"People Just Love Oppressing Each Other": A Conversation with Regina Spektor

Over the course of her career, Spektor has become a master of shifting perspectives to tell the stories of others. On the release of her seventh album, we discuss acceptance and motherhood.

by Alexandra Pollard
28 September 2016, 11:11am

"You have heard the new record right? You've listened to it?" I'm being led to the second floor of the Warner Brothers offices, past a burly security guard and formidably-sized posters of the label's biggest success stories to meet with Regina Spektor. "We've been told she won't speak to anyone who hasn't."

I've listened alright. First for research, religiously jotting down the lyrics that stood out, like a teenager with a crush who has decided every song applies only to them. And then – as its strange, melancholic buoyancy tightened its grip – for pleasure. I've got this covered, I assure her team, patting my finger on my extensive list of questions. I'm sure each one will prompt an answer that cuts to the very core of Remember Us To Life, her latest album and fifth major label release. Honest.

In the end, our meeting doesn't quite go as planned, and my exhaustive research is tossed to the side. Spektor is a warm, assuring presence – always engaged, occasionally a little spacey – but she doesn't really want to talk about her music. At least not in any intricate detail. "I find it hard to talk about my songs," she says apologetically, settling on a wooden chair as she stirs a black tea, "because then it's not about the song; it becomes about me. The song is not a riddle, it's not like, 'Oh you got it right! Or," – she puts on a faux-stern voice and her eyes, speckled with gold eyeshadow, fix me with a playful stare, "'You got it really wrong'."

When I attempt to suggest that one of the album's more ostensibly uplifting songs, "Tornadoland", is also its most melancholic, she winces. Oh dear. Have I, within a matter of minutes, achieved the impossible and "got it really wrong?" She won't say. But whatever was rumbling on in Spektor's brain when she made Remember Us To Life, one thing is undeniable – the album is a patchwork of stories and feelings, every seam turned outwards, every piece deliberately unlike the next. One minute, it's lofty and mythical, revelling in imagined narratives, the next it's stark and personal. "When you left I closed the door, closed my eyes, sat on the floor," she sings in "Black And White", with a directness that sits almost jarringly alongside "Grand Hotel" and its tales of old devils making "their blood pacts in the ancient mists".

In each song on Remember Us To Life, Spektor becomes wholly consumed by the guise she's adopted, before shrugging it off to explore something, or someone, altogether different. In some ways, the record is like a series of character studies: Spektor sings of morally questionable flower sellers, an ageing office worker looking back on the paths he never went down, a trapper, a furrier, disease-ridden poets, and a creepy hotel reminiscent of The Shining, under whose floorboards "there's a deep well that leads to a spring that sprung up in hell."

Of course, Spektor is no stranger to telling stories. She did the same in her beautifully bizarre major label debut, Soviet Kitsch, over a decade ago. Take the six-minute long odyssey "Chemo Limo", for example, which weaves a trippy tale of a cancer-suffering mother of four. "No thank you, no thank you, no thank you, no thank you," she sings at a pace so fast the words cease to make sense, "I don't have to pay for this shit. I can afford chemo like I can afford a limo / And on any given day I'd rather ride a limousine". It's weird, heartbreaking and funny – and came as a breath of fresh air at a time during the noughties years of indie landfill. 2006's Begin To Hope was a little more accessible – there was a time when you could hardly move for Regina Spektor songs in romantic comedies – but her penchant for specific, eclectic narratives always remained.

"It's always all over the place with me. I'm not a consistent person," she says, though without a hint of displeasure. "I was even looking at your notebook and I was thinking, in my notebooks when I write, one line is in one handwriting, and the next line switches handwritings. When I look at it I think, 'Which one am I? Am I the person who writes like this, or am I the person who writes like that?' I think it's like that with music."

Yet, while Spektor does indeed play different characters across her discography, it's less about being inconsistent as a songwriter and more as a gift for shifting perspectives; for observing, and re-telling, the stories of others. Perhaps this empathetic approach comes from having spent the early years of her life as an outsider. In 1989, when she was nine and a half years old, Spektor and her family fled Soviet Russia during perestroika and glasnost (a heavy political restructuring and move to openness which unleashed a wave of suppressed antisemitism in certain areas of society), taking the opportunity to escape fierce persecution of their faith. Arriving in New York with refugee status, Spektor didn't speak a word of English. It was only from watching, mirroring and absorbing the city's culture and way of life that she gradually assimilated. Now, she sings in an exaggerated 'New Yoik' accent, speaks in a similar, albeit softer, fashion, and her music has the East Coast coursing through its veins. Her Russian roots run deep though, and every now and again they burst out, like in "Apres Moi", where her American English flips to Russian at the song's climax as she sings the first verse of the poem "February" by Boris Pasternak.

All of these ingredients and cultural influences were in place when it came to recording Remember Us To Life, but there was one major new addition. In 2014, Spektor gave birth to her first child – a son with Moldy Peaches' Jack Dishel. I don't ask his name, but I find out later that she wouldn't have told me even if I had. Some things she likes to keep private. Did she find it chaotic, having to snatch creative opportunities at whatever unearthly hour they presented themselves? "No," she says after a moment's thought. "I think it actually made me able to write more, and organised me in a strange way. I think it was this very interesting combination of: you're super, super inspired, and you're overflowing with all this love and emotion and awe, and you're simultaneously sleep deprived. So you feel like you have more time. It moves fast and slow at the same time."

Spektor studied in London for a year when she was 20, a few miles North of where we're sitting today, and our conversation is peppered with British idioms like 'queue' and 'tube'. Yet "even pulling all-nighters at university was nothing compared to the sleep deprivation of having a baby," she says. "That's some new shit. And it's amazing, but you literally like, you start to kind of trip out, in a major way. I feel like this whole record was made in an altered mind."

"I was talking to this journalist in Stockholm," she recalls, smoothing out her billowing white smock, "and she has two kids and she was saying, 'People don't understand, every company should just hire as many new mothers as they can, because we work so hard!'" Too often it's the other way round – companies can be reluctant to hire young women because they might become new mothers. Which is, I begin, but she finishes the sentence for me, "SO stupid."

Despite the pretty major head trip it's proven to be, Spektor is clearly relishing being a new mother. "I always wanted to be a mom," she beams. "My mom said I wanted to be a mom since I was pre-verbal. She said I used to walk off with strollers and carriages of other babies as soon as I learned to walk. So for me I always wanted it, but I also completely understand not wanting it."

There's a BBC documentary from many years ago floating around the internet, where a 21-year-old Kate Bush is asked by a male interviewer decades older than her, "Is there ever a chance that you might give up, get married, settle down, be an ordinary mother?" In other words, this whole career thing is great, but your end goal is marriage and kids, right? Times have changed since 1979, but did Spektor ever feel that pressure? "It's interesting because, you know, people just love oppressing each other," she laughs. "And it comes from this place of fear, really… There's a certain awareness we have that we have one life, and no matter what you believe, this particular life goes from a start point–" she lets go of the tea she's been clutching, and slaps her left hand down on the table, "to an end point." Her other hand falls dramatically down too, and she stares at the space between them. "So there's this incredible desire to be comforted, and to be made to feel like the way you're living is the right way, and that other people are living the wrong way."

The solution to that is empathy, which is much easier to suggest than it is to put into practice. "People have to catch themselves being envious of others, or judging others, or trying to make themselves feel better. It's OK to feel those things, but you have to catch them. I think that's the answer to sexism and racism and nationalism and all those things," – a somewhat bold statement, and yet from Spektor's mouth it all seems quite achievable – "It's OK to be like, 'I'm this human animal who's gonna have these feelings at times, and I am scared of a lot of stuff, but I have to learn how to get past that.' You have to work on it all constantly, otherwise it just goes off the rails."

And work on it, constantly, is what Spektor does best. That much can be seen in the way she juggles the variously evolving aspects of her personal life and her career, and how her music is so drenched in empathy, containing continents' worth of voices. We're living in an age where a man with even less sympathetic awareness than he has natural melanin is inching closer to the Presidency, where people who are seen as 'other' are being increasingly demonised, and the intricate stories of 'outsiders' are being swept aside in favour of fear mongering. Perhaps we need Regina Spektor, and her strange, open-hearted storytelling, now more than ever.

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(All photography by Shervin Lainez)

Regina Spektor
Remember Us To Life