Regina Spektor moved from Moscow to New York in 1989. She took piano lessons in her homeland, then she pragmatically practiced her fingering on windowsills in the Bronx until her family could afford another instrument. While attending classes at SUNY's Conservatory of Music, Spektor released two jazzy independent albums. Strokes singer Julian Casablancas discovered Spektor through their mutual producer Gordon Raphael, and he invited her to open for his band's North American tour.
It may seem like a fascinating Cinderella story, especially since the upshot is that it culminated in the brilliantly warped piano-pop of her major-label debut, Soviet Kitsch. But from Spektor's perspective, none of it compares with the misanthropic privileged youngsters, wistful statue models and hundred-dollar bills that double as baby sitters in her songs.
"A lot of people's lives are more interesting than mine and need to be represented," Spektor says in a childlike chirp that belies her booming singing voice. "I'm not into the confessional singer/songwriter thing, he broke my heart, blah blah."
Spektor can jerk tears as well as any sob-story specialist: Lines such as "The flowers you gave me are rotting/and still I refuse to throw them away" expertly communicate inextinguishable optimism in a moribund relationship. But she can follow utter dejection with coy charm, letting subtle shifts in her phrasing mark the changing characters. Her dramatic concerts, during which she completely inhabits and occasionally revamps her fictional subjects, have led some observers to place her in the performance-art category, though she avoids that genre's tiresome peacockery.
Spontaneous vocal dynamics tend to baffle backing bands, which is why Spektor performs alone with her piano and guitar. In the studio, though, she has a few collaborations to her credit, including "Your Honor" (a garage-rock number with Kill Kenada) and "Modern Girls and Old Fashion Men" (a Strokes B-side.)
"With 'Modern Girls,' Julian wrote it," Spektor says. "That was freeing, because I'm so used to completely controlling everything. I'd never sang a song I hadn't written."
Spektor has many more partnerships in mind. However, even in the creative process, she prefers conceptual constructs to the firm realities of recorded material. She's an internally prolific artist whose productivity will never come close to matching her imagination, which makes her album-enhancing live show essential. "I've got an entire record of electronic stuff in my head," she says. "Some people get out of that realm of the dream and actually make it tangible. I don't get it out there."
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