing so early; I am on the West Coast so its 10 am for me.
Oh ya, did you just wake up too?

Yeah for sure.
Could you hold on one second?

Yeah, what were you saying?

Where are you at right now?
I'm in Chicago.

And you are on tour, right?
Yeah, I just played a show here last night.

How'd it go?
It was really good. The people here are always great to me, so I really loved it.

Is this your first headlining tour?
No I've gone once before on my own headlining tour in America. I guess it was around this same time last tour.

How's it going so far?
I love it. I am really amazed by it. Everybody has been really, really sweet and the shows have been sold out and filled with nice people who are really there to listen. I am very happy.

Is there anywhere you have played thus far that reacts to you kinda weird? Or especially embraces you?
So far, on this tour, it has been extraordinarily passionate and overwhelmingly like, loving. It's to the point where I walk in and I'm like “These people are here to see my show and they are screaming like that?” It's amazing. There's so much like, “We Love You!” So I just get taken aback at night because that's something I would expect for like, loud shows or something.

But the place that was the weirdest to me, and I am curious to go back on this tour, is Portland. Portland was the weirdest show I've played in a long time. I played there about a year ago on my first-ever headlining tour, and I swear it just had no energy. People were like spaced out and I felt like, like I was just being observed. I felt like I was just going through the motions and there was no energy at all in the room or in the crowd and it was bizarre. It had a weird combination of hippy and corporate feel, ya know? It kinda felt like White Plains or Westchester, NY. And I had some friends there and they were like, “No, it's a great city! You just had a weird night.”

But I think it's like the pot capital of America or something right? So maybe everyone was like just high and withdrawn and sitting there spaced out.

So when something like that happens, what kind of headspace do you get into? Do you just tune it out and move forward with the show? Or do you get insecure or freaked out?
You know, I think I have just played so many shows and I love playing music, so in those moments I just assess the situation. I will try and battle it for a little bit. I will try and see if it's me, basically. So I will think about which songs I want to play. It's almost like trying certain keys in a door to see which one works. You are like “Maybe this key, or this one, or this key.” I'll do that for a little while and then I'll just start playing for myself really. That's always really fun too. It's like a no-lose situation really. You have a room, you have a piano and you get to sing your songs. I'd be doing it in my bedroom without anyone else there anyway so…

But of course those shows aren't fulfilling—those are not the reason why you go on the road. They are like the reason you have stored up other memories of other great shows—to get you through the bad ones.

Any good tour stories?
Let's see…I dunno. So much happens every day that you think you won't forget it. But then you just forget it. I can't really think of any right now, sorry.

How do you look at playing now compared to back in the early days when you were playing in little cafes and stuff? Do you view it the same way?
No, it's very, very different. The way the people are familiar with the music. The way they are with me is really, really special and different. And I am different. I have much more experience playing now. I get nervous, but it's in a completely different way. Every time you play a show, it's like building your own world, and there is something really exciting about that. You get to a place and you look around and you bring in your equipment and you sound check and you know that later on tonight you get to build a little world for an hour and a half for these people who are going to come. And when people are coming to see you, like they bought a ticket to see you and you aren't an opening band, it's really a chance to build that world much more than kind of…you know?

Being an opening act is more like giving someone your business card. It's like “Here's five different things that I do, call me!” It's really weird. But playing your own shows and playing them now, these days to bigger rooms—sometimes I have played for 1,300 people and it's just me and a keyboard. And it gets so quiet—it's amazing. These people get all hushed and they are in a shared world but each one is experiencing something different and on top of that, I'm experiencing something different. That's the thing about live shows, you know? It's such a separate thing from creating records, which I love too, but it's almost completely unrelated.

I have to say, I never heard of you until my editor assigned this to me, so I have been doing a lot of reading about you in the last few days…
Trying to prepare!

Yeah, but what I noticed in reading, what stands out the most to me is the comparisons…writers have compared you to the likes of Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, Billie Holliday, Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Susanne Vega, Kate Bush, Norah Jones and on and on, but it seems everyone needs to compare you to someone else in order to explain you…
I know and the weird thing is I don't think Kate Bush sounds like Billie Holliday. I used to get really upset about it and then I had one show, one of my early shows at Sidewalk Cafè, and after the show, different people came up to me at different times and I counted about seven different women that I got compared to. One person would be like, “You sound so much like Joni Mitchell.” And another would say, “Wow you sound so much like Janis Joplin.” And in my mind I'd be like “What?! Those people don't even sound like one another. Where do Nina Simone and Tori Amos come in together, ya know?

Other than it being a female with a good voice and maybe a guitar or piano…
Do you think maybe it happens more to women? Because there's lots of guys with guitars but you don't hear Jeff Buckley getting compared to Kurt Cobain just because they are both guys with guitars. But with a woman its like “Oh female voice” and they just throw out a name.

I dunno. Does it seem like maybe more solo female singer/songwriters make it to the public ear or something?
I remember listening to a marketing meeting once and I heard someone say “We couldn't place this female on the radio right now because there's another female in the top 10 already. So if you really pay attention to what's being played, there's a lot less females—especially songwriters. And a lot of the ones that are there are like, somebody featuring somebody—like a man featuring Beyonce, or a man featuring Ashanti or something like that.

Well then maybe it's the opposite of what I just said. Maybe because there are so few female solo singer/songwriters, that when someone makes it, people are like “Whoa, she sounds like Bjork!”
Yeah, maybe. It's just an interesting thing to think about. It's cool that you're asking me because I think about it all the time and I'll talk to somebody in an interview and they'll have listened to my music and I'll be like “why? Why did they just put four names of other female singers in the first paragraph?”

I understand people's need to classify. I mean, that's what humanity is built on. We'll walk into a new territory and discover a new flower and give it like a seven name Latin title, ya know? And the little flower is like “What the fuck? I'm just a pink with blue spots little flower! And nobody else is like me!” But they totally need to classify and explain.

But I guess because there is so much music out there, especially with the Internet or when you walk into any store, and if you were to think about the amount of music that's there. And that's just what's on labels—not even indie, homemade, underground music scene stuff, and most of it isn't international either. It's crazy; it's overwhelming, so people just need to get into these things like “Well, if this person and this person had a child who was raised on a steady diet of this person with, you know, occasional outings with this person…” People get into these crazy convoluted explanations, ya know?

Maybe it's just trying to find a comfort zone and a familiarity…
Yeah, but also I feel like it makes people not even see the excitement about being themselves. Its like “What do you sound like?” And you are really proud of it and you say “Myself!” Obviously it should be a given that you are influenced by lots of things. I mean, who the hell isn't? And if you aren't influenced by a lot of things, you're just dumb. Because that's the greatest gift we have—the amount of great art in the world that's never going to run out anytime soon. Even if I was to just read the classics and just watch movies from India created between 1945 and 1965, I would never run out of cool shit, ya know?

But it's so sad, you'll see young musicians, they'll come up to you and be like “Hey I make music too; you should listen to my stuff.” And you ask them, “What's it like?” And you just kind of ask them for a feeling of it, and I would be much happier it if they said “It's kinda dreamy, and I talk about stuff like this…” you know, like asking for a description of the music. And they'll just drop like seven names of bands, like, “Well it's sort of like a more Goth blah blah blah with like, but if you mix with a bit of Genesis.” And I'm like “Oh my God, you just totally classified yourself and how are you supposed to write other stuff? You are just going to be writing for that box.

So yeah, I ranted and raved about that one for a while, ha-ha.

I read this review of Soviet Kitsch this morning and it said:

The sheer uniqueness of Soviet Kitsch definitely catches listeners off guard. Her roughly unprocessed voice both scares and entrances audiences, as it is frightening…

And it kinda goes on…
About how scary I am?


Right when the audience thinks it has got the album figured out, the next track begins and listeners are sent back into confusion.

And for me, it's the exact opposite of how I felt. When I heard your music I felt comfortable. I was smiling because it was super endearing to me. I guess everyone has their own opinion, but I don't understand…to be thrown into a world of confusion? Your music definitely didn't do that to me. So is it more flattering for you for someone to be comfortable with your music?
Oh yeah.

Or would you prefer they be challenged and confused and thrown off guard?
That's not flattering, no. That's sad to me in a way. I mean, I understand it and I am very, very aware that my music is not for everybody. I'm amazed and just happy that this many people gravitated towards it because I didn't really know. But the purpose of it isn't to be…you know, there are those people who are these avant garde snobs or indie snobs and they are like, there to “challenge you” and I think that's a very condescending, didactic, horrible way of making art. To me that's a fucking nightmare because I think that people are really smart and really intuitive and really cool, so I want to work very, very hard to write something that's not going to bore them. It's almost like I have to strive to make something on the level that they are on. And in that way it's really exciting to do these different things because everybody is so multifaceted. It blows my mind when people think everybody is so dumb. Like I had people telling me to change the name of my song Fidelity to To Heart, because they thought maybe people didn't know what the word “fidelity” meant.

Ya, stuff like that is real. That's really real. You sit around with friends like “Nah that can't happen.” But then it happens and you realize it is real. I don't understand why somebody would get scared. Its like “What, you're terribly afraid of metaphor? Its gonna get you?” I don't know…

I think writers…because I am one, I think they are trying so hard, especially when they are doing reviews, they try so hard to say the most epic thing like “Oh this is the album of the year!” this way everyone reading is like, “Wow, the dude from that magazine claimed this is album of the year.”
Yeah, you know what's even worse, a friend of mine was saying how its like, their chance to write their great novel, ya know? Like “On a dark and rainy day I put in this song and…

“It scared me! It confused the world!”
“She's weird!” I was in England and I came on this radio show and this woman was interviewing me live on the radio and she was like: “So what do you say to people that think you are very kooky and crazy?”

And I was like, “They say that?”

I mean, I don't really say anything to people who think I am kooky and crazy. I probably try to stay away from them. Or they stay away from me. That's a weird question.
Yeah it is. Its like, “So why is it that you don't write about the same thing over and over without really any kind of possibility of confusion?”

“Can you tell us why you are a weirdo?”
I never thought the word “confusion” would be the one. What are they like “Wait, what's that? Why is she singing about that? I'm confused. Didn't she sing about this a minute ago?”

Like when you wake up in a hotel room on vacation or somewhere and you forget where you are for a second. That never dawned on me when I heard your music.
We'll I'm glad. Thanks!

I read a few things about you not initially knowing who Joni Mitchell or the Strokes when people mentioned them to you. You were like “Who the hell are they?”
Yeah and then I went and found out.

Do you think its better in a way to not know what's going on around you and just be in your creative bubble of isolation? Completely being yourself and not affected/influenced by what others are doing?
No, I don't think so. And the thing is I wasn't in an isolated bubble. I knew a lot of stuff and I was consuming a lot of art, it just wasn't the same stuff as pop culture here. I really don't think that those people who are like “I'm not going to listen to other music because I want to develop my true sound…” It's like being a writer and not having read Dostoyevsky or something because you “want to develop your own style.”

I was listening to a lot of classical music and I was listening to a lot of Russian bards that were very poetic and powerful. I just didn't know who Joni Mitchell was or who the Strokes were. I just didn't know a lot of things. Somebody would have had to hand me six burned Tom Waits CDs in college for me to know who he is…or Jeff Buckley—I just didn't know that. But once I did find out about them it was a great and wonderful gift for my next songs that followed.

So I'm guessing when you sit down to write music, you don't go to yourself “Ok I have to make sure I don't sound like this”?
No, no, actually it's almost the opposite, like “I want to sound like this.” Because I always loved learning to copy voices. Like when I listened to Ella Fitzgerald the first time I would sing for hours and hours until I would get certain intonations a certain way. Or when I did Piaf I would try to get the accent the right way or I would listen to Patsy Kline and I would try to get a certain yodeler thing in my throat. I love finding stuff that people can do and trying to find it in my own vocal chords…like within my body. But it's not like “I'm gonna write a song in the style of…”

But you can pull little things from other people. I was just talking about this with someone last night. It's like being little thieves…but thieves of like, putting out feelers, like every time you watch a movie or look at people have a conversation—you're just like stealing little specimens to use later. But you are an honorable thief and that's the world of it, and other people are doing it and you see them and have a little nod with them, and it's good. I guess thieving is the wrong word but it's just filling yourself up with it all—consuming it.

Yes totally.

So I am assuming you are a big proponent, when you are writing or creating, of just going with your gut and seeing whatever comes out?
Yes, definitely.

Something that always baffles me, because I am completely musically uninclined, so I sometimes listen to my favorite bands and think to myself “How does this song start?” Do you come up with the music first or the lyrics first and then piece it all together?
I don't really know. I don't really know.

It just happens?
Yeeeeaaah, I think so.

Being that you are classically trained and outwardly speak of your love for it, if classical music was more common with kids and the mainstream nowadays, how do you think things would be in different in the music world right now?
Wow. That's a really great question. That's cool, ya know? There are certain things that come naturally with listening to a lot of classical music—certain things that happen to your ear. There's a lot more harmonic range, as opposed to pop music that's built on three chords. It is, and it's great. And classical music is also built on, you know, the first, the fourth and the fifth—but there's much more, much more. I think as far as structures, there would be much more adventurous structures, because I think in pop music, there's this very “verse chorus verse chorus” world. And in classical music, its more like in poetry—more like A, B, A, B or something like that, but then there are those things that go A, B, A, C, D, F, you know? There's certain sonatas where a theme is introduced, and then it's expounded on, and then another theme and then that's expounded on.

[Phone rings in background]

Oh hold on, I'm being called by my cousin. I'll call her back in five minutes. My cousin slash my best friend slash my sister. But anyway, so I think that would just be much more adventurous. Orchestration would be so much more. There are just a lot of things that are very, very, very free. And the thing with classical music is, so many of these themes are so singable. They are very melodic. I mean they are complicated but…you know, people are kina taught to like, be afraid of classical music or something. I remember watching these comedy shows, or sitcoms when I was young and just came to America, very early on when I was like 11 or 12. First of all, each sitcom would always have, you know the “Ghost of Christmas Past” episode or the Halloween episode. And then they would always have the “Trying to get the husband or the boyfriend to go to the ballet or opera” episode. And the woman would always be like “We're going to the ballet and that's it!” And the husband would be like “No I want to watch a sports game!”

And so they make it seem like an everyday person can't comprehend or handle classical music, when, if they were to go to a Tchaikovsky ballet they'd realize that they've hummed and they know all those themes in from car commercials. Because that's how powerful they are, that car commercial that spends millions of dollars on advertising can't think of anything better than classical music to put in there, because it's that accessible. So I think it's just that disconnect that people think “I won't understand it, it's too hard,” but then they listen to the Beatles, but in there, George Martin was a very well-trained classical composer. He initially wanted to write film scores. So there's elements of it in there—like distilled Bach in the Beatles, but you might as well just go to Bach and get the inspiration—more moveable parts maybe. There'd be much more polyphony if people listened to more classical music. Lots of more moving bass and more dissonance…

I think maybe even more reverence as an audience…more of an attention span.
Yeah! That kind of a feel like a classical hall feel where people cough in between the stuff and its almost like a joke “I must cough now because for the next fifteen minutes I can't cough.”

What initially turned me on to classical music was that movie Immortal Beloved and then I watched Amadeus
I love that movie!

Yeah, but if you watch those movies, those guys are like rock stars, just that it's a couple hundred years ago. There's drugs and sex and drinking and music and everyone s all fucked up, ya know?
Yeah well it was the pop music of the time.

I think if kids or people in general, nowadays watched that and learned and related to that they might be more into it and less fearful.
Yeah, now people just think “Oh, the guy in the wig. What does he know about our modern life?” But that's the thing that's really hard for people to remember in the first place…just because thousands of years have gone by, if you take the average person from today or the average person from the time of Homer, its still the same person, only he was working the land and wearing a toga. But the mind, the soul, the everyday existence…you know, love, death, worshipping God, music, drinking—everything was there. And I think that in general, a great teacher in a school now will try to convey that it's current because just because they were riding in a horse and a buggy doesn't mean that they weren't rocking out and those concerts, Crazy things like the Castrati —trying to out-sing each other...and the Virtuosity…

[Phone beeps]

Oh I think that's my next interview on the other line. I have to answer it. If I hang up call me back ok?


[Regina clicks back]

Ok well that's my other interview and then I have to check out of the hotel. Do you have one last question?

One last question? Damn, I was only halfway through! Ok well Sometimes your music seems theatric to me, like I can almost picture you singing it as part of a Broadway musical…or people dancing to it and maybe acting it out. Have you ever wanted to do theater, acting, etc? Are you interested in pursuing other things as an entertainer?
Ha-ha, Yes definitely, definitely, definitely! I can't wait. Especially movies and theater I love. I love acting. I love actors and everything about movies. Like, when a movie comes on, and you see that MGM lion in the beginning, I get one of the best feelings of anticipation. That's also another thing like entering a world. You know that for the next two hours a world is being built for you.

Definitely, but my big fear is just to dabble in things. I don't want to be a dabbler. I want to really do stuff on a good level. There's so much that I need to learn with music still…but I really hope if I do those things that, I'll be surrounded by people I can learn with and I really do it.

Ok well I guess that's it. I'll let you get on to the next thing.
Thank you! It was great talking to you, thanks a lot.

Ya, I am going to try to get to the show in LA in a few weeks.
Cool you should come. I'm excited about that. I actually just heard it sold out.

Great, so good luck then.
Thanks! I'll see you there!