She sings of owls and orca whales - but it's the streets of her hometown that inspire Regina Spektor. She takes Imogen Tilden on a tour of Manhattan
Friday June 23, 2006
Spektor was born in Russia of Jewish parents, but her family emigrated to the US when she was nine, settling in the Bronx. Now she lives in Manhattan, and it's impossible to imagine her music - combining a childlike sense of wonder, and vivid, surreal images, set to an eclectic, often piano-led backing - coming from any other city."New York feeds me creatively," she says, during the course of an overcast June Sunday spent taking the Guardian round the New York locations that have informed her music. "A lot of my inspiration comes from walking in the streets. It's a kind of country of its own. This is the place that makes me feel more at home than anywhere else on the planet."
We meet for breakfast in her favourite diner. Black-and-white photos of actors line the walls. A sign reads: "Hot oatmeal served till 11am." The menu offers 80 kinds of omelette. Spektor arrives late -she was editing the video for her new single into the early hours. Despite the late night, she is strikingly pretty, with intensely blue eyes and a wide, engaging smile. She wears a tiny "R" on a silver chain round her neck, red hearts dangle from her ears and her nail varnish is chipped.
She tells stories from the minute she sits down - about a mouse she befriended in her old apartment, how she developed a passion for yerba mate tea staying in Barcelona while squashed like a sardine into a flat shared with Brazilian fire-dancers, or of coming to the UK to study for six months as a 19-year-old. "I got it into my head that it would be romantic to study Shakespeare in London. I went with two huge suitcases full of wool - woollen sweaters, woollen underwear. My parents said: "It's an island surrounded by water and wind. Colder than the coldest thing you've known in New York." So I get on the plane and sit next to this British guy who'd just been in New York, and he turns to me and says, 'These past five days have been the coldest in my life.'"
Between mouthfuls of egg (sunny side up on rye), she says she used to be vegetarian, but touring with the Strokes, who existed on a diet of steaks and burgers, put paid to that. "I have a whole secret food side," she says. "Russian stuff: tongue sandwiches, herrings, sauerkraut soup." She promises to take us to Veselka, a 24-hour east-European deli, where we can sample New York's best stuffed cabbage.
We walk through Washington Square. A band strikes up New York, New York. "No one will believe this," she laughs. We sit at the edge of an unused fountain. "I like that people can see each other as you all sit facing in. I come here a lot. It's peaceful." A group of people are standing around two huge easels. Spektor goes to ask what they're doing. "This is the interactive city," she says. "You have to try really hard to be lonely here. Just walking around you can't stay in a bad mood. Once I was feeling really lonely and sad, and then I saw two nuns Rollerblading in full habits, and I thought, 'All right, God, I get it! The world is funny, I should get over myself and laugh.'"
The Strand bookstore boasts 18 miles of new, used, rare and out-of-print books. "You can't ever really find what you're looking for but you find all kinds of other stuff," Spektor says. "I've read entire books here. I've come in, read for like a couple of hours, left, come back two weeks later, gone up the ladder, got my book, sat and read for another few hours." She picks out former army colonel James K Van Heet's po-faced 1968 Guide to Managing People from the $1 stall. She adds a book of Yiddish poetry, even though she can't understand the language, just spell the words out, haltingly.
"I've lost this four times," she says, spotting Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. "I keep leaving it in hotel rooms. I love his stuff but I can't continue to buy it. I think I'm never going to get to read the end." Taschen's enormous $200 Stanley Kubrick's Archives catches her eye. "Kubrick's work with music is amazing. In fact, Wendy Karlos - who did the music for A Clockwork Orange - lives just above here." She'd love to write film music herself one day, she says.
A musical influence from her homeland is the political songwriting of Vladimir Vysotsky, the singer and actor who died, aged 42, in 1980. What about the personal and political in her own songwriting? Her song, Uh-merica, for example, juxtaposes the image of a mother's kisses for her newborn with the comfort of "cuddling your semi-automatic". "I'm not a political activist. It would limit me," she says."I want to be very free. I guess if there is any agenda I have, it is to win back the rights of musicians to be more like the Greek chorus who stand outside and comment, almost anonymous and without boundaries. With that comes a certain way of being objective. Music suffers from being too personal - even just the fact that people assume my stuff is personal."
The fantastical stories she writes have more to do with the logic of dreams than any linear narrative or specific agenda. "I have characters and create stories, and then I move on to the next one and I forget that people are associating it with you. Sure I sing my heart out, but it's just not for myself or about myself. I'm singing about ideas I've had or things I've seen, people I've seen, things I've made up that might be real or they might not." On Hotel Song, from Begin to Hope, for instance, she sings: "Come into my world/I have dreams of orca whales and owls/but I wake up in fear." Across the record, her voice moves from breathy innocence to a raucous, sexy yelp with growls, purrs and screams along the way, somehow bringing all her fascinations together in three-minute pop songs. How would she describe her music? "I usually just say songs. People think I'm trying to be all smartass, but I just sing the songs I write, and they're different from each other."
We go on to Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village, where she played her first proper gig, aged 19. "I'd come here for the open mic night but never got picked. So I got the number of the booker and called him up. It happened a woman was covering for him that day, and so I lied to her, 'I had a show booked and I don't remember when it was. Would you mind checking?' and she looked in the diary and of course it wasn't there. 'He said he wrote it down,' I said, and so she put me down for a slot. I begged every single person I knew to come. The place was full of Russian adults. They did such good business they had me back, and slowly I started to have some real fans."
She inspires a particular kind of fervent devotion among her fans, who all seem to want to be her best friend or boyfriend. She's embarrassed. "That is so weird - I think I'm such a dork." On MySpace she has almost 68,000 friends (the Arctic Monkeys have 70,000), and they all seem to feel possessive about her; the possibility that Begin to Hope might be her commercial breakthrough has upset some. "People on my website are saying stuff like, 'I don't want her to be known. She's ours'," Spektor says.
She agrees that the album - her first for a major label - feels poppier and more mainstream than 2004's Soviet Kitsch ("More produced, certainly"). She worked with the Grammy-winning producer David Kahne. "I loved working with him so much. I looooved it." She lowers her voice to a whisper: "He, like, produces Paul McCartney." He helped her with her arrangements, fleshing out her recordings so they were closer to what she could hear in her head. "I would say 'I want this kind of a sound', and he would say, 'OK, I have this ...' and then he'd pull it up from his computer, and in the process we'd find five other sounds that were really inspiring. We'd start pulling on a thread and then pull more and more and get really excited, until my eyes were closing. I'd stumble home at 3am."
How would she feel if the album did make her a star, and she could no longer walk freely around her city? "With increased fame comes a weirdness. I don't think I like that stuff. I wouldn't want to be stopped in the street. But [fame] does grant you certain kinds of artistic privileges, and access to other artists and musicians who you wouldn't have otherwise. It really, really makes me happy when people know my songs or when my shows sell out. But when you're an underground musician you're only available to the very active music fans who really work hard. It's an awesome experience to have those fans, but sometimes you want to at least make yourself available to more people."
She returns to our earlier brush with her new presence in New York. "I'm gonna take all my friends to see the posters. We'll come across them, accidentally on purpose," she says with a grin.
· Regina Spektor plays Brighton Concord on Sunday, then tours. Begin to Hope is released on July 10
30.01.2006: Regina Spektor, Manchester University
06.01.2006: CD: Regina Spektor, Mary Ann Meets the Grave Diggers and Other Short Stories
06.01.2006: We're jammin': Regina Spektor
17.11.2004: Regina Spektor, Bush Hall, London
04.07.2004: CD: Regina Spektor, Soviet Kitsch
Regina Spektor official site