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Regina Spektor: White lies and sad songs

By Mark Savage
BBC Music reporter


Regina Spektor's seventh album is a bold, orchestral take on avant-pop; musing on the passage of time and the fragility of memory. She talks about her inspirations, the importance of sad songs, and why she asked for her Orange Is The New Black theme song to be cut.

image copyrightShervin Lainez
image captionRegina Spektor: "Sometimes when I feel happy, it just feels very good to listen to sad songs"

Regina Spektor's career is built on a white lie.

The Russian-born star has risen from New York's insular "anti-folk" scene to become one of her generation's most respected singer-songwriters, scoring two top 10 albums and being feted by President Obama (who has seen her play live twice).

But as a struggling artist in turn-of-the-millennium New York, she had to bluff her way into playing at an influential East Village venue.

"The only way you could play your own show at Sidewalk Cafe was if you already had a following - and you couldn't get a following without playing a show," she explains. "So it was a Catch-22 situation."

Fate intervened when Spektor telephoned to pester the venue, without any real expectation it would amount to anything.

"This woman picked up and I knew she wasn't the regular booker," she recalls. "So I said: 'I had a show scheduled but I can't remember what day it was for'.

"She looked through the calendar and of course she didn't find my name - but it was one of those magical moments where she inadvertently kept giving me information I could use.

image copyrightShevin Lainez
image captionSpektor was born in Moscow but moved to the US in 1989 when Perestroika made it possible for many Jews to leave the Soviet Union

"I think this is what con artists do... She would say something like: 'Well, there are a bunch of Sundays that seem open, was your show on a Sunday?' and I would go: 'Yes, it was on a Sunday.'

"And then she said: 'People who play here have to have a 40-person draw. What's your draw?' and I said: '41 people!'

"She kept going until, all of a sudden, she was like: 'OK, 8pm on Sunday the 20th.'

"By the time I hung up the phone my entire body was shaking. And I was like, 'I have a show - but I have to bring 40 people to it!'

"So I called every single relative that I had and the place was full. Everybody bought food and liquor and afterwards they said: 'When can you come and play again?'

"And I didn't realise that, of course, nobody really brought 40 people. They were just so happy to have that many paying customers that I literally could have just played two notes on the recorder and they would have invited me back!

"But that's sort of how I began. The first show I ever got was through a lie."

As she tells the story, Spektor plucks nervously at her sleeve - uncomfortable with the deception even now.

"This is very not like me because I don't find any pleasure in lying," she says, meekly. "But I thought it was noble, because I thought I should have a show."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionTouring with The Strokes and Kings Of Leon helped expose Spektor to a wider audience

That strong-willed determination sustained the singer through her early career. As relatives were replaced by real fans, she brought a notebook to every gig, forcing people to write down their email addresses, and bombarding them with adverts for future shows.

Unable to afford a band, she would hit her piano stool with a drum stick, and spent what little money she had designing and printing flyers.

In 2001, she self-released her debut album 11:11. A follow-up, Songs, was recorded on Christmas Day, when studio rates were heavily discounted.

"When you are listening to this little disk, try to think that you are in on a secret..." she wrote on the liner notes, but the secret didn't stay under wraps for long.

Indie band The Strokes invited Spektor to tour with them, on the proviso she paid for her own flights and hotel rooms. As the tour progressed, she noticed that fans were buying her CDs two at a time - one for themselves and another to send to a friend.

image copyrightRex Features
image captionReleased 10 years ago, Begin To Hope propelled Regina Spektor into the mainstream, with hits like Fidelity and Samson

Signed to Sire in 2004, she broke into the mainstream with Begin To Hope - a quirky, playful album that combined radio-friendly melodies with lyrics about Orca whales and Biblical strongman Samson.

She toured the record for three years, declining Sire's offer of mainstream promotion in favour of building a fanbase organically.

Begin To Hope went on to sell a million copies and was certified gold in the US and UK. The follow-ups, Far and What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, both hit the top 10, as Spektor became that rare thing - a mainstream artist with a cult following.

"The people that come to my shows aren't just random people who heard just one song that's been sold to them and so they're just listening to it that week," she says, with no small hint of pride.

Her latest album, Remember Us To Life, comes after a break of four years, during which time she married fellow musician Jack Dishel and had her first child.

"For a minute, I didn't want to do anything else," she says. "But then the feeling came back, and I could hear what it sounded like."

For the first time, Spektor wrote the album from scratch ("these songs just seemed to want to be together," she says) and, sure enough, it has a sonic and thematic coherence that is often absent from her earlier work.

image copyrightShevin Lainez
image captionRemember Us To Life was recorded with producer Leo Abrahams (Paolo Nutini, David Byrne)

The second half, in particular, has a deep seam of melancholy, culminating in the hopelessness of Obsolete, where Spektor sings: "This is how I feel right now / Obsolete manuscript / No-one reads and no-one needs."

"I was talking about that with my husband and saying how weird it is that I feel so much gratitude and happiness, and I'm writing this very sad or bittersweet kind of music," she says.

"The cool thing is that we're all mysterious, even to ourselves. We're pretty much run by our subconscious."

She acknowledges that some of the lyrics are probably a delayed response to grief - after one of her closest friends died in a plane crash, and her cellist, Daniel Cho, drowned in Lake Geneva the day before she played the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2010.

"I think that maybe, even when I'm happy now, I live with all of that at the same time."

But, she stresses, the music doesn't have to be depressing.

"Sometimes when I feel happy, for whatever reason, it just feels very good to listen to sad songs. I feel very comforted by beauty, especially when it overwhelms you with all its colours and sounds.

"It's interesting how music works all these different jobs. Sometimes it helps you not think, sometimes it helps you think more clearly, sometimes it helps you pull yourself out of a dark place, sometimes you want it to pull you into the dark place."

image copyrightNetflix
image captionThe opening credits of Orange Is The New Black sets Spektor's song to images of real-life prison inmates

One person who draws heavily on Spektor's music is screenwriter Jenji Kohan, who "listened to Regina's albums obsessively" while writing the first series of Orange Is The New Black.

Once the show went into production, she contacted Spektor and asked her to write the theme tune, You've Got Time.

"I had total faith in her and she nailed it," Kohan told Entertainment Weekly. She loved it so much the song plays for more than a minute - uncommonly long for a TV show - at the start of every episode.

"I feel insecure about that," Spektor laughs, "Because I always feel like if someone's binge-watching they'll get mad at me, like: 'Shut up already, I just want to know what happens next!'

"I once asked Jenji if she would shorten it. I was actually hoping that she might. And she said no - because they have such a giant cast that they need all that time to put the names up there!"

Remember Us To Life will be released by Warner Records on Friday 30 September.

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