Spektor was born in Moscow, back in the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The only daughter of a musically inclined family – her mother taught music, while her dad was a violinist and a photographer – young Regina began her piano lessons at 6, studying and practicing on a Petrof piano given to her mother by her grandfather.
In 1989, soon after Mikhail Gorbachev began his policy of perestroika, she and her parents immigrated to the Bronx, New York City. While leaving the Soviet Union was cause for celebration, it was understood that once the Spektors arrived in America, Regina would no longer be able to study music.
“We had to sell the piano because we weren't allowed to bring anything foreign-made out of Russia,” she says. “It was considered Soviet property. I was so sad.”
She tried to maintain her musical chops by playing on an out of tune piano in the basement of their local synagogue, but most often practiced on windowsills and tabletops. One fortuitous evening, her father struck up a conversation on the subway with a professional concert violinist by the name of Samuel Marder. Marder invited the Spektors to his Riverdale house to hear him and his wife, Manhattan School of Music professor Sonia Vargas, play a private recital.
“I went up to Sonia and asked her, ‘Can you be my teacher?' and she said, ‘Of course,'” Spektor recalls. “She ended up being my teacher until I was 17. The Japanese have a proverb: whenever the student is ready, the teacher appears. In a lot of ways, that’s how my life has been, there's been this kind of harmony with things – I wrote a few songs, then someone heard me and offered me a show; I decided I was ready to tour and then I went on tour with the Strokes. It makes you live your whole life differently. You can’t just sit around, getting angry because you think you're ready. If you were really ready, things would be happening.”
Spektor attended yeshiva on a scholarship, but always felt out of place.” After two years, she opted to leave yeshiva and attend a secular high school in Fairlawn, New Jersey (using the time-honored technique of claiming to live with a suburban aunt in order to establish a fake address).
In the summer of her 16th year, Spektor went to Israel as part of a Nesiya Institute arts scholarship. As she and her fellow travelers hiked in the desert, Regina would make up little songs and melodies to fill the time.
“I noticed that some kids would always try to hike next to me and ask me to sing particular songs that I had made up,” she recalls. “So I started trying to remember them. By the end of the trip, all these kids were telling me that I had to write songs!
“It had never occurred to me,” she continues. “To me, the mentality was you sit at the piano and play Bach or Mozart or Chopin. You didn’t ever improvise, so the idea of writing my own music was an intimidating one.”
“The way I got into music was totally backwards,” she says. “I’d write a song and someone would tell me, ‘That sounds like Joni Mitchell,' and I'd go, ‘Who?'”
As she had always done with her piano lessons, Spektor took the craft of songwriting very seriously, pushing herself to learn and improve with each new attempt. She made a tape of her songs, which her mother passed along, to her fellow music teacher. He encouraged Spektor to keep at it, and suggested she audition for SUNY Purchase, an upstate New York college, renowned for its prestigious Conservatory of Music.
Spektor completed her studies at Purchase in three years, overloading on classes in order to save money. Meanwhile, she began playing her first gigs, drawing a local following for her increasingly powerful material. She was also a favorite among the Purchase musical community, and in early 2001, Regina teamed up with jazz bassist Chris Kuffner to record her first collection of songs, dubbed “ 11:11.” She did an initial run of a thousand copies, which she sold at gigs as a way of supplementing her limited income.
After graduating Purchase, Spektor returned to NYC where she continued playing out as often as she could. Since performing at open mic nights didn't put much money in her purse, she spent her days working a variety of secretarial jobs, including desks at a Soho OB/GYN clinic and a private investigator's office. After a while, she told her parents that she wanted to devote herself to music so she was going to quit her job and live at home. While this meant schlepping back and forth to the Bronx after late night gigs, Regina also knew that she needed to fully dedicate herself to her musical career. She gigged constantly, playing literally hundreds of shows in and around NYC, at such venues as the Sidewalk Café, the Living Room, Tonic, Fez, Knitting Factory, CB's Gallery, and among others. She also supported such artists as David Poe, Ed Harcourt, and the Dismemberment Plan.
Sure enough, people began coming and Spektor was soon the talk on NYC's burgeoning anti-folk scene. With each passing day, her music grew, becoming “weirder and darker” than the jazzier compositions featured on the “ 11:11 ” CD.
On Christmas Day 2001, Joe Mendelson, the co-owner of the Living Room, invited her to his studio to record as many songs as she could, if only to archive her many compositions. After recording the tracks, David Poe advised her to master a dozen songs and slap on a cover – the resulting CD, simply dubbed “SONGS,” became Spektor’s calling card, drawing critical praise and enough commercial success to support her admittedly frugal lifestyle.
“People love that record,” she says. “They would come to a show, and then buy five copies so they could give them as presents. I never had enough money to do a big run so I'd do 200 at a time, sell them out, and then make more. Then I started selling them through www.cdbaby.com, I never thought it would go further than my NYC fans.”
Among her fans was drummer Alan Bezozi, who having played with such artists as They Might Be Giants, Freedy Johnston, and Dog’s Eye View, wanted to try his hand at producing. He suggested collaboration, and mentioned that his friend Gordon Raphael was stopping in New York on his way home to Seattle for Christmas.
“Alan said, ‘Gordon produced the Strokes,'” she smiles, “and I said, ‘Who are the Strokes?'”
At first they only recorded “Poor Little Rich Boy,” which sees Regina playing piano with her left hand, and hitting a chair with a drumstick in her right. But after seeing her live show at Tonic he then suggested that they try and record more songs in the New Year. He was only slated to be in New York for one week so the sessions had to include the maximum amount of recording possible. Fortunately for Spektor, she was kitten sitting for a friend on the Lower East Side, sparing her the daily commute to and from the Bronx.
“It was the most concentrated recording work I'd ever done,” she says. “I'd never spent 15-hour days in the studio before.”
Spektor originally only planned to record an EP, but it was obvious to all involved that she had more than enough songs for a full album. In March, she headed for London to continue recording with Raphael.
“Gordon has ability to capture a sound where the instruments feel really alive,” she says. “Even in the songs that are just piano and voice, there's a roughness to it, it's a little more dangerous than a pretty piano song.”
Though many of the album's most striking moments are spare, stark solo pieces, “SOVIET KITSCH” also sees Spektor accompanied by the Brighton, England-based art-punk combo, Kill Kenada, while other tracks on “SOVIET KITSCH” feature contributions from some of NYC’s finest musicians, including guitarist Oren Bloedow (Elysian Fields, Lounge Lizards), bass legend Graham Maby (Joe Jackson, Marshall Crenshaw), and cellist Jane Scarpantoni (Lou Reed, Kristen Hersh, Luna).
“I don't have an overall sound,” she explains. “I tend to think of each song as its own little world, so one song can be a complete punk song, while another could be a chamber ensemble with strings. It's more fun that way because I never have to
do the same thing over and over again.”
After wrapping the sessions, Raphael played “SOVIET KITSCH” to the Strokes' Julian Casablancas, who was so impressed he invited Regina to join his band on their sold-out North American tour. Since she was still an unsigned artist, Spektor had to cover all of her own expenses, from cross-country airfares to nightly hotel stays. Spektor reckons the experience to have been well worth the cost.
“It opened my eyes to a lot of things you only see in the media,” she says. “It was pretty surreal and educational at the same time.”
In addition to the live dates, Casablancas also invited Spektor to record a song with the Strokes, “Post Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men,” which appeared as the B-side to their “Reptilia” single. Touring with the Strokes also introduced her to Kings Of Leon, who asked her to support them on their European tour.
Though she received a bounty of attention for her famous fans, “SOVIET KITSCH” more than establishes Regina Spektor as an artist in her own right. For her, the interest attracted by her involvement with the Strokes and KOL is just another example of reaching her goals via circuitous paths. In fact, Spektor figures her current career, as an anti-folk songstress is not dissimilar from her original plan of becoming a classical pianist.
“This is like a back door into what I've always wanted to do my whole life,” she says happily. “I always wanted to play classical recitals and concerts, and go from place to place and learn new programs and practice new things and play hours and hours of piano for people. And now I do that, except instead of playing the compositions of Chopin and Mozart, I play my own.”