Growing up in the USSR in the ’80s, Regina Spektor had a tradition: Just as dusk rolled in, she’d turn off all the lights in her family’s home, look out the window, and listen to Mozart. “My childhood was pretty bare, and classical music is like listening to magic,” Spektor, 42, tells Bustle. Against her sparse, Soviet background, art glowed even brighter — like an apple might taste after a month of swearing off sugar. “Everything is relative in our world,” she says.
Spektor arrived in America at age 9 to find a world overstuffed with consumerist excess — as she says, “There's just so much of everything” — but didn’t let it overpower her. Instead, she carved out a space for herself away from the industry machine, self-releasing her 2001 debut, 11:11, and her two following albums; she gave herself the freedom to explore, to lean into her dark sense of humor, to try out weird sh*t. From her home base in the Bronx, she commuted to venues all over the city, trying to get her music in front of anyone who’d hear it. “I would just leave home with enough money probably for the subway, and maybe a snack and hope that I would give away a few [CDs],” she says. “And maybe if I got really lucky, like sell a CD or two, and then I could buy a drink.”
Many CDs and drinks later, she’d fall in with the city’s anti-folk scene, tour with bands like The Strokes and Kings of Leon, and finally, in 2004, land a record deal. Her fan base grew in turn, until every ’00s-era indie soft girl could hum the plucky opening chords of “Fidelity” and imitate Spektor’s breathless lyrics from “Samson.”
Over the last two decades, the singer-songwriter has found a way to balance melodic flourishes with soul-bearing lyrics, to keep her voice impossibly bright while her words hit the back of your knees. But even in Home, before and after — her latest album, released after a six-year hiatus — you can still hear the remnants of her humble beginnings. Spektor recorded much of Home, before and after in a converted church upstate, and the lyrics are filled with big, whimsical questions: What would it be like to have a beer with God? Is love enough reason to stay with someone? Spektor isn’t worried about answering these queries, but rather sitting with them — even finding company in them — at a time when people have been forced to be alone with themselves. Her piano-pop stylings are front and center, though she throws in a full Macedonian orchestra to keep the listener on their toes. “I don’t think anyone would think anything was ‘out of character’ for me,” she says. “I feel like people expect everything from me.”
Below, Spektor muses about her early career, her love of Nirvana’s Unplugged Session, and how her team kept recording through an earthquake.
On The Earthquake That Almost Ruined Her Album & Her Life At 21:
You were 21 when you self-released your first album, 11:11. Can you paint me a picture of your 21-year-old life?
I made that record at SUNY Purchase. I was in music conservatory, and I was rushing, rushing, rushing to get out of there because I needed to save money, so I actually graduated that year — I did a three-year thing instead of four years. Of course, I got out and was super broke and was like, “Why did I leave college? College is so nice.” But I was just so afraid of those loans, you know? I moved back with my parents when I finished college because I had no place to live, and no money and nothing for rent.
That is such a juxtaposition to a couple years later when you released Soviet Kitsch and started touring with The Strokes and opening for Kings of Leon in Europe. How did it feel when you were gaining traction as an artist?
The funny thing is when I was doing all that I was still really broke and really on my own. It was this incredible, very hopeful and encouraging moment in my life where I had been playing a lot, and I was saying yes to every show, on every broken piano and every kind of corner of the city. And I was sort of almost like touring New York City with my backpack, while living out of the Bronx, you know? I counted it up one time, and there had been a month where I played 24 shows just in New York City.
Now, 20 years after your first album, what was it like to make Home, before and after?
I was supposed to start it April 1, 2020, and that didn’t happen for obvious reasons. And I kind of gave up for a minute there and thought, “OK, well, I’m not going to get to make this for years.” … I was in this COVID world, hiding away and trying to figure out if I was ever going to get to make art. And then I decided to try and make this record anyway, even though [my producer] John [Congleton] was on the other side of the country. So I was recording it in upstate New York, really by myself, with the engineer in another room.
Which song from the album are you most proud of?
If I was to choose the mascot of the record, that little heart at the center of the record, it would probably be “Spacetime Fairytale,” because it’s sort of this massive epic. That was a very new type of song that I wrote in this era of this record. And I didn’t know what was going to be on the record, but as soon as I wrote that song, I was like, “No matter what the record is, that song is going to be on the record.” And I loved the work that John Congleton, who produced it with me, did, and I loved the work that Jherek Bischoff, who did the arrangement, did, and I loved the orchestra.
It’s funny, on the very first day that we were doing this remote recording — John was in LA, and I was in New York, and the orchestra was in Macedonia. Everything went black and we heard this crazy sound — [the orchestra] experienced an earthquake right before we started recording. We were like, “Are you guys OK?” And they said, “Yeah, the building is very strong.” They’re very near Greece, and that whole part of the world gets a lot of earthquakes. They were like, “Yeah, give us a few hours. We’ll rewire, we’ll check the microphones. Nothing’s working right now. But I think we can get it up and going.” And they really did. As surreal as it all was, it made such sense in this crazy COVID world, because you’re basically like, “OK, I’m rolling with this. This is the new normal now. So whatever it is, an earthquake? Cool. A pandemic? OK.”
On Loving Kate Bush & Her Go-To Karaoke Song:
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
I feel like a very fun song that I’ve done — and I think almost everybody has done this at karaoke — is “Since You've Been Gone” [by Kelly Clarkson].
What’s the first CD or record you ever bought?
I think it was Nirvana Unplugged. It was a very seriously worn-out record in my house, like a very worn-out CD — I listened to it all the time. I know every little thing that [Kurt Cobain] says between songs.
Who’s your current musical idol?
My God. See, I hate the word “idol” so it’s very hard for me to answer that. But I would say that I’m very excited about the world loving Kate Bush in a deep way right now.
Oh, absolutely! What do you love most about Kate Bush?
My mind got exploded by her artistry when my friend introduced me to her music. Actually, it was probably pretty soon after that 2001-2002, 11:11 time ... He gave me the record, The Dreaming, and it just exploded my mind. I’ve always, since then, just loved her.
This interview has been edited and condensed.