Regina Spektor: from twinkle to glow

The Brooklyn piano pop songstress hits town on her first headlining tour of Florida.

click to enlarge Regina Spektor - Shervin Lainez
Shervin Lainez
Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor’s star has gone from twinkle to glow since her 2006 gold-selling breakthrough album Begin to Hope won hearts with its blissful piano pop hooks and teeth-aching charm. Far proved a strong follow-up in 2009, but didn’t carry quite the emotional resonance of her sixth and latest, this year’s What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and was recorded with Mike Elizondo, the multi-instrumentalist producer behind Fiona Apple’s fantastic Extraordinary Machine.

What We Saw from the Cheap Seats proves a fine addition to Spektor’s already solid repertoire. Opener “Small Town Moon” offers wistful thoughts on slowing down and enjoying life. “Oh Marcello!” has Spektor adopting dual vocal guises, her agitated asides (or is she having a one-sided conversation?) delivered in brashly accented Italiano, while her inner plea (or is it a prayer?) is the sweetly earnest hook from the much-covered blues ode, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (“I am just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”).

The retro-kissed heartbreak of “How” considers how to hold it together after a relationship’s end, while the buoyant “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” is imbued with a resplendent sort of joy, the interplay of marimba, brass and keys giving it a very Paris-in-the-summertime feel with Spektor’s vocals in both English and French draped over top like a warm ray of sunshine.

“All The Rowboats” carries a sense of urgency and dread in the percussive-and-piano-fueled instrumentals, her vivid imagery likening museum masterpieces to prisoners serving maximum sentences, locked up night after night and paying the ultimate price for being timeless: “But the most special are the most lonely, God I pity the violins / In glass coffins, they keep coughing / They’ve forgotten, forgotten how to sing…”

In a recent phone interview, Spektor said it’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment that inspired a song; more, it’s years of experiences coalescing at once “and then a moment of, just having your imagination triggered.”

She doesn’t think the muse hits at any specific time; instead, she explained, “It’s natural, almost like seasons inside yourself, if you make art — sometimes you’re kind of processing things and taking things in, and then other times, all of the sudden, it’s somehow ripened inside you, and then you write. And that’s why people sometimes write a lot, and other times they don’t. But I think that if you’re an artist of any kind, you’re always working. It’s just that, sometimes you’re outputting and sometimes you’re inputting.”

She has a distinctively clever, unorthodox and eloquent lyrical style — poetic, poignant narratives, or more abstract yet still vividly hued musings. But her songwriting is fickle, changing mood and tone from track to track, from majestic to whimsical to earnest to dramatic, her vocals following suit and instrumental arrangements driving her points home as artfully as her words.

Spektor spent her first nine years in Moscow before her family re-settled in the Bronx, and her clear and expressive soprano dips and soars through lyrics in Russian, English, Latin, French — whatever suits the mood best. Her vocal acrobatics come naturally and aren’t something Spektor thinks too hard about.

“It’s funny, to me it’s all just a part of how I sing,” she said, but admitted, “When I write, I’m not in the studio, and I don’t have all the instruments in front of me, so much of it comes out of necessity, where I’ll hear a part that sounds a certain way, so I’ll try to get as close to it as I can with my voice. The piano is a very versatile instrument, because it’s simultaneously percussive and harmonic … Still, the piano will always sound like a piano, unless you process it. But a voice could really imply a lot.”

Her marriage of modern and traditional is informed by her classical music background and formal training at SUNY Purchase, as well as the folk, rock and hip-hop she absorbed along the way.

“I really love the combination of actual instruments as well as electronic instruments — acoustic sounds mixed with built sounds,” she explained. “For me it’s really fun to alter sounds, to take a piano, and the way you mic it and the way that you process it, you kind of alter its sound. In my own music, I’m not drawn to just chamber instruments, or just electronic instruments, I really love the combining and the processing of both.”

This tour marks her debut as a headliner in the Sunshine State. Locally, she plays Ruth Eckerd Hall, its more formal seated confines not always conducive to dancing. Spektor is diplomatic about the matter, chalking it up to show etiquette and being sensitive to concertgoers seated nearby who'd prefer not to have obstructed views.

“The thing for me that’s important is for people to be comfortable and happy.” And as long as they are, she said, “I’m into it. I love it when people dance. I love to dance, and I definitely like to move when I listen to music in general.”

And Spektor herself is guilty of a concert faux pas or two in her time. “I’ve gotten reprimanded at Carnegie Hall before for jumping around in my seat too much, head-banging to a symphony, you know?”

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