Equal parts piano chanteuse and art-house indie rocker, classically-trained, Moscow-born Regina Spektor defies categorization, melding pop, punk, classical, and urban influences into a sound that’s all her own. If you’re looking for cookie-cutter singer-songwriter fare, look elsewhere.
On her latest album What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, she and storied Los Angeles-based producer Mike Elizondo marry a myriad of musical genres, all anchored by Spektor’s soaring vocals and innovative piano parts. It’s a record that celebrates all that’s possible when you throw preconceptions out the window.
How did the songs for this album come together?
I flew to Los Angeles to meet with [producer] Mike Elizondo five days before I had to play a festival in Australia. At that time, I didn’t really know if I had an album, or what the project would sound like, because I have a lot of songs that have been sitting around for years. Those older songs would haunt me because they weren’t finished yet. I’m lucky because many of them were at least recorded by somebody at a show and put on YouTube. So they exist, but they’re still not how I hear or would orchestrate them.
Every time I make a record, I make lists, sometimes of as many as 30 or more songs. When I went to see Mike, I had no demos. I never make them. I just played all the songs so he got to hear them live for the first time. I played them all on piano, and he’d say, “Let’s do that one.” So by the time those five days went by, we basically had the songs for the record. Then when I came back to start work on it, we were totally on the same page.
If you don’t make demos, do you at least record ideas so you can remember them?
Now I do! I record them into my iPhone like you’re doing with this interview, but for the longest time I didn’t record anything. I’ve lost so many songs from not recording them that it drives me crazy. I’m grateful to people like Joe Mendelson, who recorded the Songs record for me. He has tons of my songs on his computer that I otherwise would’ve forgotten by now. I’m also grateful to all the people that came to the shows I played all over New York City and recorded me and put those songs online. A lot of the time, if I can’t remember a song, I’ll go online and re-learn it from a fan posting!
What about Mike Elizondo made you want to work with him again?
When I worked with Mike on my last record Far, it felt like we began something that got cut short. I learned a lot from him about sound. Mike is also a virtuoso bass player. I’ve worked with other producers who bass really well, like David Kahne or Jeff Lynne. But Mike could have an actual orchestral career on upright bass. That let me express some parts of the songs in a completely different way. Mike playing upright—bowing and playing crazy harmonics that sounded almost like flute solos, like on the instrumental section of “Firewood,” is amazing. Because I’m so used to “Frankensteining” records together with the producer and me playing almost everything ourselves, it was incredibly fun to explore the “live” side of things.
“Small Town Moon” begins with what sounds like a routine IV-V-I progression, but develops into a conversation between your hands. Do you like that sort of deceptive simplicity?
I love things that are melodic and not obscured. I’m a fan of clarity and economy, which I guess you have to be if you play a solo instrument. Some of my favorite things to play are the classical pieces I grew up on. When you play a Bach fugue or invention, it’s all there in front of you. The same goes for a Mozart sonata or something by Chopin, where you can hear the “trade-off” when the melody gets picked up in the lower register. In that sense, classical music is pop music to me, in that the simplest and most pure elements are right there, as opposed to music that’s maybe more progressive, which I have to work a little harder to connect with.
How does your classical training influence your songwriting?
It’s funny. When you play classical, it takes a long time to get dexterity and make your hands independent of each other—which you want in order to get “off the page” and feel the music without having to think about it. I started writing songs late—at 16. At that point, my piano playing was so much more developed than everything else, it was like I had to relearn an entire language. I didn’t know how to play without looking at music, and it took me forever to be able to sing while I played, so I had to use really simple rhythms. A lot of it was almost like, “Oom-pah, oom-pah.” So I set my sights on getting more free while playing and singing. I slowly added more difficult left-hand parts. I also started listening to different bands. When I went on tour with Kings of Leon and the Strokes, it was my first time really watching parts interlock, which caused me to write songs with more bass parts where I pedaled.
When I first started booking shows, I played with a bassist I met in college. It was very jazz-influenced—I’d play some piano songs, and some with just upright bass and voice. I felt, “Okay, there’s enough diversity.” If two things were too much alike, I’d feel like they were boring and nobody would listen to them. When I stopped playing with the bass player, I started booking shows that were half an hour instead of an hour, because I thought, “Nobody wants to listen to an hour of just piano.” If one song was really arpeggiated, the next had to have a totally different rhythm. I was terrified of people being bored.
Do you still strive for variety in your sets?
Yes, it’s really important. I also feel that everything is context. I love putting things together that are very disparate, but they all take you on a journey, so each influences the other. It’s like you won’t feel as much relief from a certain song if you didn’t experience the three songs before it. In some ways, I really like the world of people just listening to random songs in shuffle mode. But at shows, you can create atmosphere by how you put those songs together.
Your left hand also creates a lot of compelling bass movement and counterpoint.
The more you can do in the left hand, the more you’re able to change the topography of a song. That’s really exciting—to be able to alter a song’s course and feeling. That happens on one of the verses in my song “Fidelity,” where for a moment, the bass goes to D. I love that and look for it every time I play that song. It comforts me when that bass “suspends” things in that way. It’s like when I developed my voice more and built up a stronger, higher range, I started writing different kinds of songs.
Was the classical-style interlude in “Firewood” written out or more spontaneous?
It was part of the composition. It wasn’t written out on paper, but I play it exactly the same way every time. It’s weird—I get attached to things. The only place I may change things a little bit is in my voice parts. It’s a very classical mindset where everything is through-composed.
What inspired the lyrical quote from the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on “Oh Marcello”?
I really love quoting things. I have songs where I’ve quoted from works of literature, or from other songs. Our world logistically discourages you from doing that because you have to get everybody’s permission to put something out. Sometimes it’s actually unfair, because people want a tremendous amount of publishing for using just one little line of a song. I understand that you should be protected from someone using a piece of your art if it’s not to your liking, but I think the reason I do it is that I really love when passages get quoted in classical music. I started doing it myself when I went to SUNY Purchase and discovered jazz. Quoting gives listeners a reference point. It makes the listening experience an active adventure where people can piece clues together.
What do you look for in a piano?
I like heavy actions. And I like ones that sing out, but that I can control. I don’t like metallic-sounding pianos. I’ve played Steinways for years. They’re my favorite instruments. My American piano teacher had one when I was growing up. I play a model B on the road, and I have a model M at home.
“Don’t Leave Me” starts with what’s almost become a trademark for you: an electronic drum loop. How did that become integral to your sound?
For so many years, I had little or no time in the studio, and when I did, it was just me and the piano. So I had to trust that people would hear the music’s trajectory based on things I would imply in it. I had to hope that people could hear me “saying” that the song rocked, because there were no drums on the recording. Also, since I never got to play around in the studio for many years, anything that was electronic or involved synthesizers or drum machines was like candy to me. I just wanted to get my hands on them, like when your parents forbid you to have certain things.
So you had to really emphasize the groove on your own?
Yeah, I tried really hard to imply it. This time around, it was great working with Mike Elizondo because, for example, he really gets hip-hop.The beats just feel so bad-ass, and I got to enjoy it, like on the song “Patron Saint.” He helped me feel that, which isn’t something you necessarily get from classical music. But I’m not just a classical musician, so I don’t have to be just in that world. Things can be dainty if they have to be, or they can be dramatic in that classical way, but they can also be gritty.
I remember singing one of my early songs with a band when I was at SUNY [State University of New York] Purchase. I hated it. It was like everything that was special about it and that was good about how I sing went away. It made me feel that if I had to sing a proper cover tune in a band, I’d just be terrible. It was actually a billion times better with just me and an upright bass. I learned that I had to be really careful about how I orchestrate things, or I could literally destroy my songs.
So the moral is, be judicious in adding tracks to your songs?
Yeah. Be honest with yourself and ask, “Is this adding or is this taking away from the music?” And if it’s taking away even a tiny bit, get rid of it. Something else will add to it. I naturally generate parts. I could add parts until the cows come home. I’ll go, “Maybe the violin could do this” or, “I could add a bassoon part right here.” But sometimes those things only obscure the music. In the end, they might work well only in your imagination.
Any parting advice for musicians who aspire to a career like yours?
You could make music for 80 years, and in your 81st year, you might discover a new way to play a chord or sing. Always want that sense of adventure. Then things are never boring.
Mike Elizondo on Recording Regina
“What We Saw from the Cheap Seats started with just acoustic piano and vocals,” says producer Mike Elizondo, who has also worked with Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple, and Maroon 5. “The idea was to focus on Regina playing piano and singing the melodies. Then we’d build off of the different dynamics and tempos in each song by adding drums, bass, and other instruments.
“The piano was a Yamaha C7 grand that I’ve had for years. We miked it with two Wunder CM12s over the dampers, as well as two Coles 4038s just outside the lid. We also used an old, industrial lo-fi mic for added effect. All piano mics went into Neve 1073 preamps, with the CM12s going straight into Pro Tools and the 4038s going into a Chandler TG1 limiter. The industrial mic was routed into an original ‘blue stripe’ 1176 for compression. For Regina’s vocals, we used either a vintage Telefunken Ela M 250 or a Blue Bottle with a B6 capsule. Both were routed into a Neve 1073 and the 1176.
“Many sounds came from my personal Logic sample libraries, as well as soft synthsincluding ReFX Nexus and Vanguard and Spectrasonics Atmosphere. I especially like Logic’s PedalBoard plug-in, which is great for manipulating sounds and adding texture. One of us might say, ‘Why don’t we use a violin that sounds like it was played in a tiny jar?’ So I’d create a sound based on our conversation, and it would inspire Regina to create a keyboard part that would support her melodies.”