Regina Spektor

By
Photography Shervin Lainez

Published September 30, 2016

While many indie pop musicians fall in and out of style, releasing the odd hit record before returning to relative quiet, Regina Spektor has been a staple since the early ’00s. Her anti-folk indie cred came first, as a result of her self-released CDs and frequent performances in New York’s East Village, and 2006’s Begin to Hope propelled her into the airwaves, with top-charting tracks like the lilting “Fidelity.” Since then, she’s released two albums (Far, 2009; What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, 2012) and crafted Orange Is the New Black‘s catchy, cling-to-your-mind theme song “You’ve Got Time.”

Today, the singer-songwriter (and talented pianist) releases her seventh LP: Remember Us To Life (Sire/Warner Bros. Records). Among the select few she first trusted the record with was friend Matthew Weiner, the writer, director, and producer best known for creating the AMC series Mad Men and for his writing on The Sopranos. They recently caught up over the phone and spoke about growing up, writing fiction, and their collective tendencies to stare and eavesdrop.

MATTHEW WEINER: How did we meet? We did this really weird thing together, right?

REGINA SPEKTOR: Well, we did two weird things together, actually. … First, there was that really cool honoring of Jenji [Kohan] and Shonda [Rhimes]. That’s actually where I met you and [your wife,] Linda [Brettler], and that was the first time in person. … I came up very, very shyly, and you were very, very nice to me.

WEINER: I was already a big fan. In this era, I had actually paid for your music. There aren’t that many people out there that I could say that about.

SPEKTOR: I know. You might be the only one. [laughs] But then we did this really awesome thing at Lincoln Center, where we were both invited to read poems, along with mostly poetry people I guess.

WEINER: And Paul Simon. … Which was really cool. He was gratifyingly anxious beforehand, actually, in the sense that I was like, “Oh man. You’ve been doing this for so long, you have this status, you mean this much to us, and you are nervous about singing a song.” So we were trying not to bug him, but I still took a picture of you with him, and he was really nice to you when he heard you were a musician, too.

SPEKTOR: It was cool because you did this thing that you always wish somebody did, which is that you said, “Come on, I’m doing this. You’re going to regret this later.” And I’m so happy now, and you were right.

WEINER: I did the thing that ruined Paul Simon’s night, which was, “I don’t care, let’s go say hi.” [laughs] It was a really incredible night and you read some great poems, some of which I know already, and it was weird to be in that environment, but then we went and had drinks afterwards. We had a total, I think, creative mind meld, which is that you were just finishing this album, and I was just beginning the rest of what I’m doing now. It was a great conversation, and [your husband] Jack [Dishel] was there, and we drank a lot.

SPEKTOR: [laughs] We did drink a lot. It was one of those nights that was—you can probably have them in other places in the world—but it was so New York-y, and it was so fun.

WEINER: It was totally New York-y, right down to how hard it was for us all to figure out how to get to wherever we were all deciding we were going to go. [laughs] Then we ended up walking afterwards and it was very late at night, and I remember just talking to you. I want to start with this because I think I got to hear this album pretty early. You said it wasn’t done yet, but it clearly was. There was a thing that we talked about when you show your work to people—and I frequently give advice to other writers and younger writers especially, and artists in general if they ask—which is how careful you have to be about who you share your work with, especially when it’s in its formative stages. You said this great thing. Can you say it again, or do you want me to quote you? I quoted you so much on this. I’m going to say it.

SPEKTOR: [laughs] You can quote it.

WEINER: You said, “You can’t let people shit in your temple.” You said, “They come inside, and they’re like, ‘Where do you want me to take a shit? Over here? Over here?'” And you’re like, “No, I don’t want you to shit in the temple.” It’s the fragility of both wanting feedback and also, the minute you show somebody something—especially if they think it’s not done—they are in a position to criticize. On the other hand, maybe they’re always in a position to criticize, but especially if they think it’s not done.

SPEKTOR: Yeah, it’s such a delicate thing. You just have to know who the people that will take a shit in your temple are, and sometimes it could be really amazing. They could be this incredible resource where they’ll tell you something that maybe you yourself have felt. I know that I’ve had that. Really, the person for me that does that the most is Jack.

WEINER: It’s so important to have a person like that in your life. Linda is like that, too. I think that they’re not as careful as strangers. It’s this simple: You know when you’re really asking. You know when you’re really asking because it isn’t done and yes, you want to hear it’s perfect, but everything else that you hear, you’re hoping is of value, and sometimes it’s really of value. It totally can take it to another level; it can explain it to you, you can find out that you missed the communication in a way that you didn’t understand because you think it’s super clear, and it’s not.

SPEKTOR: Totally. I think that even if in the moment you get rubbed the wrong way, because you didn’t want to do any more work, it happens sometimes. You think, “I did it. Yay!” I think that when somebody tells you something of value, a lot of the time there’s this thing that happens, and I don’t know if you find it, where they go exactly for the word or the moment or the thing that you were hoping they wouldn’t notice, or inside didn’t feel 100 percent secure about. If they point it out, then that really sends you the message of, “Okay, I was trying to override my own instincts about it, and I guess I shouldn’t.”

WEINER: Sometimes my fallback is, “I haven’t solved that problem yet, and you noticed it.” … You think it’s done, and all of a sudden you had built a sandcastle, and you have a pile of horseshit. That’s the hardest part for me, and the person who’s giving me the note or the thoughts is the most essential. That’s the person where in the back of my mind I know they want me to fix the windows; they don’t think that I have to tear down the whole building.

Talking about this record seriously, at what point are they talking about you and at what point are they talking about the work? We can pretend all we want, but they’re always talking about you, because you are the work. I don’t want to project that onto you, but this album is very … I feel so much of your life in this. I don’t even know that much about you.

SPEKTOR: I do too. That’s nice to hear, because a lot of the time I find myself in this interesting position where in music, a lot of the time people want it to be all autobiographical, because it feels real to them. They think, “Oh, you broke up with this person and you wrote a record about it, and that’s really genuine, and that’s your whole heart in there.” If you go into stories or characters, people sometimes mistakenly think that that’s less you.

Granted, I think both you and I, we live in a world of fiction and stories. To us, they’re just as real, if not more real. To me, the story is more real than maybe what I ate for breakfast or what I did autobiographically, because I tap into it with more than my whole being, rather than just my body on planet earth at that minute. You live in that world with your writing. You tap into the stories.

WEINER: The things that actually happened to me and the things I made up are so closely related to each other or things I overheard. I remember explaining that to some writer, and they said, “But that’s not what happened,” and I was said, “Do you think that Keith Richards actually ever in his life couldn’t get any satisfaction? Do you actually think that that’s possible?” I don’t believe it. He is putting on an ironic stance, and even though it says “I,” that is real to him at that moment. That’s a dumb example, but you know what I mean.

SPEKTOR: No, I like that. I’ve always felt that. I think it’s maybe more accepted in plays and in film. I just think music is one of those frontiers where people really want the “I” to be you.

WEINER: It is your voice.

SPEKTOR: Yeah, I think that’s the thing that I try to explain, which is that it’s all an aspect of me, and even if it’s not exactly me, then it’s my perspective or my imagination in that moment or… I don’t know. I just love fiction. I love it. I love stories, I love myths, I love fairytales, I love Kafka. [laughs]

WEINER: Absolutely. I have to say, that there’s a lot of truth in this album, whether it’s observed or actually experienced—you have tapped into something. I’m not a music critic, and I love the album, so everything comes from that, but it feels very different from your other work in a way. Your voice is there. All of this stuff sounds negative when I compare it to the other work, and I don’t want to take anything away from that, but I feel like it surprised me in many ways and so my question—we’re deep into this already—is, what has happened in your life since your last album?

SPEKTOR: Well…

WEINER: It’s something specific.

SPEKTOR: Yes, it’s something specific. I became a mother. All these songs for the most part, except for a few stragglers, one or two, they’ve were written either when I was pregnant, or most of them after I had the baby. I feel different. You know this many times over, because you are a parent, but it transforms you. It’s this incredible experience where, in one way, you are still very much yourself, and in some ways you become even more connected to the rest of yourself. All of a sudden, you just get more connected to your child self, and your teenage self, and all these selves that you’ve maybe been abandoning at every date post that you pass.

WEINER: Or trying to. [both laugh]

SPEKTOR: Or trying to. Exactly. Then in another way, you have this absolutely new perspective; all of these things dawned on me in a really big way, and they’re very hard to put into words, some of them.

WEINER: Do you remember what I said to you when I first heard the album? I said many things, but I said, “You are older than me, and you’re not obviously even close [to my age].” That’s what I felt like. Somehow, and I don’t know if you have to have a child for this to happen—but just looking at the titles, like “Older and Wiser” and “The Light” and “Obsolete.” There’s so much that feels like you went through a gate in development. I was talking to somebody about this, specifically related to the album. When you’re 25 years old, and you run into somebody from high school, you think, “Talk about old times.” But when you are 30 and you run into somebody from high school, something gigantic has happened. Or in “The One Who Stayed,” when you feel like the people are in their 60s or 70s, and they lived their whole life already, and they look back on it. You start to feel like the tyranny of the choices that you made, and so I have to say that I feel like it’s filled with so much wisdom.

[There’s a] song called “The Light,” and you specifically mention, “You and your daddy / You both look like poets.” I assume that’s Jack and I assume that’s your baby. There’s a lot about, “I shouldn’t feel so down,” and the sun coming up. I’m ignoring all the music here and only talking about the words. The music is so surprising all the time. It sounds like something I know, but I don’t know it. … I feel like you were very free when you were doing this. I want to know, in something like “The Light,” is the darkness driving all of this?

SPEKTOR: It’s hard to tell. All these questions, they’re really good, because first of all—this is a side thing, but I think it’s always really special to talk to somebody who is so emotionally and intellectually giving like you are, because it makes you discover things or question things that you wouldn’t know to ask yourself, and it could be a really useful thing to think about.

WEINER: I’m always afraid though when someone says, “I figured it out! Is it about this?” And you think, “I never even thought of that.”

SPEKTOR: But that’s beautiful. That’s really, really beautiful.

WEINER: It can be. A lot of times I feel like I want to say yes, but I’m lying, because I didn’t think of it.

SPEKTOR: Most of the time I don’t even talk about any direct lineage of songs, because I feel like it just chains them down into my own consciousness, and the whole fun of them is being able to live in others’ consciousness.

WEINER: That’s true. I don’t want to do that to it.

SPEKTOR: I don’t think we are. The whole thing is that I’m both kinds of a person; I have a side of me that’s very light and very optimistic and finds everything surreal and hilarious, and then I have a side of me that’s—I don’t know what the right word is—tormented or just feels very overwhelmed.

WEINER: Melancholy?

SPEKTOR: Very melancholy. But it’s never one. It’s always cut. It’s like a cocktail, and the proportions change. It can be a very optimistic cocktail with just that twist of melancholy in it.

WEINER: I call it the drop of poison. And you know what? There’s pleasure in it.

SPEKTOR: I’m not a driver, but you know how in movies they say, “Let’s see what this baby can do,” and people get in this car, and they just want the open road to see what all of this horsepower can really do? We’re in these systems, and they’re calibrated to feel a tremendous amount of everything. There is some kind of a great pleasure in being able to just take this system for a spin and see what this baby can do.

WEINER: I totally get it. That’s a great way to put it. … Just to get back to “I” for a second—”Obsolete,” I think I listened to this more than probably anybody but you at this point, because it’s not out yet. I have listened to it quite a bit and it hit me at a time when I needed to hear it, which is another thing that is magical in a weird way. At the beginning of “Obsolete,” it feels to me that that is the experience, actually said, of when you sit down to write. I know you may be approximating it.

SPEKTOR: It feels like that to my imagination. Of course I’m approximating. I don’t know that feeling. You know that feeling.

WEINER: You know what it is. I know it took a lot of work and there’s a lot of construction, but [the songs] feel like you just give it over to someone who’s in it when they’re doing it. We took away all the analysis and now I’m the most inarticulate person in the world. [both laugh]

SPEKTOR: No—you keep analyzing me. This is a joke I have with a lot of my musician friends and producer friends: You ask a person what their personal favorite song on the album is, and it’s literally the one with the least amount of listens if you looked at the statistics of it. [laughs]

WEINER: You know what happens? I know this because there’s 92 hours of Mad Men, and I think what happens is that there are things that have an appeal the first time you hear them, and then you go through the stages. I haven’t listened to a whole album like this in a while. I’ve listened to pieces of things, and I want to ask you about the construction of it, because it really does have a great shape to it. The earlier songs on it actually seem like your earlier work, honestly, and a little more rock ‘n’ roll. Then you get into this place and it does have a kind of a climax, for me anyway, even though there are many other different flavors. I actually feel like the more you listen to something, especially when you had LPs and CDs too, you would skip over stuff, like, “I don’t like that.” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the Beatles song that I put in Mad Men, I used to skip over that song, and now it’s my favorite thing on the album.

SPEKTOR: That is a phenomenon.

WEINER: Right? I think it’s a phenomenon. I think also somebody wise said that you respond to something new the way you respond to something you don’t like. You actually can’t even get into it. The ones that are really appealing right away, they’re icing; it’s not substance, but the ones that have the most substance are not the most easily accessible. If you ask somebody the first time they hear it, a lot of people are going to pick the same songs. But once you’ve been listening to it for a while, you will go for traditionally what they call the “deep cuts.”

SPEKTOR: I really love the fact that I’ve experienced that myself, like you said, a lot. There’s an artist that I listened to for the first time, and I really didn’t like them. I had some kind of adverse reaction, and later, it became my favorite thing. I remember somebody handed me Siddhartha when I was I think 18, and I started to read it and I just really didn’t like it, and I left it and it was just gathering dust for years. Then maybe five years later, the world shook as I read it. We don’t have a lot of power in the world, right? We can only control so many things. It allows you to curate your own emotional and artistic intake of life. You get to be your own curator of your own exhibits inside. You decide if you’re ready for something. It can come in the guise of, “Oh, I don’t think I like this.” I remember as a teenager, my mom snuck me out of high school for a day to take me to a really cool, free classical concert.

WEINER: That’s so great.

SPEKTOR: Oh, yeah. I have the coolest parents. [laughs]

WEINER: She could tell what you liked too.

SPEKTOR: Well, this was the thing—I was such a little shit because I went, and I loved the classical stuff that I was used to … and I was saying to her that I really didn’t like it and there was no point to it. She was just doing that thing that parents do, that when you’re a teenager drives you absolutely crazy, which is that she said, “Well, someday you’ll understand.” At that point, you cannot be told that there is something you don’t understand. It’s just stupid. I said to her, “Well, I hope I don’t, because it just sucks.” Years later, I’m just listening to nothing but John Cale, inhaling all that music, because it just became a complete turnaround. I wasn’t ready for it then, and it didn’t have that meaning—like when I first heard Nina Simone’s voice or Patti Smith’s voice, it took me a minute. Then they became like this food that I needed to eat like daily to understand a certain part of the world, of being in the world. Sometimes I make stuff, and even I don’t like it. There’s something about it that I don’t really like, or annoys me. For whatever reason it needs to come out. Not everything in the world is easy or powerful. Part of you just has to be in service of processing things and getting them out. I think when I gave the record to you and it was not in the hands of really anybody—a couple of trusted people—I had this feeling from you that you would give it that chance, that you were into discovering new things.

WEINER: I had the same experience. That’s very flattering, and I cut you off because that makes me super uncomfortable. [laughs] I’ve always tried to keep myself open, and I really do like new things, even if I don’t like them right away. I don’t like new food that much, but I like it with art. I just feel like you have to give somebody a chance. If you’ve never seen it before, you’ve got to respect that. You really do. It’s like combining objects in a new way.

SPEKTOR: Yeah, I think this happens to a lot of people with age, this just naturally happens. A lot of artists have to struggle against this, because you’re going against human nature almost, because as you get older as an animal on the planet, you want to get a little more comfortable, you want to get cozier.

WEINER: You don’t want surprises.

SPEKTOR: You don’t want surprises. You want to go and see the music that surprised you 30 years ago, and now they’re coming through town again and you’re going to go to that show, and you’re not going to go to that new show. I think that you have to let yourself be agitated and annoyed and not be fully comfortable. There’s something about trying to know when you really need to protect yourself, or else you’re not going to get anything done, and sometimes to be really uncomfortable or agitated or annoyed or bored. Boredom is so important.

WEINER: I could not agree more. That’s how I feel about the phone. If you think of the moments when you take out your phone, like when you’re waiting for somebody and you don’t take out your phone, you’d be shocked at the first five minutes of incredible uncomfortableness and anxiety. Then, you never know where your mind is going.

SPEKTOR: You start to have ideas. [laughs]

WEINER: You start to have ideas. I’m the worst; you never want to sit next to me. I am the most vampiric eavesdropper that ever existed, and I have a good memory. Sometimes you get in a position to really overhear something, and it’s always interesting. Even if it’s the worst, most boring thing in the world.

SPEKTOR: Jack is always telling me that. First of all, I am a horrible starer.

WEINER: I have that too! I don’t know I’m doing it.

SPEKTOR: I don’t know I’m doing it either.

WEINER: I’ve been punched in the face in my life. The thing they always say, before I get punched in the face, is, “What are you looking at?” [both laugh]

SPEKTOR: [Jack] is always like, “Do you want to move to their table? Do you want to ask them for their number?” I don’t even notice I’m doing it, and he’s like, “Wow, you are a criminal starer.” I always thought that I got that because when I got to America I didn’t speak English, and I had to tune in so hard to body language and the dynamics of what was happening. But really, I think I’m just a fucking eavesdropper. That’s what it is. [laughs]

REMEMBER US TO LIFE (SIRE/WARNER BROS. RECORDS) IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON REGINA SPEKTOR, VISIT HER WEBSITE. MATTHEW WEINER IS AN EMMY AND GOLDEN GLOBE AWARD-WINNING WRITER, DIRECTOR, AND PRODUCER.