Regina Spektor is recounting the previous night, during which she was introduced to the music of Iron Maiden. “It was so scary, but also so exciting,” she recounts with a slight, but noticeable Russian inflection. “Afterwards, I was afraid to walk home by myself.” Picking at her apple-cinnamon nut muffin and sipping coffee with soymilk (“My Chinese-medicine doctor told me that dairy gives me strep throat”), Regina is an incredibly unassuming presence, wary of artistic praise. Her humility is surprising considering that at age 24 she’s already been compared to Billie Holliday, Björk and Ella Fitzgerald.
Having grown up in Moscow, the land of bootlegged cassettes, Spektor’s introduction to rock consisted of a steady dose of Queen, the Beatles and Michael Jackson. It wasn’t until recently that she was exposed to the music to which many fans attribute her influences.
“People would say, ‘Oh, you sound like Joni Mitchell.’ And I would say, ‘Uh, who’s Joni Mitchell?’” Spektor’s third album, and first for a major label, Soviet Kitsch is a stirring collection of short-act plays set to dramatic piano accompaniment, incorporating classical structures, ragtime nuances and klezmer essences. Spektor inhabits songs like “Carbon Monoxide” and “Chemo Limo” like they were cramped studio apartments, her autobiographical confessions ever so claustrophobic. “I am a songwriter,” Spektor says. “There is the word ‘writer’ in that term. People forget that.
“There is no real ‘I’ in my music,” Spektor continues. “An actor can take up any role and win an award for it. While a musician can sing from the perspective of a wife beater and suddenly that musician is inciting violence.” Spektor takes another bite of her muffin and looks up, exclaiming, “Wow, this muffin is really amazing.”
Spektor’s label, Record Collection (a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) has had a difficult time establishing her niche. While she could easily fall into the embracing arms of Tori Amos fans, she has admirably opened for the likes of indie rock fair, respectively touring with The Strokes and Kings of Leon. Unfortunately, though, when Spektor performs for the rock fans, she has found that they’re less tolerant than expected.
“When I opened for The Strokes and Kings of Leon, I was very intimidated,” she reveals. “I would get on stage and people would yell, ‘Show us your tits!’ Now, you try performing a ballad on a piano after that kind of greeting.” But the doe-eyed performer says that this has only made her skin thicker. “I have an incredible group of friends in the music industry supporting me and my music. That matters to me and inspires me to keep playing. One nasty person cannot discourage me.”
Coming from the antisemitic atmosphere of Spektor’s former Soviet Union childhood, she is quite pleased and vindicated in her current phase. She remains true to her quirky, unconventional aesthetic and is being critically acknowledged for it.
The best part of being successful, however, are the perks. “I get to treat my family to nice things,” Spektor says. “Like the first thing I bought with my record contract was a black hat for my religious brother,” she giggles. “Which is pretty funny, if you think about. A major label just bought a black hat for my brother.”