Russian-born New York singer-songwriter Regina Spektor's won a cult following over six albums of quirk-laden piano pop. Classically trained, and as famous for her bizarre grunts and trills as she is for her big poppy breakout hit 'Fidelity', she's a favourite of president Obama's and, apparently, much of Australia – tickets for her latest tour off the back of new album What We Saw from the Cheap Seatshave been selling rapidly. Time Out caught up with Spektor moments before the final gig of her US tour in Miami to talk hurricanes, politics and sad machines.
Regina, you’re so closely associated with the city of New York so I gotta ask first: were you in town when Hurricane Sandy hit? No. I actually played my New York show at the Beacon the day before, which is a beautiful venue. But then the next day I flew to London to do a television show and to do a few interviews with the BBC. I basically got stuck there because the hurricane started and I couldn’t fly home. So I spent the whole time being glued to the television and just watching the coverage everywhere and calling my family every five minutes.
That must have been hard.
I don’t know, I wish I was there with everybody so I could be in it, as opposed to just see these images and being useless. But it was really crazy because there were a lot of people that suffered in a tremendous way. It was very devastating because I know a lot of my friends were volunteering officially in places like Far Rockawaywhere there were these high-rises with elderly people in them that were just trapped. And there was a lot of people, even in Manhattan, places like Stuy Town. A friend of mine has been displaced for a month because everything was flooded there. There were elderly people there that couldn’t walk up and down the stairs. And it was just: no power, no water, no heat. It was really, really a bad situation.
OK, well, I don’t really know how to change the subject from there, but… what are you eating right now… sounds crunchy?
Just a salad; it’s got carrots and all kind of leaves, it’s pretty plain actually. I like it. I like boring food on show days – too much excitement can lead to, you know, a difficult show.
Sounds delicious. How’s the tour going so far? People responding to theWhat We Saw from the Cheap Seats songs?
Really great. I haven’t gotten used to the fact that everybody knows those songs already since it’s been out. I usually play somewhere between 21 and 24, 25 songs per show. out of that, I usually play pretty much the whole record. So I play 10 of the 11 songs and I’m pretty surprised that they know all of them.
Which song gets left out?
‘Jessica’, because it’s a guitar song. I don’t really play guitar for real, you know. I’m one of those fakers; I can get away with like two chords or three chords, but I can’t play that song well.
What can Aussies expect from your show when you come here with those new songs – anything different?
There’s a keyboard and this is the first time playing with a keyboardist. And it’s really, really fun, because we’re able to get a lot of the sounds that we had in studio translated over into the stage. It’s keyboard, drums, a cello and me, on paino. And that’s about it – there’s no pyrotechnics, and there’s no outfit changes [laughs].
Not even dancers?
No backup dancers, no trained animals. Let's see, what else don’t I have?
Yeah, that’s a good idea – let’s rule out some more things.
When I was in Atlanta I went to see a Cirque du Soleil show called Totem and it was really cool, but it just made me want to have magical people do crazy things all over the stage through the whole show.
So the next album will be aimed at the Cirque crowd?
The thing is that they can do it to any music. I just have to find the right people to unicycle and balance things on their heads and stuff like that.
In the latest record you’ve continued going down a more high-production sound. Is that a trend that you see continuing, do you like being able to explore those new sounds and possibilities?
Yeah, yeah I love arrangements. For me it's very exciting to find sounds that help a song and have its own world. When I work in a studio I get completely absorbed, and I can just be there for hours on end working on this one tiny little sound like a maniac. Every record is just a combination of hundreds and thousands of tiny little decisions being made. I love the combination of how things that are machine-influenced and filtered sounds, or kind of sounds that might start out a certain way, and you mutate them to fit the right thing. It’s like how you can start with, let’s say strings sampled from the Bolshoi, and you put them through this crazy hall in Norway, and then you play it in this little room in California, while filtering it with certain software. And in the end it could be such a human, relatable sound, but it uses so much technology to get there.
When you put it like that…
I think in general I have a kind of a relationship with the world where I imbue a lot of inanimate objects with human characteristics. Everything sort of lives or feels in my world, but I’m extra super amazed by this sad machine world. There are all these machines that help us do things, and they feel so human when we hear them, or the products are so emotional even though it’s coming through a bunch of wires and codes. It’s really, really fascinating.
What gives you the idea for a sound, then?
I write everything on piano, and with every element of production after that you’re trying to translate things you hear in your head that are abstract sounds. Basically, all instruments that we have in the world are built by men, they’re not built by imagination. So things have been written for the violin, or for the piano, but it’s not necessarily a sound that you would naturally create with your mind. You know what I mean?
As soon as you touch the piano or the violin or any instrument you are implying things that maybe are coming from your imagination, but then they get translated into the real world as opposed to imaginary world. So everything is an approximation. Anything that comes piano and voice, the production is just clothes that you’re putting on it. I could produce a song like ‘How’ a million different ways. Of course, choosing when you end working on it is kind of the hardest part, but it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to produce something seven other ways, and it would feel very different each time. There are inherent properties in the composition, but other than that, it’s all completely arbitrary. It’s really weird.
Indeed. Well somebody who likes the songs as they are is President Obama – you’ve played for him twice. Were you happy with the election result?
I was very excited. I was excited because I think it shows that our country is very equal rights and progressive-minded, and that people are asserting their desire to grow the middle class, and help with certain reforms, and equal rights, and rights for women and that they’re not really excited about going backwards. I’m really hoping that, now that all of the competition is done, we can move forward. In a weird way politics is sports, and people get really passionate about their teams. And sports are good up to a point, and then after that point it’s completely diminishing returns, and it’s just humanity at its lowest scrambling play dirty and get to the end.