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Interview: Regina Spektor On How She Ignites Her Inner Flame

Catching up with the acclaimed recording artist mid-tour

Recently on The New Yorker Radio Hour, Regina Spektor told writer Amanda Petrusich, “I pledge allegiance to the imagination.” This classically trained, multitalented musician, who was born in Moscow and moved to the US when she was 9 years old, writes songs that often exist in the realm of fairy tales. To begin her NPR Tiny Desk performance, she improvised a quirky and whimsical song about…a tiny desk and the journey she took to get there.

Spektor has performed on stages around the world, on Broadway, inside Disney Hall, at music festivals, and for events like the celebration for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 75th birthday at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York. Currently on tour, Spektor and a nine-foot Steinway piano are traversing the US from coast to coast to play three shows in California then wrapping up in New York and Martha’s Vineyard. 

by Shervin Lainez

Her lush instrumentation and gorgeous lyrics tell stories that are lavish and theatrical, yet intimate and emotional. She often explores the theme of time—from the theme song “You’ve Got Time” for Orange is the New Black to songs on her current album, “Becoming All Alone,” where she has a conversation with god: “And I said why doesn’t it get better with time? I‘m becoming all alone again.” In “Spacetime Fairytale,” where she explores the concept of time in varying ways, she discovers, “This world began outside of time. Some days it’s yours, some days it’s mine. Some days it’s cruel, some days it’s kind. It just can’t stay the same.”

We spoke with Spektor in the midst of arriving in a new city to soundcheck for another show. Spektor, who craves adventures, travel and performance, shares with us why she rarely sticks to a planned setlist, her inspirations from fashion and literature, and the beauty and importance of friendship.

by Shervin Lainez

Do you have an object that has special meaning that you bring along with you when you’re on tour?

I always carry way too many books. I have a really good book with me now by Marie-Louise von Franz, who was the closest associate to Carl Jung. This book is just called Dreams. The study of the dreams of Jung, Descartes, Socrates and other historical figures. She talks about the history of each one of these people all their lives and then a monumental dream that they had. She shares her thoughts on the dream. She also has written really interesting books about fairy tales. I’m interested in dreams and fairy tales and myths and all those kinds of things. So this is a fun read. And it’s very dense. My brain can only handle little bits at a time, but I’m making my way through.

Home, Before and After came out about a year ago, and so many of your songs are about the theme of time. What is your experience of time on the road?

I was just talking to my front of house engineer—we were talking about the tour that started in Milwaukee. And it was three days in a row, you know, you just play, drive, play, drive, play. He said to me, “it feels like Milwaukee was a month ago.” And it kind of does. And so I think on tour time, especially for my kind of brain, I’m kind of time traveling all the time. I think everybody loses their sense of time on tour. it’s kind of beautiful because you almost tune to this other thing. There’s a reason why the road gets into people and we all kind of become road dogs a little bit. We need the open road!  

by Shervin Lainez

Do you have a ritual before performing that helps you focus and feel ready?

I like doing makeup and picking clothes is my ritual. I travel with a whole bunch of dresses and outfits and think: what is tonight? When I do makeup before the show, it’s almost like those fun photographs of the old Yiddish theater, where they would put on their makeup. I have this really wonderful Chagall book and there’s photos from that era of people just looking in the mirror and becoming King Lear. In my own little way, it’s where I gather into myself. It feels very in the tradition of all of those old theater actors.

Your wardrobe since the new album came out has been especially colorful, like the La DoubleJ flower dress, the Psychic Outlaw bandana dress, the Batsheva zebra gown. What inspired this exuberant palette this year?

A lot of it is my friend Orlee Winer, who’s my stylist. She inspires me in a big, big way. We knew each other from Hebrew school. We reconnected when I was doing SNL. And she was working with the stylist who was hired to dress me for Saturday Night Live. She’s got such an incredible eye for finding fun clothes. I’m not the easiest person to dress because I need to have a certain kind of wingspan to be able to reach the keys. I can’t deal with a high collar or having anything around my neck. The sleeves have to be a certain way, so that I don’t get my fingers tangled when I play. Because sometimes I face the audience and I have my legs pretty spread out and have to make sure I’m not flashing anybody. There are all these kinds of parameters and she magically finds these dresses that I love every time and so I’m very grateful to her. And I’ve been rocking a lot of FARM Rio and CeliaB. 

by Shervin Lainez

Your fashion choices seem to be integral to the visual look and focus of the tour that feels celebratory and vibrant. Does this all reflect how you are feeling?

I am grateful for all of these clothes because they really help me express myself. When I go through it all on a certain night, and I pick the dress that feels just right for that moment, it feels really good because it is part of the accompaniment and it does take a lot of things to put on a show—like the lighting design. Everyone works so hard to make the show happen, so that the audience can kind of get lost in the moment. If they want to close their eyes, there are good things for them to hear. And if they want to open their eyes, there are things for them to see. It’s just all for them.

Speaking of things to see, you travel with a very large piano. What is the piano’s story??

I’m a Steinway artist and Steinway has taken care of me for years. They’re incredible, my favorite pianos in the world. Each one has its own personality. If anybody is coming to visit New York and they want to have a very special experience, they should go to Astoria, Queens to the Steinway factory. They do give tours and one of the most interesting things is that they start out with all of this wood that’s just laying out in the elements of New York City for at least a year, through all of the seasons. It’s been under rain. It’s been under snow. It’s lived. Then they pick the pieces that feel right to them and then they start building. It takes a very long time.

It’s all bent and carved by hand. These artisans are incredible. Before I would go to the factory and they would set up maybe five or six instruments for me to try that were available to go on the road and I would pick the one that felt the most kindred to what I was doing. Now, because they know me so well, they know which ones I have played, I don’t have to always go in person. We have two cases that we own. This one is a Steinway D, which is a nine-foot piano… the case is bigger than my first New York City apartment! These pianos are huge! It’s really a privilege to play such a good instrument.

by Shervin Lainez

Some of your lyrics on this album refer to god and prayers. Were you feeling especially spiritual while you were writing the album? And are you finding any surprisingly spiritual moments on the tour this year as audiences are gathering with you again?

I do feel connected to the spiritual and to religious things in my life. I really do. In a way, being a parent connects you to your culture even more, because you want to share the beautiful things. I want to share the beautiful things of Judaism with my family, and this experience, a type of growing up where I’ve lost my dad. I think that this kind of grief and getting into that realm where you deal with loss, it pushes you toward the spiritual because you really start to feel how much is beyond your understanding and how much is beyond what is here to see physically in this world.

During the last year and your tour, you’ve been to museums, you’ve seen plays like Alex Edelman’s opening night of his Broadway show. You surround yourself with such an incredible circle of artists. How does this community of artist friends keep you inspired?

I think COVID has really awakened me to realize, more than ever, how much I need my friends and especially the art that my friends make. Getting to go to those earliest shows and concerts, it was an awakening of the soul and I am really lucky that I have these super-inspiring artist friends. I get to hang out with all these amazing people… Eugen Hutz, Alex Edelman, Mike Birbiglia and Jenji Kohan. They are my friends. I can’t believe it most of the time because they’re such beautiful people. It’s really cool when you’re in the world of art that you get brought together with people whose art you love, but it’s the human friendship that is a very important part of my inspiration. We look for support from each other because the world gets very daunting and so it’s really wonderful to get these other perspectives. But to have that kind of common language where the person knows exactly what you’re thinking. Because most artists are really shy, quiet people and then all of a sudden, they have to overcome these things and be in front of people. And then they feel a tremendous sense of pressure. They want everybody to have fun and enjoy it. 

Spektor and her Steinway head back to Los Angeles to play The Greek Theatre on 10 August.

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