Spektor is often surprised by her music as well, specifically by the arrival of songs out of the blue. Understanding the origins of her compositions would involve mapping out the brain Google Street View-style, with synaptic intersections between New York landmarks, Russian history, the Old Testament, and the Billboard pop charts. Spektor has a simpler and of course a more whimsical explanation. “If my songs were children, they would come from a tremendous number of parents, and their parents would be twenty things that happened over a span of years,” she explains. “Maybe things from books, movies, overheard conversations, strange ideas – all combining into something.”
Still, she tends to think of them and care for them as orphans. When Spektor sends them out into the world on an album, she wants to make sure they can survive on their own. That means capturing the “right feeling,” she says – a vague objective that is more intuitive than scientific. “There’s a thing about a song that is intrinsically there. And some of it is just there and it’ll be there if anybody plays it. But then there are other things that you have to have in order for the song to feel alive. That sort of thing, you can’t really try to make it happen. It’s either there or it’s not. If it’s not, then you really shouldn’t put it on the record, no matter how badly you want to.”
That means she often has to live with her songs for years and years before they are debuted to listeners. In the studio, Spektor draws from an enormous backlog of material – a nebulous library of songs that in some cases date back more than a decade. “I think people assume you go away and write a new record,” says Spektor. “But if you’re writing all the time, you have so many songs that recording a new record becomes a very different process.”
Says Elizondo: “She doesn’t have a demo rig, so she keeps the songs all in her head. And she remembers every aspect of them, so that by the time she gets into the studio, she has a definite idea of the arrangements. It’s all instinct, and that makes her her own artist. No one comes close to doing what she does.”
“The songs patiently wait their turn,” Spektor says, “then depending on who I’m working with and what sounds we’re bringing up, it’ll inspire me to go, Oh I love that sound. You know what would be good for it? And I’ll play Mike a song that maybe I haven’t thought of in a really long time, but that sound made me think of it. It’s very free form, very stream of conscious. A lot of it is association and some of it is just whatever mood you’re in.” That approach often involves several passes before she gets a song down right, but it also means that Spektor is currently writing songs that she may not get around to recording until 2022. “There were songs that I really wanted to record for the new album, and they have waited for many years,” she says. “But for whatever reason they just didn’t feel right. I just couldn’t get the right feeling for it, so I just had to leave it and go on to the next thing.”
Perhaps the most atypical song on What We Saw From The Cheap Seats is a lovely, understated piano ballad simply titled “How.” It’s perhaps the most straightforward composition Spektor has ever written, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone like Adele covering it in concert. “It’s not a Regina Spektor song quote-unquote,” says Petty. “It doesn’t really have her flavor or wordplay on it. It shows the restraint and maturity of what an amazing artist she is. It’s just a perfect piano ballad, a new song written by an old soul.”
Elizondo agrees, calling it “one of the most beautiful vocals I’ve ever been a part of capturing. It really felt like she was laying her heart out there. She was coming clean with how she’s feeling in that particular moment. It’s pretty special when you can get a performer like her to pull that off.”
“How” is a good, old-fashioned break-up song, a rarity for Spektor, and it features some of the most powerful, most affecting vocals she’s ever committed to tape: a soulful testimony interspersed with swooning oohs as tender punctuation. Who knows if it’s based on a real relationship or if she has composed the emotions from whole cloth along with the melody? And who cares? It sounds like a breakthrough for Spektor. “Time can come and wash away the pain, but I just want my memories to remain,” she sings. “There’s not one moment I’d erase.” Like Cheap Seats as a whole, “How” points toward ever unfolding new directions for an artist whose sense of whimsy never excludes the possibility of real-world despair.