Regina Spektor is one of those polarizing performers. People either love her idiosyncratic and unfiltered approach to songwriting or they are totally put off by it. Nobody seems to debate her sizable talents, however, with her nimble voice and classical piano background elevating her above her roots in New York City's East Village music scene. Her sixth LP, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, debuted at number three on the Billboard album chart and earned her positive praise from Rolling Stone, who said the album "nail-guns emotional truths between wisecracks." We chatted with the Russian-born singer about the album, her penchant for mouth-drumming and which Britney Spears track is her favorite to do at karaoke. Spektor plays the The Paramount Theater in Seattle on August 9th.
So at any given moment you could make a double-record if you wanted? At any given moment I could make six records! But they might not be six records I want to make. Just because the songs are done doesn't meant that I could capture them in the way that feels right at the time.
You use your voice for a lot of creative things on the album, including drum machine sounds on "All the Rowboats" and a trumpet part on "The Party." Is any of that spontaneous? Do you ever just hit record and see what happens? For the most part, my stuff is so -- the official term would be through-composed. When I wrote "All the Rowboats," I always did the mouth drum part. I had to do it because I was the only drum in the room. A lot of these things, like the trumpet, comes from necessity because I'm alone and I hear the part for a certain kind of instrument or feeling. So I do it and then it just stays. It becomes so specific. It must be because I come from classical music and I'm so used to pieces that are finished. Jazz and improvisation came much later into my life and maybe it exhibits itself slightly more in my voice, but even when I change things, I end up doing it how I changed it. Then for the next three years that one note that I added is always there in that one spot.
Where did the concept for "All the Rowboats" come from, with the notion that famous paintings are feeling trapped in art museums, which you refer to as "public mausoleums"? Are you an art lover? Do you not like museums? I'm a giant art lover! Most of my songs are not representative of my opinions in the world. I approach a lot of them the way Kurt Vonnegut or a science-fiction writer might. I like how, in our world, many, many different perspectives can be valid. I think I'm always playing with that.
The concept reminded me a bit of the way animal activists might criticize a zoo for keeping animals caged. Even in a zoo, it's interesting because it's such a difficult concept to really have clear lines about. I feel duality about zoos all the time. I feel the privilege that I get to see those animals up close. I've had tremendous days that I've loved spent at zoos and aquariums. It's my chance to see and be close to this wildlife and in that way it makes me love it more. But in another way, I also feel simultaneously sorry for them.
Can you talk about where the album title came from? I had the phrase about a year and a half before I even knew what would be on the record. It was just a phrase that came into my head and I was like, "That's going to be the title of my next record." I just knew it. A lot of how I make things is very instinct-driven -- things that just feel very right or feel very wrong.
And what about the cover? Is there anything meaningful about the hat or striped shirt? It wasn't even planned as a cover. It had been a very long time since I'd done a photo shoot and the photographer, Shervin Lainez, we'd been in touch trying to coordinate something for a very long time. I learned many years ago that photo shoots feel very strange if you're being put into other people's clothing or being styled a certain way. So now, whenever I have photo shoots -- and fashion magazines hate this, which is why I do so few fashion shoots I think -- I just bring things that feel right to me. The hat I got on tour when I was playing in Japan and it kind of made me feel like a conductor of a train. And the sweater my grandma actually gave me. I like the gold buttons and it just made me think of her. On Begin to Hope, I'm wearing my Star of David and on Soviet Kitsch I'm wearing my grandpa's navy hat. The photos just stayed around and stuck in my mind. When the record was finished, I looked through them and that photo just seemed perfect.
Do you sing karaoke? I love karaoke!
What's your karaoke song of choice? Definitely "Since U Been Gone." That's always fun to do because you get to scream at the very top of your range. I love being an audience member more than anything. It's one of the happiest things. Nothing compares to watching your friends sing songs that they love into a microphone in a tiny room. It's the only place where I really like those pop songs.
Any others that you've sang recently? I really like "Toxic." But me and my friend always change it to "'cause you know you're a chopstick."
How about a favorite cover version of one of your songs? Years ago, Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers sent me a really beautiful cover of "Samson." He does this thing where he just feels like covering a song and he'll send it in the mail.
Are you sure he wasn't flirting? Yeah, I'm pretty sure [laughs]. Oh, and another one, which was kind of mind blowing, is Peter Gabriel covered "Apres Moi." He made it really mysterious and he did it with an orchestra. I just two days ago came home from this European tour, and one of the places that I played was a festival in Lisbon. The night before playing, my road manager got an email saying that Peter Gabriel was also playing and that was performing with an orchestra. And he's made "Apres Moi" part of his repertoire.
He's been playing it all over the world, which is super cool. But I'd never had the chance to hear it live because every time he was in New York I was on tour. So he actually had me come during his set and sing the Russian verses of it in Portugal. He's one of these people who can really riff and improvise with his voice. He's really comfortable with that. We met 20 minutes before he was going on stage and we sort of made a plan for how it was going to happen. Then he said, "Let's trade verses and we'll just sort of improvise." And I was just like, "Uh..." I mean there's thousands of people there and an orchestra! He's the nicest, most gracious person to try and do that with because he made me feel like I couldn't fuck up, which is obviously untrue. But he made it seem like that. I loved it.