It is tempting, when speaking to Regina Spektor, to just get out of the way, because she is such a joyful talker. I ask a simple question about, say, songwriting and I’m redundant for the next several minutes while she spirals off into a great conversational aria of anecdotes, aphorisms, metaphors, theories and jokes, at the end of which she apologises for not answering the question when in fact she’s answered not only that one but half a dozen that I haven’t asked yet. She has a talent for wonder.
“I have the kind of mind, I’m realising, where I almost get hypnotised by the world,” she says. “There’s a part of me that’s the immigrant chick: let’s get things done. And then there’s some other part of me that just floats off.”
That spirit is in her music, too. Spektor gravitates towards the big stuff – life, death, love, time – that most songwriters tend to approach at a slant, like looking at the sun. She’s written at least half a dozen songs that I can’t hear without crying, which puts me in good company. Her ardent admirers include Peter Gabriel, Neil Gaiman, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who chose her knockout 2006 song On the Radio on Desert Island Discs and called her “a genius”. Screen music coordinators love her (The Leftovers, The Good Wifethe theme tune to Orange Is the New Black) but even on their own, rich in narrative and imagery, her songs can feel like movies.
Spektor is talking to me from a friend’s house in New York because it’s quieter than her own: she has two small children with musician Jack Dishel. For her, 2019 put a ceremonial seal on the relationship she has with the city that she first entered as a nine-year-old refugee from the Soviet Union in 1989. As well as performing a Broadway residency, she was honored with Regina Spektor Day by mayor Bill de Blasio (11 June) and a star on the Bronx Walk of Fame. “I feel like I should always be wearing an ‘I heart New York’ T-shirt,” she says with a chewy, outer-borough, Russian Doll twang. “That was a beautiful run of events. And then…” She throws out her hands. “Covid!”
Spektor fled the city during the pandemic and recorded Home, before and after, her eighth studio album and her first since 2016, in a church converted upstate. It’s possibly her best album and certainly her biggest, with a glorious orchestral sound that’s commensurate with her themes. There’s even a tap-dancer on the nine-minute cosmic extravaganza Spacetime Fairytale. So it’s surprising to learn that she recorded it on her own but for producer John Congleton and engineer Ariel Shafir; the orchestra was actually in Macedonia. “This was the most alone recording I’ve ever done,” she says. “I was one of the Covid-safest people that anyone ever met, so I never even set foot in the control room. If the piano tuner came in, I would leave for three hours.” She sighs. “It was a whole thing.”
Two new numbers, Loveology and Raindrops, date back almost 20 years to an extraordinary outpouring of songs, which has had a presence on every album since. She’s talked a lot about that period with her husband: “We’ve come to the conclusion that my whole life was about me. I didn’t have any responsibilities. I would read a book; I would write a song. I would have a conversation; I would write a song. I would look at two people sitting on a bench; I would write a song. I was like an earthworm. Songs are my byproduct in this world. I leave a trail of them.”
Now that she has a family, she has “insane fantasies” about a day spent reading, playing piano and going for walks. “I’ve always felt time, even as a little kid,” she says. “I feel the weight of it: this is it. What a gift! What a responsibility! Things like mortality, myth, the hugeness of humanity, all of those existential things, they’re very present. I’m grateful for art but I will always end up choosing cuddling with my kids instead of running away to make art. That’s probably why I make a lot less of it.”
Spektor’s father, Ilya, died in April, just before she was due to play a big comeback show at Carnegie Hall. He would have attended that one, like he attended so many others. She remembers her parents paying to press 1,000 copies of her self-released 2001 debut album 11:11, the boxes piled high in their small Bronx apartment. She remembers them inviting their friends to her first show at the SideWalk Café in the East Village to make sure she had a crowd. “I think they had me back because these nice Russian Jewish people kept ordering vodka tonics,” she says, laughing. “My parents came to all the gigs. I was the only person at SUNY [State University New York] Purchased Conservatory whose parents were excited for them to become a musician.” Recently, she was putting together a boxset for the 20th anniversary of 11:11 and Ilya gave her a cache of videotapes he had made of her earliest shows. “There were like 30 songs that I only remembered I had written when I heard them.” She called the bonus discs Poppa’s Bootlegs.
Looking back, Spektor’s breakthrough seems unlikely: a classically trained pianist being adopted by her generation’s most lauded rock dudes. In 2003, she was introduced to Strokes producer Gordon Raphael, who recorded some demos and played them to the band. Within months, she had a record deal and was on tour with the Strokes and Kings of Leon. “People will write me, ‘My daughter plays piano, can you give any advice?’ I’m like, Randomly meet Gordon Raphael! He happens to have worked with this band that every single person in New York loves, that you have never heard of because you live in the Bronx and don’t know about anything. Then this magical thing happens.”
Audiences were initially frosty towards this unknown singer-songwriter, but the bands were lovely. “I guess my destiny was to be the outsider, but you look around and realise that it’s all made up of outsiders, really. Groups, scenes, all this stuff, it’s mythologised and organized later.”
Spektor is loath to explain what her songs mean, except to say that it’s never what she initially expected them to mean. She mimes shaking dice in a cup and rolling them, with no idea how they will land. “It’s hard for me to be a grown-up on press days. People are like, ‘What were you thinking when you did this?’” She pulls a panicked face. “I wasn’t thinking! I don’t even know! So many people want to know that you had a plan.”
The day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Spektor posted an anguished statement on Facebook. She has grandparents from both countries; after the Chernobyl disaster, relatives from Kyiv lodged with her family in their tiny Moscow apartment. “One thing that happens with Jews a lot is we’re from all over the place,” she says. “The idea of nationalism is just not there because you’re always blown about by the grace of whatever nation you’re in – now you’re in favour, now you’re out of favour; now you’re alive, now you’re dead.” She says that there’s an “obvious, insane guilty party” but that it’s wrong to assume that the average Russian wholly supports the invasion. “It’s not like when I went to protest the Iraq war I was facing 15 years in jail… I don’t know if I’m the kind of person that could throw my entire self into the machine to try to stop it.”
The invasion, like her father’s death, occurred after the album was finished, but you can hear the relevant emotions in the songs (Becoming All Alone’s soaring plea of “Stay, stay, stay”; “bombing and shelters go together” in What Might Have Been), just as you can hear them in her most devastating song, 2009’s Laughing With: “No one laughs at God in a hospital/ No one laughs at God in a war.” She writes stories, not diary entries, and they are constantly renewed.
“I used to feel a little bit sad when I realised that in our culture there was a big divide between fiction writers and truth writers,” she says. “To me, fiction is a true vehicle for feelings and realisations about life. Because this place is very weird and mysterious and most of the time we have no idea what’s going on. Every once in a while we get a glimpse and then we realise, oh, actually that was the reverse image of a shrapnel of a tiny mirror that’s a million miles away. It’s very hard to be here, because you’re watching cruelty; you’re watching the next 100 years of war being born. If you wanted, your whole life could be a slow-motion horror. But at the same time it’s just so good here. There are so many wonderful things here and you can fill your days with them.” She takes a giant breath, like she’s just climbed a hill and she’s taking in the view. “I guess all of that ends up being in the music.”