A Talk With Regina Spektor: Jay-Z, Her Beloved New Musical, and Spirituality on Far

There were grueling months of requesting, calling, and emailing. There was letter-writing, cake-baking, dog-walking, and all sorts of other fictional brown nosing to get this interview. Finally, last weekend, our relentless team’s efforts paid off. Consequence of Sound got a chance to talk on the phone with the lovely Regina Spektor, our site’s “princess,” so to speak. (Just in case you were not aware, “Consequence of Sounds” is a song off her second album, Songs. Our name is not a coincidence.)

I spoke to her for little more than 15 minutes, but in that time Ms. Spektor proved to be a genuine, good-natured person. Although an absurdly talented pianist and songwriter, she was pleasantly down to earth and ecstatic to talk about her upcoming musical. As she splayed out her feelings about her music, her eclectic take on religion, her new project and what she’s learning, it was easy to tell she holds all her experiences as treasures. She spoke with passion in a surprisingly soft voice; and gave her words a fantastic tone reminiscent of a grandmother’s fairy tales, told by a new young romantic. With girlish excitement and a charming ramble she described her thoughts, pausing for only seconds at a time, and in the end we had more of a conversation than a by-the-book interview.

At the mention of my long-time love of her music, she replied, a little bashful, “Oh, thank you, I could tell by the name of the site.” After my closing remarks and profuse thanks, she thanked again, this time for honoring her in our title.

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As you know, I write for Consequence of Sound. What do those words mean to you?

Spektor: Ah, I don’t know… I think, I don’t know, it’s odd. I mean, I’ll try to make something up. (Laughs). You know what it is, it’s that a lot of the time songs just kind of morph and they mean different things to me, with my own weird kind of… They just change in my own mind to whatever is happening in my life. Which is kinda good for me because then I don’t feel like I ever fully know all the songs; so I don’t feel like some sort of a jukebox playing my songs over and over, because a lot of the times they kinda turn new, almost. I think that, you know… I don’t think it was anything specific, but abstract. I can find a lot of meanings if you want.

It’s good to keep things fresh. It would be horrible to feel like a jukebox as an artist.

Spektor: Yes! I feel like it would be kind of a trap.

You’d hate to be trapped in what is your art.

Spektor: Exactly, yeah.

Earlier this week, we reported that your song, “Chemo Limo”, has been sampled on a new Jay-Z track called “Crispy Benjamins”. Could you provide some more details on this?

Spektor: I have to tell you that I had no idea about any of this at all. I don’t know, personally, I doubt that it’s real because I’d probably have to know. I don’t think that someone would just do that [because of issues with] permission. I doubt it’s real but… still pretty cool. I’d be very curious to hear it, but I have a feeling I would have heard about it if it was happening.

You are also reportedly working on a Broadway musical called Beauty? How’d that transpire and what are your thoughts on the project?

Spektor: Yeah! That I know is really happening, as opposed to the Jay-Z thing, which is… (She trails off). That’s been amazing, super amazing. Every time someone asks me about it or I think about it, I just kinda go into disbelief. I can’t believe I get to do it you know, because the people that I’m working with are so amazing and so professional that it really shouldn’t be allowed that someone as amateur as me gets to have their first attempt at a real Broadway musical with people of this caliber. I’m grateful. I’m a combination of grateful and nervous, you know? I, um, it’s been really amazing. I’ve been learning a lot about that world. I love musicals. I love the old musicals you know, Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews, Singing In the Rain, you know, that stuff.

How did you land on this project? And how long have you been working on it?

Spektor: Tina Landau, who’s the director and the writer of the story, she had my old records for a while, and so when they were looking for composers she suggested me. And then we somehow got together and they picked me. And we were talking about it for a while, but it just became, like, very real recently. It’s that kind of a massive project that it takes so long to even start. So much of it is people getting into the same world and understanding, and something clicking, and getting it. ‘Cause it’s a really full-on collaboration because, you know, Tina writing all the whole story and the dialogue, and there’s Michael Korie writing the lyrics to all the songs, which are very interconnected to the dialogue and there’s me writing music for the whole thing.

You’re only writing the music, not the words?

Spektor: It’s my first time writing music and not words. I thought, you know, I thought it was gonna be so hard, so much harder. I didn’t even think I would be able to-but it’s actually really liberating. It just feels very different than writing a song of my own, but it’s still really amazing, like it doesn’t feel any less amazing.

It’s been really interesting to experience it, because I think in order to write-I’ve written already, I think something like, I don’t know, maybe like 10 or 13 songs, I don’t remember now ‘cause my mind is all on the tour. You kind of switch, you know, from one brain to another.

But, um, sort of what happens when you start to understand that world that’s being built, and all of a sudden it’s like, all this makes sense, like all this musicality. I couldn’t write anything, and all of a sudden I just wrote a whole lot of stuff. I think the important thing about working on a collaboration like this is, you have to really get into that world of the play, and then you start to hear what it’s supposed to sound like. It’s probably like that with people who score movies, you know. You have to watch it over and over again and then all of a sudden you know what it’s supposed to sound like.

It’s sort of the musical equivalent of writing a book and getting to know the characters.

Spektor: Yeah, yeah! Exactly, it’s like, sometimes it takes you a while to get into a book. Have you ever read those books where there’s a very different way they write-the writer writes out the dialect and the sound? So at first it’s very hard to read. Like, um, there are really great books that I love. One’s called Maggie, A Girl Of The Streets. It’s really amazing.

At first I couldn’t bear to read it, because [the author] would write out the dialect of the way the people sound, so it was really stretching all the words so you can’t really understand, sometimes, what the words are, ‘cause it’s written phonetically. Then after you read it, it’s like it stops being annoying, and it starts to actually make you feel that love better than if they would have been writing regular dialogue. ‘Cause you start to hear how it sounds and it makes the whole thing feel really real.

I think that’s sort of what happens when you’re working on a musical, at least that’s what’s happening to me. You just read it over and over and over again, and then all of a sudden you start to understand and you start to feel. It stops being “words on a page”, and you start to feel how it should sound.

I think scripts are amazing, they’re amazing to me. Tina and Michael are amazing because they kind of created that world, and so much love and thought goes into creating these people and understanding them. It’s amazing, ‘cause sometimes I’ll listen to an hour of conversation between them. [They’ll talk] about just one little thing about this person that will change almost nothing perceptively to the audience; but when you collect like a thousand of those things, and hours and hours of thinking and loving these characters sort of into life, you understand why a play or a musical or a movie feels so good when you just watch it.

You said that it’s really liberating to write the music for this play. Do you think that is because you have more freedom when you can express yourself fully musically, rather than verbally?

Spektor: I think that, well…. [I’m] so used to singing and playing at the same time, like when I play shows for example. I find that sometimes when I record, if I separate, and I play, and just play without singing and then I sing over what I play, I’m able to give [it more attention.] This way you’re not splintering your thought, you know? All your attention is on the music or, the piano or, all your attention is on singing. I think in that way, all my attention is on the music you know?

And sometimes-they’re very open-so sometimes, it happens you know when you’re writing music, all of a sudden it just feels like, “Well this word just doesn’t fit right,” or, “the beginning of this song feels right but then these words,” or like, “I think the melody should go here, but these words don’t fit.” And Michael then will change his words to fit what I have written in the second part of the song. So it’s very interactive. It would probably be a lot harder if I was stuck-if the words were written in stone and I had to write the music for it.

So you’d say it’s a pretty balanced collaboration with them?

Spektor: Yeah, yeah. And also, I think it’s fun to write music for someone like Michael. Because there’s some musicals I think are [thought of differently]. There are some people who think of it as different things-like there’s the play, and then everyone bursts into song. And [Michael] and Tina, they wanted the music to connect-the song is gonna move the action along, and the song is just as important as the dialogue, to show the psychological state of the character or what’s gonna happen, or what is happening. So it’s very, very interconnected. So I think it’s easier for me because all I have to do is really just listen to them. I could just pay attention to what they’re doing and then pay attention to one thing, which is music.

Some of your listeners have said that your latest album, Far, had too many religious undertones for their liking, and some have even called it “preachy”. As a listener myself, I feel your references are just drawn from your philosophies, maybe related to your background or to myths and stories that you enjoy. What are your thoughts on this?

Spektor: Well, I mean, to tell you the truth I haven’t seen a lot of people saying that, but maybe you know more about it because you’re in the blog world. (Laughing) So I guess there’s a lot more talking there. Sometimes people treat records as if, “you sit down and now you write a record”, so they say stuff like that. I always hear people say, “Oh, Begin To Hope is such a more maturely written record than Soviet Kitsch,” or something like that. And to me it’s like, half of the songs on Begin To Hope are older than the songs on Soviet Kitsch!

Right! And it’s the same on Far, isn’t it? Some of those songs, you’ve been playing live for years, haven’t you?

Spektor: Some songs on Far are older than both of them, because I included some of the songs from the time of my second record. I think the way a record comes together, it’s not really like, a reflection. Nothing is like, “and now I sit down and I write a preachy religious record”! I think I just end up… You know, I’m always thinking about philosophy, and religion, and spirituality; and how those things go together or how they really don’t go together, and where they help each other and where they really push on each other. And I love myths, and I love stories, and I love religion, and I love traditions, and I love atheism, and I love existentialism, and I love all kinds of things, you know, and my thoughts kind of fluctuate. So I think I’ve always written songs that are looking at it from all these different ways and so you know, it’s just like, it’s all over the place.

Your songs always have some sort of social commentary, whether it’s a criticism or just an observation. So what are your views on humanity and our society?

Spektor: They’re all over the place! Just like my songs, you know? I mean, I think that’s why music is there, you know? In like one show, you could express 10 different viewpoints on the same thing because to me, I feel like I’m looking at it differently. In a show I’ll play “Laughing With”, and “Man Of A Thousand Faces”, and “Machine”. Those are three different ways to look at the world. You know, I don’t have, and I don’t really like-(pauses, probably to avoid offending). I don’t have any kind of set beliefs and I’m very suspicious of people who do.

To me it’s like, you know, there’s a lot of people that hijack religion, for example, and try and sell it-spiritual economics, I think there’s a name for it. I hate that shit! But I’m also really very interested in religion and really I think that some of it really… brings a lot of good, you know. It’s like one of those things, when you’re reading a book, and the first paragraph is really great and the second paragraph sucks, but it’s [neither evil nor] good.

I think music is just there for people to go into. So I will always write songs about anything that I think about. To look at a song as a thesis, is kind of silly to me. Then it’s just like, it’s what you were talking about, “being trapped in your art”. I think there are enough preachers out there; I’m not here to preach. I’m not telling people how to live, but I like thinking about how people live and looking at different things, and I will always do that.


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