Regina Spektor: Higher Education

Though it has been 20 years since she and her family left the Soviet Union for the Bronx, Regina Spektor has only now arrived. A longtime resident of New York City’s underground singer/songwriter scene, she was transformed from underground oddity to breakthrough piano pop siren with 2006’s Begin to Hope…

regina spektor

Though it has been 20 years since she and her family left the Soviet Union for the Bronx, Regina Spektor has only now arrived. A longtime resident of New York City’s underground singer/songwriter scene, she was transformed from underground oddity to breakthrough piano pop siren with 2006’s Begin to Hope, a record that sold half a million copies with its eclectic musical vocabulary and disarming stylistic quirks. But success has done nothing to quell her creative restlessness, and Spektor began sorting through her hundreds of unreleased demos with the idea of using her newfound commercial capital to enroll in a crash course of music production. Her professors? Legendary studio auteur Jeff Lynne (George Harrison, Traveling Wilburys), Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem), Garret “Jackknife” Lee (Weezer, R.E.M.), and Begin to Hope producer David Kahne were selected, and Spektor ended up with Far as her final project. With jaunty odes to domestic bliss (“Folding Chair”) and no-atheists-in-a-foxhole anthems (“Laughing With”) mixing with existential ballads about death (“Blue Lips”) and connecting with the owner of a lost wallet (“The Wallet”), she proves herself to be a prize pupil once again.

Going into this record, was it your intention to work with a few different producers?

Yeah. I wanted to work with a bunch of different producer s right off, because it hit me that I’m not going to be like The Beatles and make a record every half of year. It was like, “Aw, I get it now. You make a record, and then three years go by until you make another one.”

How did you go about picking which producers you wanted to work with?

I might be mistaken about this—I would fact check this—but I think Mike [Elizondo] contacted my manager because he had liked my music before. Then, Garret [Lee] was suggested by someone. Jeff Lynne, I got his name off the back of a Tom Petty record, like, “That sounds good! Highway Companion—this guy, Jeff Lynne, he did a good job. Let’s get him!” And people were like, “Um, do you know the other stuff that he’s done?” And I was like, “No… what did he do?” Then, David [Kahne], just because he’s David, and I love him from doing Begin to Hope. It was cool to be connected with him and to work with him again.

So what did you learn from Jeff Lynne?

With Jeff, he really loves harmonies and harmonizing with voices, and I hadn’t really done that much. So we were doing a lot of that, and, also, he really loves blending sounds together into one new sound, so a few different instruments to make one sound. I really like that, because I usually think more in terms of parts. I think more contrapuntally, so it’s lines weaving in and out of each with different instruments as opposed to how he’ll just have the same few instruments play one part. And I’ll be like, “Wow! That sounds like it’s under water. That sounds really nice and fat!”

How was working with Mike, given that he has a hip-hop background?

I didn’t know that at the time. I found out when I met with him, before we started working, that he had done stuff with Eminem. And I love Eminem and Dr. Dre, so I was like, “You’re really cool!” With Mike, it’s really great because he’s a bass virtuoso, and it was really fun to explore that with him. Plus he introduced me to Matt Chamberlain, who drummed on all the songs that I did with Mike. So Matt Chamberlain is an amazing drummer and a wonderful person, too, and it was really cool to play with a drummer who is that creative and different thinking.

How about working with Garret Lee, who has this pedigree working with these great guitar pop bands?

See, I didn’t think of it that way, either, because I didn’t really know his stuff at all. I loved how free he was, and we were all together in the studio in London, and he had these really great engineers that we were working with. He was like, “Hey, you want to go play drums on your song with me and the drummers?” And I was like, “Am I allowed? Holy shit!” I love hitting drums!” And he was like, “Let’s just do it,” and we were all clapping and hitting drums together. I was like, “I’ve always wanted to have tuba for a bass,” and he was like, “Let’s do it!” And all of a sudden, there was this awesome tuba player, and we were going nuts with tuba. And he’s the heroic producer, because he put up with my extreme jetlag. I probably should have some sort of award, because I managed to stay in London for two weeks straight and stay completely on New York time. About a week into it, I was at all times on the brink of tears and exhaustion and bumping into walls. I couldn’t walk through a doorway. I would bump my shoulders. I was a delirious little high person from exhaustion. He was heroic for helping me not lose my mind. The order of things was Mike then Garret then Jeff then Mike then Jeff then Mike then David.

So by the time you worked with David again, I assume there must have been a level of familiarity from having worked with him before?

Oh yeah, it was great. It was like coming home. It was really cool, too, because when we started Begin to Hope, I was the first person in his studio in the meat packing district, and he was coming from L.A., so it was his return to New York. So when we started working on these songs, he was moving to another studio, so I was the last person in the studio and the first person in his next studio. So it was like, “We’re on some sort of cycle, you and I. We’re on some sort of planetary shit.” I love working with David because it is a very different experience, because he’s the only producer I know who doesn’t have an engineer. He’s such an amazing engineer himself, and he’s so technological. He mixes, he produces, he records, he engineers. He’s very unique in that way, because people who usually produce or arrange aren’t very machine knowledgeable and they use engineers. But he’s amazing at both, so it becomes this very intimate experience, because it’s just the two of us and we hang out. He’s the producer who hangs out the latest. He will forget to eat, and when I work with him, I won’t go home until three or four in the morning, and we’ll hang out and talk about anything. It’s really fun.

I was wondering also what inspired the song “Blue Lips.”

I don’t know [laughs]. Ah… I suck at that kind of stuff. I don’t really know a lot of stuff, which sometimes makes people think that I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like I do. I just don’t know those kinds of things. A lot of times, I just feel like I was inspired and it happened, and I don’t know exactly why. But in the moment, I will feel what’s right and what’s wrong for it, but I don’t really know why [laughs]. It’s like a Ouija board spelling out this!

Well, for instance, was “Blue Lips” about something specific or did it just evolve organically?

It just evolved. It just happens. I just sit down and start playing and singing at the same time, and then it just happens. It’s like that with some songs. They’re just like, “boop!”

How about “The Wallet.” Is that a true story?

There are little parts that are collaged. When I think about it, there are parts where I’ll be like, “I see where that comes from.” I have to search my mind and look for the lineage, like, “Five years ago, I read this or heard that.” But there’s no direct, exact thing, like, “This is what happened in my life, and I’ve put it into song form.” It’s always like little scrappy pieces of imagination scrapped with reality.

I was also wondering about the song “Machine.” Did you intend for it to have such a sinister and ominous tone?

Well, the really cool thing about that is that it is one of the new, new songs. I wrote that song, and I heard the sounds as how it is on the record, like, how it is in my brain. Then I went on YouTube, because that’s what you do. You write a song, and you go on YouTube. And on the home page of YouTube, they had this special thing on David Byrne and the installation that he made at the Maritime Building, and it was called “Playing the Building.” And I watched it, and the sounds the building made were exactly the sounds that I had imagined. So I emailed David Byrne, and the heroically amazing person that he is, he emailed me back the next day, and he was like, “Yeah, you’re welcome to go in there and record.” He and his assistant opened it up for me to play around in, and then opened it up again for us to go in and record in there. Then, before I recorded the building on it, I played the song for Mike, because we were just starting to work together and I had just written it. And I told him about the building, but he didn’t have a chance to go there and listen to it. But I told him and Matt Chamberlain about it, and when Matt played drums on it, Mike brought this crazy sound pedal thing that made it sound like it was related to the building. Then, when I recorded the building, I was listening to that already, so it was really crazy. Now it’s a song, and it’s exactly how I imagined it. Well, I guess it’s more abstract than how I imagined it, but I couldn’t have imagined it more perfectly than how the sounds are. It makes me so happy.

I was also wondering what suggested using “Laughing With” as the first single, since it has so many references to God. It seems like a brave choice.

Well, I don’t know. I always think about that stuff. I think I’ve always thought a lot about the state versus religion versus spirituality versus fear mongering. It’s not like I have a very strong thesis about it. It’s just something that I’m always mulling over in my head. I think that it just felt like something that I wanted to share as the first thought off of the record. For me, it’s not brave, because I’m psyched about all of the songs, but I’m really proud of my record label, because I think it might not have been the most obvious thing. It seems cool that they allowed me to put that thought forward as the first thing from the record. I’m really excited about it. Plus, I made a really trippy video for it.