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How to Make a Heart Explode: A Conversation with Regina Spektor

on September 27, 2016, 12:00am

Photo by Shervin Lainez

Regina Spektor has a giggle that could pop a balloon, so sharp is its sweetness. She bares herself to the world with a demeanor that makes you wonder if she cleans her house with the help of woodland creatures — yes, the Disney-animated variety, the tiny technicolor robins and blue jays whizzing around her springy curls while she paints pictures with the tips of her fingers. (Don’t tell me you can’t see it!) But focus too much on that pristine appearance and sound, and you’d be completely shocked to hear her blurt out a full-throated “Holy fuck!” when discussing the experience of motherhood.

Of course, the same candor has been an enchanting facet of Spektor’s lyricism for some time now. On her 2004 major label debut, Soviet Kitsch, she revealed, “Marianne’s a bitch!” and frankly explained, “You don’t love your girlfriend.” On “Fidelity”, a highlight of her 2006 album, Begin to Hope, a sense of melancholy sliced through her upbeat tone. And on 2012’s What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, she tackled the fleeting nature of youth with this stunning phrase from the song “Firewood”: “You’ll take the clock off of your wall/ And you’ll wish that it was lying.”

Despite the emotional heft of her lyrics, Spektor’s honest approach imbues her songs with an airy feeling that has allowed listeners across the world to connect with these incredibly raw feelings. It’s no wonder her music has been used to soundtrack monumental moments in Hollywood productions ranging from How I Met Your Mother and Weeds to Orange Is the New Black and Grey’s Anatomy.

Spektor is an artist whose work immediately announces its presence as produced by her and her alone. She makes the most of that singularity, presenting herself as a tangible personality and embracing dark topics with an open sense of wonder. Though a lot has changed in the four years since Cheap Seats, her new album, Remember Us to Life, is a collection of short stories that retains the same emotive core. Throughout her career and the changes that both she and her audience have seen, Spektor has continued to resonate deeply because she genuinely seems to exist outside of the artificial constraints and classifications of the world, remaining a genuine, expressive self … “and it’s contagious, it’s contagious.

As you well know, Consequence of Sound was named after one of your songs.

Which is crazy! I love that you guys did that. It’s so cool. It makes me really happy.

It’s like getting a tattoo, the thing you’re going to be with for the rest of your life. It’s nice that you were so lovely about it all, too.

[Laughs] Oh, well, I’m glad it’s going to good use, and it’s nice that it’s connected to music and sharing music. If it was some kind of a strange toxic cult, I would think differently about it.

So, now you’re back in the thick of things after taking a little hiatus following your last album in 2012, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats.

And my head is just full of questions. I’m wondering if I’m even answering everyone’s questions correctly.

I suppose we’re so demanding in that we expect our artists to have all the answers milling about in their heads straight after they finish recording an album.

Absolutely, and I think that questions raise other questions.

But I’m sure it reveals itself as you go out and play it live. Does that tend to happen with you?

Actually, I think it reveals itself as you live your life. I’ve talked to a lot of journalists and they’ll have their theory of what a song is about, and then they will look at me really expectantly and say, “Am I right?” It’s interesting. I don’t know if it’s put into our souls in school, or if it’s competition that there can’t be multiple winners, that there can only be one. People have this strange desire to get things right. I try to talk about songs as [little] as possible. I could talk about philosophy or sounds or production, even headspace or emotional landscape — there’s a million things to talk about. The whole beauty of songs and art is that they get to have their own life and they get to make their own connections.

Do you feel as if people have strong experiences with your songs?

People definitely have very strong experiences with my songs, and it has nothing to do with you or what you were thinking when you wrote it. That’s the beauty of it: It’s supposed to be bigger than getting it “right.” I’m always trying to dispel that idea that there’s some kind of correct idea behind my songs. I find that even in literature or art history classes, it’s always wonderful to contextualize things, to know of certain symbols. Like, if you understand Biblical iteration, then you can read into literature on a deeper level. It doesn’t mean that you get it right and somebody else gets it wrong. The whole beauty of a work of art is that it stands on its own. You don’t have to know that the writer had things happen when they were five years old. It could just be a work of art. I’m excited about the record being out because I want it to go out in the world already and to make its own connection, its own friends, and for the songs to find the people they’re supposed to meet.

regina spektor cover How to Make a Heart Explode: A Conversation with Regina Spektor

When you were younger, were you surprised by the way people reacted to your music? You signed to a label at a relatively young age, with a particular set of quirks convenient enough for the media to obsess about.

Yeah, of course! There were things people said that I had never even thought of, but I learned to love it. It’s not some kind of government policy. I don’t need my songs or who I am interpreted by the law. I think the only time I would really qualify something would be if somebody were to use my music for evil. [Laughs] I’d be like, “This is not some racist anthem, sir!” The thing is, some of my art is mysterious to me, also. It’s not like I know exactly what I’m doing. It might change for me. Years later, I might only realize what certain words meant. I think that my art is a living thing; if it’s a living thing, then it has to actually live and change and grow. I think that’s comforting. That’s why it doesn’t get boring for me to play a song many, many times over the span of years. What it means to me, from year to year, changes and renews itself, so I don’t feel like I am just some kind of a parrot repeating something.

So, your music gains meaning as it ages. Usually you’re singing songs that are quite a few years old, too. For example, your 2009 album, Far, has songs that you wrote when you were 18 or 19, giving those older songs time to breathe over the years since you wrote them. You’ve shifted your approach with this new album, as all the songs were written recently.

Yeah! I mean, it’s interesting. I just did this show for PBS Soundstage that was my first concert that I’d done in three years. During the show, I played a tremendous amount of new songs … I think I played 12 new songs in concert that I’d never played before. I realized something: that the kind of nervous I was and the kind of feeling that I had playing them was even very new for me because I’m so used to having only a handful of new songs. Even then, a lot of the new songs that are new to people on the record are in my body because I’ve played them a lot before recording. I just realized that everything about this was so new to me that it was such a different feeling. [Pause] I’m still such a micro-manager. They were completely composed before I even got there, but there was still something soft about them that felt unfinished.

What was the most noticeable departure into this new way of writing — the biggest thing that pushed you into this new way of working?

I was having this experience where it’s such an incredibly transformational time. When you have a baby, it’s such a big deal.

I know! You are now a new mother?

Oh, they didn’t tell you? [Laughs]

Well, I read about it and you had announced it about two years ago?

Oh yeah, so that’s another thing of why these songs have been stuck together: For the most part, they were written in that time period. They had that feeling around them that they were very different and very new to me, but also it’s just such a monumental change. It was so inspiring at the same time, so consuming. And also, you’re like completely sleep-deprived, and you’re in this alternate, basically drugged kind of mind. Kind of like what you said, art will reveal itself later, or not.

I just love making things. You know that quote about Everest? “Why climb it? Because it’s there!” Why did you make it? Because I am me, and it’s a byproduct of being me in the world. So much of what’s interesting about a film or a play or a record is not what was going on in the life of the person who made it. What’s interesting is to see yourself in the backdrop of that and what it triggers in you, the listener. People who write and make art are interested in the technical side. We like to see how things are put together. I am the person who will listen to directors being interviewed. That’s inspiring, and I walk away from a film not with what the director was thinking, but what it makes me think about.

Everybody has such a complicated subconscious and such a complicated history of what’s happened to them; then you play a song and it’s kind of just a minefield. As an artist, you don’t know if this image that you paint is going to make somebody’s heart explode because it reminds somebody of something tragic or of the most beautiful thing that ever happened to them. It’s about them, you know, and that’s the excitement of it all.

Tell me about the process for this specific record. How challenging was it? Were you pregnant when you wrote it?

I wanted to write a lot more when I was pregnant, actually! I thought, “Here I am, all big and wobbling around the house and not really doing much.” I didn’t really have that much ability to concentrate. Actually, a friend of mine said this really cool thing. They said, “Well it’s kind of hard to be creative; you’re already creating everyday.” It was really beautiful. So, the slacker that I am took that excuse and watched movies and laid on the couch! I found that I really wanted to make music. I was really inspired, and I was also really tired. It’s really hard work being pregnant, but it was the first time in my life when I wasn’t really wasting time. I’m really, really good at wasting time and taking it for granted and letting the morning and afternoon just pass me by.

When I had the baby, I was like, “OK, I have 30 minutes, and I’m going to do something.” It made me see you don’t need that much time. You can go and meet the world for 30 minutes, and it’s better than not. If you have 30 minutes, you’re tired, and you have to feed the baby, you’re not going to sit there and watch something stupid and surf the internet. You’re going to write something, you’re going to call someone, you’re going to do something that means something. A lot of the record came from these small efforts, little tiny efforts to just be, like, there for the baby, there for my family, and at the same time there’s this part of me that wants to be there for art.

There are a lot of allusions to childhood in the track “Sellers of Flowers”. You trace back a memory of walking through the market holding your dad’s hand. Is that an easy place for you to go?

Interestingly enough, I had a lot of realizations about my parents as soon as I had the baby. First of all, I just realized how much they loved me … which really freaked me out. I knew that they loved me, obviously, but something happened when I had the baby and experienced the amount of it, not in an intellectual way, but in a physical way. I was like, “Holy fuck! They just love me so much!” In another way, I have been so fascinated with time, how it moves and the fleetness of it, with childhood and memories. I remember being so obsessed with being able to retain my childhood when I was little, that it was a real concern I would forget certain important truths that children know and adults forget. That’s always been a big part of my consciousness.

regina spektor2 How to Make a Heart Explode: A Conversation with Regina Spektor

It was quite interesting to see the different collaborators you’ve worked with drift but come back over time. On this album you joined forces with Leo Abrahams, and what’s compelling is how I’ve noticed your producers always contribute musically: Mike Elizondo worked on Far and What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, and he plays double bass on “Tornadoland” and “The Trapper and the Furrier”. David Kahne produced Begin to Hope and plays bass on “Better”. So, what did Leo have a hand in this time?

Oh my god, I love working with them. To me, the producer has so many jobs. I’ve always produced a large amount of my records, because if you have a vision for the sound of it, that’s what production is, you know? At the same time, what I can bring to production is a lot of the countermelodies. Because I write the melody, it’s generally easier for me to write the countermelodies for it, too. Mike Elizondo is, like, the virtuosic bassist. Leo is an incredible guitarist; he’s the guitarist that Brian Eno hires when he needs a guitarist. So, it’s just beautiful to have access to musicians like that. David, besides being an amazing musician, is a composer. He composed ballets and is a whiz engineer. Most other producers that I work with hire engineers, and David is the kind of engineer that their engineers are like, “He works on what program?” You know, like he’s a scientist.

What makes a producer a producer?

Whenever I make a record, I try to find these incredible people who are luminaries in their field. The number one thing I would say that makes a producer a producer is empathy, if they’re empathetic and kind. And Leo truly was with this record, and Mike was for Cheap Seats, and David Kahne was for Begin to Hope. They have to have that or else they can’t perform. They have to create this space where they are able to work at a higher level. When I play live, I’m just in this transcendent moment of togetherness. When I make a record, there’s this pressure to create and document time. I feel this tremendous amount of pressure because I want the song to be everything I know it can be, but my voice might not be doing what I want it to, so the producer has to create the space for you to be a better version of yourself.

Speaking of collaborators, your husband provides backing vocals on “Bleeding Heart”, and he’s featured on “Call Them Brothers”. How comforting is it to have a partner who is in the same industry as you, who knows what that stress looks like?

Yeah, I have to say that it’s truly incredible. Basically, he is my favorite collaborator in the world. I think that people don’t even know the extent of how much we collaborate. We basically process most art through each other in some way because he is always the person that I play music to as soon as I write it. He plays his music to me and shows me his writing. I am a pretty much stay-in-one-lane person where I venture a little bit into other arts, but he is truly versatile and does everything from stand-up comedy to writing, directing, and acting. Actually, if you wanted to see this thing he has been doing, it’s this show called DRYVRS. There’s only two episodes, which he has written, edited, and directed. They have a bunch that they’re working on now, but it’s really amazing. He’s just so multi-talented that it’s crazy.

Yes! With Macaulay Culkin going nuts! Hang on, but you play how many instruments? You’re also multi-talented.

It’s really actually a misconception. I really suck at all the other instruments. [Laughs] I feel like it’s one of those things that I almost fake-played for a little bit, and then I created this illusion. I play piano and I sing, and I suck at everything else.

My life feels like a lie, Regina! Well, I’m sending luck for your new album release.

[Laughs] Thank you … I need it!

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