People can mischaracterise the music of Regina Spektor sometimes. Read her early press, and you’ll get the impression that she’s some kind of bucolic garden fairy – that her recorded output is dotted by a series of light, life-affirming ballads about nature, and heartbreak, and dappled sunshine.
But to reduce Spektor to such cliches is to misunderstand the great power of her music. For decades now, Regina Spektor has written songs about resilience; powerful, titanium-strength odes about refusing to be anyone but yourself. That was apparent on her very first album, the dense and touching 11:11, and it’s just as apparent on her latest, Remember Us To Life, a glorious tribute to the power of empathy and of love.
In conversation over a scratchy New York phone line, Spektor only reaffirms her commitment to these values. “I’m surrounded by really beautiful family and friends that I love very, very much,” she says at one point, her voice warm. “I feel like I have a lot of really good people in my life. I feel like if you have that, you have a lot.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The BRAG: You’re such a prolific songwriter. Could you tell me a bit about your songwriting process and what spurs your creativity?
Regina Spektor: I think there are a few parts to it. Some of it is just expressing your inner-being: you feel compelled, you just want to express yourself. Other things are just processing what you come into contact with, within the world, through your lens.
Watch the music video for the Regina Spektor song ‘Bleeding Heart’ here:
We are all lucky. We’ve been given unique things: unique bodies, minds, heritages, and families, and we’re all from different parts of the world. So we have so much to process through these things.
It’s what compels me and inspires me to use my time here to engage the truest version of myself that I can, and just go from there.
You still play songs live that were written upwards of ten years ago. Does playing them still evoke a kind of feeling or is their place to satisfy fans?
Regina Spektor: I tend to pick my setlist based on what feels right at the time. In some ways, I feel like, shows are for other people too. It would be sad if no-one came to them, but they’re also very much for myself. I pick songs that feel right to me in the moment.
It’s like if you watch a cat in a backyard. They’ll go to a certain flower and one day they’ll nibble it on a bit and the next day they’ll go over and sniff it. Then they’ll say, “No, I don’t want that” and they’ll eat a bit of grass instead… It’s kind of like that with music.
Sometimes, I’ll think, “I haven’t played this song in a while, I’ll play this song!” and the words will feel so not me in my mouth. And I don’t want to sing the words or play the song. Other songs I’ll remember because someone would have mentioned it. Or I’ll read something online, or a journalist will mention a song. Sometimes, something will bring a song back and it’ll just feel right.
Watch the music video for the Regina Spektor song ‘The Trapper And The Furrier’ here:
Some songs kind of stay, the just never fall out. They always feel good to do. Others come and go. I don’t know why that is.
Do you have a favourite song you’ve written?
Regina Spektor: No, nothing like that. The way that I think about it is that we have these systems with a lot of range to them. Everything is a gambit of sadness or joy or euphoria or anger or sarcasm or whatever it is. All of these are dials, that dial can be turned up or down.
I think a lot of the time, songs end up coming from a certain little trajectory within you. They have little coordinates inside yourself. They all come from such different places and different moods, pitting them against each-other almost seems unfair.
Is there anything you hope that people get or take away from your music?
Regina Spektor: I would say that if I could influence anything at all, it would be to make people excited to be themselves. To do things as themselves: I find that very exciting about people. I’m excited for people to take a moment and be like “Wait, what is it that I want to do?” Or “Who am I? Why am I here? What’s a special aspect of myself that I haven’t been using at all? Because for whatever reason I thought that nobody would care”.
I realised that my ideal show would be if, as the show went on, people thought of all these things that they hadn’t done and would sneak out to do them. Like someone in the third row would think, “Oh, I haven’t called my grandmother, I’m going to get up and do that”. And somebody else would be like, “That short story I started three years ago and never finished, I got this idea for it now, I really want to finish it”. Or, “I want to start a band” or “that guy I never asked out, I’m going to call him up”. Then at the end of the show, there would just be a bunch of empty seats because everybody got so excited to do their own stuff. That is my imaginary ideal show.
Watch the music video for the Regina Spektor song ‘Small Bill$’ here:
What advice would you give to young creatives?
Regina Spektor: I would say: be as playful as you can. Be about it. Approach things with gentle curiosity and fun and not with an agenda. It’s just human nature but a lot of the time, as soon as something is good enough we ask it, “What can you do for me? What can you get me? Oh, I have a little bit of talent, where can it get me? Oh, I have this idea! What can it do for me?” Very rarely we ask our talent or gift, “What can I do for you?”.
“Oh, I have an ear for melody, should I take you out to listen to the ocean? What kind of music do you want to go on an adventure to listen to?”
I think that a lot of the time we want to utilize it, and take advantage of it. I think that if you’re creative and young and developing, you just have to keep that playfulness and kindness around.
I would say, don’t be too critical. I would also say, try not to put everything that you do as you’re growing, up online. Because then it becomes this feedback loop of you wanting a certain kind of approval. It’s almost like inviting people to help shape your art before you even have the chance to explore it yourself.
I would treat it like a sneaky experiment and let it grow in privacy. Almost like the way a seed germinates underground so that by the time we see it it’s done so much work on its own, in privacy. I would just kind of cherish that aloneness. Where you sort of get to make-up your own mind without having people weigh in.
Watch Regina Spektor play KEXP here:
Especially because every single thing in the world, somebody likes and somebody doesn’t. And that could generate every kind of comment about the same thing that there could be. You know, “This is amazing! Or this is horrible! Or this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard! Or this is the best thing I’ve ever heard!”.
It doesn’t really matter what you do, you will generate the whole gambit. So you may as well allow yourself to figure out what the hell that is first without the world weighing in.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing with your life?
Regina Spektor: I probably would be a teacher of some kind. I very much love children; I love spending time with kids of all ages. From really little to about college age. I just find kids really inspiring and I love learning from them. I’ve never walked away from an interaction with a kid without hearing something surprising, or interesting, or a really cool take on something that I wouldn’t have thought of.
What were you like as a child ?
Regina Spektor: I had a very big move in my life when I was a child. At the age of nine and a half, I moved countries. I went from the former Soviet Union to the United States.
I had a unique experience of just, showing up somewhere at ten years old and not knowing the language. And being in a totally different culture. I was always very vocal about everything. I was really interested in everything being just. I didn’t like the injustice of the world. If I saw unfairness, or I saw someone being bullied when I was little I would just run up an intervene. It wouldn’t even enter my mind that this person is twice the size of me. I just felt kind of invincible.
Watch the music video for the Regina Spektor song ‘Samson’ here:
When I got to America, I experienced seeing certain things that kids don’t see till later. I saw that my parents had vulnerability. I saw that they were worried and they didn’t speak the language and they were struggling and they didn’t have money. All those kind of things. It made me really sympathetic towards adults.
Very early on I thought that the “Oh I want this because everybody else has it” attitude that kids have was crazy. I was like, “Don’t you know?” but they didn’t know, they didn’t get to see behind the curtains. It was like going to Oz and being like, “Wait a minute! The wicked! Shit, nobody knows what the fuck is going on!”
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Regina Spektor: I think one of the things I’m trying to get better at is not beating myself up over everything. I never have an “I’m really proud of this” moment, I just kind of think “Oh, you really fucked that up!”.
I think, if I could be proud of anything, it would be that I’ve tried hard to surround myself with really good people. I feel like that actually happened. I’m surrounded by really beautiful family and friends that I love very, very much. I feel like I have a lot of really good people in my life. I feel like if you have that, you have a lot. Just being able to pick people that are good, I think that’s a really good thing. And I did that, and I’m so happy.