When Regina Spektor's self-released albums 11:11 and Songs emerged in the early '00s, they didn't make much of a ripple outside of New York's insular "anti-folk" singer-songwriter scene. But after touring and recording with The Strokes in 2003, Spektor suddenly wound up courted by major labels and on "artists to watch" lists. She justified the heightened interest with her 2004 record Soviet Kitsch, a lively collection of minimalist piano romps full of snappy melodies and vivid, witty lyrics. The Russian-born, classically trained musician was snapped up by Sire Records, which re-released Soviet Kitsch and spread the word about Spektor's effortless combination of art and pop, old world and new world. On her fourth album, Begin To Hope, Spektor continues to grow, reaching beyond the conventional troubadour clichés for a set of songs that sounds radio-ready yet subversively puckish. A week before the album's release, Spektor spoke with The A.V. Club about the progression of her sound, her place in New York's music underground, and whether she thinks she has a shot at getting airplay.
The A.V. Club: This new record has a lot more going on sonically than your first three. Why the change?
Regina Spektor: It was the first time I ever had money. [Laughs.] I'd always wanted to work in the studio and experiment with sounds. Things that I'm really influenced by and that I love are like The Beatles and Radiohead, and all those records by bands whose music is really involved. Tom Waits… the list goes on and on. People who, like, it's not just about the songs for them. It's also about building a world for each song and being able to fulfill it. Before, I had to imply a lot of stuff, and now I can fulfill it.
AVC: So if you had your way five years ago, you would've been making records like this?
RS: Right, I would. Except that I think it's kind of almost good that I couldn't, because I had all this time to just be listening. I'm so behind on pop culture that I was just listening and learning, and learning and listening. It's like my piano teacher would always say: "Whenever the student is ready, a teacher appears." It was good that right when I thought I really wanted to make a record like this, I was able to work with [producer] David [Kahne] and have a label supporting me.
AVC: Was there anything in your experiments with style and sound that just didn't work?
RS: Oh my God, yeah. We played so much with sounds and building stuff, and if it really sucked, we'd scrap it and start anew. I'm very attached nostalgically to places or records that I love, but I'm really not nostalgic or precious about my own stuff. So it's really easy for me to just wake up the next morning with something and be like, "Nope, I hate it."
AVC: What if you're wrong? What if you throw away the best version of the song?
RS: Well, that's what a lot of people say sometimes. But luckily, it's my music. [Laughs.] You can take people's advice, but in the end, you have to be really truthful with yourself and know if you like it or you don't.
The new version of "Samson" [on Begin To Hope] was really hard. I wanted to do a new version because I hadn't realized how slow the one on Songs was. All of the songs on Songs were one take each, almost for archiving purposes. I had like 28 of those, and then I narrowed it down to 12 and slapped on a cover and put it out as Songs. And then I never listened to it again. But "Samson," which is the first track on Songs—a lot of people really cared for it. They were requesting it at shows, and I loved playing it, but I didn't have it on a record that was going to get promoted by a record label. I self-released Songs, so it's not in stores or anything like that. But I went back and listened to it again, and it was so horrible. I couldn't believe that people listened to it and liked it. It was driving me crazy that it existed, and I wanted to obliterate it and replace it.
So we were recording, and I recorded like, I swear, I don't know, 70 versions. And none of them were exactly right. But there was this one that everybody at the record label loved, and David loved. And then two weeks after we mastered the record, I called up David at midnight and was like, "I know you're going to hate me, but we need to re-record 'Samson.' It's the wrong version, I just can't live with it." And then I called my label and told them the same thing. And they were like, "This is like that movie The Conversation. You're going to systematically destroy your whole record." Because I have that potential. When I was watching that movie, it hit close to home. I've done that kind of stuff in records, where you start going back and you want to just redo everything, destroy everything, because you think it all sucks and you can do it better.
But I really did feel that it wasn't the right "Samson." I kept saying, "Please, just one more day. I know this is crazy. You have deadlines. But this is my record, and if it's not going to be how I want it, then it's not going to be on the record." And they were like, "Okay, you can try one more time." And then I got it how I wanted it. It's exactly how I wanted it. And some people wouldn't even hear the difference. Or some people will like the other one better. But I have it how I want it.
AVC: The version on Begin To Hope is pretty unadorned, a lot like the one on Songs. Was that what you struggled with? Whether to go back to the simpler sound?
RS: No, it wasn't the sound. It was arranged exactly the same way. It was my performance I didn't like.
AVC: It must be tricky to be a young artist and to wrestle with your label over getting the record right, especially after the horror stories told by artists like Nellie McKay or Aimee Mann, who've both had albums "disappear" when they didn't see eye to eye with their labels.
RS: Right, well… Luckily, I heard all the horror stories. I went to SUNY Purchase, where a lot of musician friends of mine went, and other film friends, artsy friends. It's like a state art school, or something like that. And the school freaked us out so much about the corporate art situation in general. The music business, the movie business, all of the businesses… We left school absolutely terrified of them.
I mean, I used to turn around and run if an A&R person came up to me. I didn't even talk to them for the first few years. Slowly, I warmed up, because some of them were cool guys. My first label friends were from Island Records, Def Jam, and they were just cool guys who were music fans. So eventually I stopped being paranoid and started hanging out with them. Then I was on the road with The Strokes, and they didn't seem to have a horrible relationship with their label, and they got to do their stuff exactly how they wanted. I figured, "If I ever get offered a chance to sign a deal, I'll only do it if I got to do it how I want."
So my contract is structured in such a way that I'm really protected. I waited and waited and waited. The only thing they really get to pick is the single. But I get to pick the producer, the songs on the record, the final masters, the artwork. Basically, I hand them a record.
AVC: Everyone at the label must be happy, then, that you turned in a fairly accessible, mainstream record.
RS: I think they were surprised by some of the stuff. [Laughs.] A lot of it was "Close, but no cigar." Like, "That song sounds like it could be on the radio, but it's got that line about cocaine." I don't know. To me, it's really interesting, because in a lot of ways, they seem excited about it, and I wouldn't want them not excited, because then they wouldn't want to work on it. But everyone was really, really excited about Soviet Kitsch, and they never got it on the radio. I think even the most "accessible" I can be is still a fucking trip for them to try to put out there.
I was riding in the car with my cousins when I was in San Francisco, listening to a pretty good rock station, and a song came on with Karen O. They were like, "Whoa, cool, who is that?" And I was like, "That sounds like Karen O's voice, so I think it's the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' new song. And by the way, guys, did you notice that for the past hour and a half, there wasn't a single female singer on the radio?" And they were like, "Oh shit, you're right!" [Laughs.] You know? If people like Avril Lavigne can't even get played… I don't know.
But I've also had some really interesting responses from my fans, who I really care about and keep in touch with as best as I can through the Internet. I like paying attention to their comments. And some of them are really freaked out by the new record. They want what they had. Me, I'm very unimpressed by purists. I'm like, "Would you be the person in the room that would boo when Dylan went electric? I know I wouldn't. Or are you the person that left The Beatles after 'She Loves You,' or 'Drive My Car?' You weren't on board for 'Revolution 9' or 'Day In The Life,' were you?" [Laughs.]
To me, it's exciting. I care so much about making things that are useful for people to have and listen to, but I don't care so much that I won't do whatever the hell I want. It's just one of those things. You make something, and you really have fun with it, and you try to put emotion in it, and at the end of the day, you have no idea how the tide is going to fall. You don't know if everyone's going to like it, if everyone's going to hate it, if it's going to be like you're a media darling, or all of a sudden you're a sellout. You have no idea. It has very little to do with the actual content.
I know how this stuff works, you know? My first ever interview was for NME, the English magazine. I had a photo shoot, and I was really worried about what they were going to say about me. I was talking to the photographer—a really cool guy—and I said, "Oh my God, I'm so nervous. My first-ever interview. I don't know if they're going to turn me into some sort of überbitch, or what they're going to say. Are they going to make me sound dumb?" And he was like, "This is your first one? They're just building you up. They're not going to start tearing you down for at least another year." And it was like a light went off in my head. "Wow. This has nothing to do with me. I'm just a name. I'm either useful or not. I'm not worth being negative about if nobody knows who I am, because I'm only useful in the media if you can stick my name on the cover of a magazine and someone would buy it." So I don't know. It's complex stuff. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your online fan base is largely drawn from websites devoted to the "anti-folk" movement. When you started out, were you aware you were part of a movement?
RS: No. I really wanted to be part of that movement, but I wasn't one of the cool kids. [Laughs.] I only got lumped in afterward, which was exciting. A lot of the musicians whose music I really liked were called "anti-folk." It wasn't considered anti-folk when I was doing it, because my piano stuff was a bit too classical, and it wasn't cool. [Laughs.] But I think anti-folk is more about anybody who plays at The Sidewalk Café, stuff like that. I don't think it's necessarily a sound of music, or a type of music. It's more like an attitude. People with acoustic instruments, playing songs and singing in their own voice. Not in a really stylized way, but kind of conversational. And a lot of their focus is way more political than mine.
AVC: In a lot of your songs, like "That Time" on Begin To Hope, you take on the persona of a big-city bohemian type. Is that your voice, or the voice of people you know?
RS: None of the songs are really in my voice. It's too boring for me. Usually I make people up, make characters up. Make stuff up. Though "That Time" is one of the rare songs in which there is a tiny bit of autobiographical something.
AVC: Is it the line about spending a month eating nothing but tangerines, or the line about your friend overdosing?
RS: [Laughs.] It's the line about trying to save the pigeon with the broken wing.
AVC: How much help is your classical training when writing pop songs? Or is it a hindrance?
RS: No, it's a lot of help. I'm very, very much against ignorance of the "I don't want to learn this because I want to develop my own style" approach. It's so fucked-up, because you end up reinventing the wheel and not having the tools. It's a real gift to be able to have the works of brilliant, great people to learn from and build from. It gives you so much more to draw on, and then you don't have to be all about three-chord pop songs. I don't really like that kind of writing. I just like being all over the place and writing whatever comes to mind. Having the tools? It's such a gift.