Arts & Entertainment » Across the Universe

The pop and peculiarity of Regina Spektor


Regina Spektor plays Kodak Center on Tuesday, August 1. - PROVIDED PHOTO.
  • Regina Spektor plays Kodak Center on Tuesday, August 1.
There is no escaping Regina Spektor; especially for Spektor.

“My YouTube algorithm thinks I’m my own biggest fan,” she said.

Google Spektor, and an unrelenting picture emerges. There are her 10 albums. And songs you may not even know are hers, such as the opening theme to the women-in-prison series, Orange is the New Black. Or her song for the closing moments of the 2008 film, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

She’s found her way onto many television and film soundtracks. She spent a summer chasing butterflies. She played the White House for Barack and Michelle Obama.

It is pop and peculiarity that Spektor brings to her solo show Tuesday at Kodak Center. As a singer, Spektor creates unrestrained vocals and swoops to falsetto. Sometimes, she simply buzzes. Other times, she sings a few lines in a language other than English, in particular her native Russian. As a songwriter, she compares herself to the absurdist Austrian writer Franz Kafka.

And once in a blue moon, Spektor finds she has temporarily forgotten all of her songs.

“If you take a person to whom life is pretty surreal already, and you put them on the stage, and everybody else is out there in the dark, and there’s bright lights on them, and they’re playing these 88 black and white keys, and there’s all these hundreds of songs, and they’re all kind of scrolling through my mind, things get pretty surreal sometimes,” said Spektor. “I just kind of fall off a cliff.”

The white piano keys take on the blues and greens of the stage lighting.

“I end up playing most of my songs with my eyes closed,” she said. “It’s those moments where I open my eyes, is where I make the mistakes.”

Staring into that performance abyss, she becomes almost existential.

“What is this? How do you play the piano? What are the words?” she said. “And at that point, it’s the beauty of my audience that kind of helps me, because a lot of the time they know the songs better than I do. And they know the songs, and their loving presence, I would say, reels me in back into reality.”

Throughout a nearly 40-minute phone interview last week, Spektor laughed a lot. And, she talked a lot. The usefulness of a recording of her erudite conversation is marred only by Spektor dropping a single f-bomb.

“I’m sorry for cursing,” she said. “I forgot.”

She seems to think of her thinking process as a computer.

“As soon as I’m home from a tour, my mind kind of empties everything,” Spektor said. “It highlights everything and then drags it to delete … to make room for new sounds and new songs and new thoughts.”

The newest thoughts are on her 2022 album, “Home, before and after.” She challenges men, quietly celebrates the comfort of home, and goes out for a beer with God (who points out he doesn’t have to pay, because he’s God).

Spektor feels like an outsider, looking in at her songs.

“I sometimes come back on tour and it’s almost like I’m listening to this third party, as opposed to me,” she said. “I’ll be inside the conversation, but also outside the conversation. Thinking in abstract layers.”

Spektor compared the feeling to playing with an Etch-A-Sketch, at some point you turn over what you’ve created on the screen, “and it just shakes it out.”

“I kind of awaken into a mystery,” Spektor said. A process of inward discovery because, “sometimes, my system needs to do this in order to be itself. I think that’s probably good for everyone to wonder about. ‘Hmmm, I wonder why I do this, what’s the good in it?’ Because I think everybody’s so busy trying to fix and better themselves.”

Which is important, she conceded. But not to be overlooked is the trial-and-error process of getting to that point.

Spektor was born in Moscow, known then as the Soviet Union, in 1980. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform movement of “perestroika” opened the country to new economic and political ideas. It also opened the door for dissident citizens, particularly Jews such as the Spektor family, to leave the country. Spektor's parents took advantage of the latter opportunity.

From left, Rochester musician Seth Faergolzia and Regina Spektor on stage. - PHOTO BY DANIEL SIERADSKI.
  • From left, Rochester musician Seth Faergolzia and Regina Spektor on stage.
The immigration trail led the family to The Bronx, where Spektor continued her piano studies. She moved on to the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, where she made an interesting connection: a fellow student, Seth Faergolzia, now a Rochester musician who writes obtuse musicals, paints, creates puppets and makes some of his own clothes. Echoes of an ethos encouraged by their participation in New York City’s “freak folk” scene, whose members generally squatted in abandoned buildings.

“I went to see a million of his band’s shows,” Spektor said. “But I had one night, and one night only, where I was briefly a part of his band. He was always much more hardcore.”

She hardly had time for it. After graduating from Purchase in 2001 with a degree in environmental studies, Spektor spent a summer chasing butterflies in Luck, Wisconsin. Running through fields, catching monarchs, putting them in wax envelopes, placing them in a tent with milkweed plants, watching as they laid eggs which produced larvae, which then underwent metamorphization into a chrysalis, which were then packaged in FedEx boxes. “And sent off to their new home,” Spektor said. Museums and schools, mostly.

“I remember closing my eyes and (seeing) thousands of caterpillars walking around in the dark, because I had been working with them all day,” she said. “When I was working there, I couldn’t imagine a world where there wasn’t endless monarchs.”

She lived in a trailer and bathed in a creek.

“It was a hippie experience, and I loved every moment of it,” Spektor said. “By the time I was done, I was ready to come home and lick the dirty New York City streets, because I missed it so much.”

The monarchs, now listed as an endangered species, would be missed.

As, in some respects, are artists. With a degree in art, Spector said, “no one’s gonna give you any kind of job.”

Back in New York City, she was playing open mics in dive bars on the Lower East side and taking on what she calls “homework music.”

“What excites me about homework music is it’s something that gets inspired by something else, and I wouldn’t have written it otherwise,” she said. “It comes from a different place within myself. I love so much about being a part of other art forms. Choreography, dance, vocal groups, string groups, film, soundtracks.”

Spektor was also writing songs for herself. She had been doing so, ever since she was a kid with a piano in Russia. But when she took them to an audience, she felt pure fear.

“‘Oh my god, this is going to be so boring,'” she said. “If I was just playing piano and singing, who would want to listen to it?”

Yet after Spektor self-released her first three albums, people were listening. ‘Charismatic’ is a good word to describe Spektor and her songs. “Like a fiction writer, like a short story writer,” she said. “And so, to me, once I realized, ‘oh yes, there’s endless possibilities as far as chord progressions and melodies and words and characters and personalities and myths.’”

As done by the songwriters she admired: the New York City Brill Building legends such as Carole King, where songs were assigned like homework, Spektor says. “‘Here’s the topic, he cheated on you. Now you’re raising the daughter by yourself — GO!’”

Spektor also admires the humorist David Sedaris, but identifies more with Franz Kafka.

“He’s a fiction writer, and he maybe uses his emotional state to inform his life, but he channels it into these stories,” she said. “If I was more like a writer writes, I would be in the Franz Kafka camp — I think it is my natural state of being. Allegory and metaphor, that’s kind of how I live.”

So, Kafka she is. Despite Spektor’s work among the butterflies, she falls short of awakening to find herself transformed into a huge insect, as Kafka tells in “Metamorphosis.”

Yet, Spektor has witnessed transformation, such as when she returned to Russia in 2012 to play concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “It was Leningrad when I left,” she said. Spektor even took note that in leaving Russia after the shows, she followed the same route she had taken as a 9-year-old with her parents in 1989, traveling first to Vienna for a concert. “Life is so poetic,” she said. “I love when life gives you that.”

Life also takes away. Spektor described the Russia she saw on that return trip as beautiful, yet stressful. “Kind of a lawless place,” she said. “It’s not like other places. I don’t feel that when I go to England. You’re in a place where somebody can say, ‘detain that person,’ and they get detained.”

She saw young people with hope in their hearts, people interested in the West, or concerned about the suppression of gay rights. Spektor would talk to them, “to see if they were as disturbed about it as we were, and they were.”

With Russia’s war on Ukraine, it has only grown worse.

“I couldn’t have stretched my imagination to encompass the insanity that is going on now,” Spektor said. “People in the arts tend to always be a minority wherever you go, and I had not foreseen the inhumanity, brutality and craziness that’s going on now. The propaganda, even since 2012, I think has become a level that none of us can comprehend at all.”

Spektor is saddened by the lack of empathy she witnesses in her adopted land.

“We know how much misinformation and propaganda is spread in our own country,” she said. Spektor cites the case of a weatherman who recently resigned from the Iowa television station where he worked after receiving death threats for reporting on climate change.

“That’s going on in our country,” she said. “If that’s happening here, I just try to stretch my imagination to the closed, isolated place of (the Russian people). I can’t even read the news anymore, because I just cry.”

Jeff Spevak is senior arts writer for CITY Magazine. He can be reached at (585) 258-0343 or [email protected].