I first listened to Regina on a sweaty August afternoon when I was 12, sitting in the backseat of our family car with my friend Lexi while we shared earphones and tried to memorize the words to Fidelity, a song about first love and heartbreak that made no sense to our pre-pubescent wide-eyed selves. Ten years later, I still listen to her songs and am amazed that they seem to be self-contained stories with their own characters—mixing allusions to literature and film with fantasy. I grew up with her songs as my own pretentious soundtrack. I listened to Eet each time I fell out of love (“It’s like forgetting the words to your favorite song.”) and stayed up till midnight with my mom talking about the curiously romantic yet biblical lyrics of Samson (“I cut his hair myself one night, a pair of dull scissors in the yellow light, and he told me that I’d done all right…. But the history books forgot about us, and the Bible didn’t mention us.”) I could go on, but thankfully we only had 20 minutes to talk, so I had to restrain myself.
Regina Spektor’s songwriting has been praised for its complex narrative structures and wide-ranging musical style. Remember Us To Life, her newest album, is her first after 4 years, and her first after having her first child. Spektor, who is coming to Saltair on March 31, spoke to me about her songwriting process, discrimination, and how her new album differs from the past ones.
Spektor’s new album has a song called Grand Hotel that takes the listener on a musical tour through—of course—a magical old hotel. Accompanied by sometimes steady, sometimes winding piano, Regina sings, “Somewhere below the grand hotel there is a tunnel that leads straight to hell. But no one comes up for the souls anymore, they come for some comfort and for the dance floor.” I asked where the inspiration for this song came from, and was unsurprised at how abstract her answer was. It seems only right that someone with such abstract and unusual songs have abstract and unusual answers. It was like attempting to make sense of all the weird papers and artifacts underneath your childhood bed.
Grand Hotel was written after Regina saw Wes Anderson’s widely-acclaimed film The Grand Budapest Hotel, but she stressed that the song is not simply a retelling of that same story. After seeing the film, Regina says it brought to mind books she’d read and fond memories of touring “rickety, vast European hotels. Every city has one.” Her songs, she says, are never just a surface-level narrative. Rather they’re rooted in imagination and fluid emotion, mixed with her subconscious, sometimes triggered by feelings, places, or old stories. The only possible word that could even attempt tackle her answers is “eclectic.”
I asked if there was any specific change in her new songs after becoming a mother, and she replied “It permeates everything.… when people make records they’re not just recording a bunch of songs, they’re recording whatever their essence is at that time… and you can feel it.” And sure enough, her new album commonly references aging. In the second track on the album, Older and Taller, she patiently sings “All the lies on your résumé have become the truth by now.”
Regina was born in Russia and learned to play the piano at only 7, but had to leave her keyboard and friends behind after her family immigrated to the United States. As Jewish immigrant and female in music Regina insisted that, although she comes from a background that is usually heavy with discrimination, everyone is a victim in their own way. “Even people that say they haven’t faced anything…. once you start talking to them about their past … will come up with stories of how they got trampled on. This is the byproduct of life: people get underestimated, undervalued, hurt, dismissed and don’t get their share of credit.” Despite this, Regina says that she tries to keep her music as separate from a political agenda as much as possible. “Anyone who listens [to my music] might know how I feel about certain things through characters or the perspective, but the [political] side of art doesn’t affect my music that much. It’s not my place to write the direct protest song.” I’d like to jump in here and suggest that her music, while lacking political agenda, is not without influence of her upbringing as an underdog who immigrated at a young age. In the first track from Remember Us to Life Regina sings “You pretended you never got lost… you’re at the back of the class, in the back of the bus… someday you’ll grow up and then you’ll forget… all of the pain you endured.”
Her unusual early life, patching together her Russian childhood and training in classical piano with moving to New York and being sent tapes of Joni Mitchell, makes for a equally beautiful patched-together musical style. Some might describe her style as “anti-folk” or “indie-pop”, but her songs contain everything from full-scale orchestral background to percussive buzzing with her mouth. (Once she even sang in dolphin noises.) Her scale is unmatched. If anything, it seems like Regina is protesting objective reality. Her songs morph from simple character, like the identity of someone whose Blockbuster card she found (Wallet), to the incredibly abstract — in Ghost of Corporate Future, a man is visited by a ghost who tells him to “take off both your shoes, whatever chances you get… especially when they’re wet.” It’s difficult to follow her train of thought when it’s always changing—every sentence that comes out of her mouth could be a different song. But, I realize as I say thank you and good luck, that might be her point.
Regina Spektor performs at Saltair on March 31. Doors open at 7pm and tickets are still available here
by Amy Whiting