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Music Interviews

Regina Spektor Still Doesn't Write Anything Down

Originally published on Thu May 24, 2012 8:37 pm

In 2004, singer-songwriter Regina Spektor was a staple of the so-called anti-folk scene when she sat down for one of her first public-radio interviews with the now-defunct WNYC program The Next Big Thing. In the interview, she joked that she stayed up until 3:30 a.m. writing a song, trying not to wake the neighbors, but never wrote anything down.

She still doesn't.

"I try to be better now, at least about recording little things, because sometimes I still have things just disappear," Spektor says in an interview with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish. "You always think, 'Oh, I'll never forget that. That's so obvious.' And then, of course, you forget it."

For a Regina Spektor fan, the fact that there are "lost" Spektor songs is scary. But there is hope.

"I am so lucky, because almost from the beginning, people would record the shows," Spektor says. "I am just so thankful to them, first of all, for taking the time and putting it up online and sharing it with other listeners, but also mainly [for] myself, because there are so many songs I would not know how to play. It gives me so much relief to know that they're somewhere."

Popping The Immigrant 'Pop' Bubble

The songs on What We Saw From the Cheap Seats don't come just from the past year but from a span of years.

"There are songs on this record that must be 10 years old or more," Spektor says. One is "Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)."

"I met this really awesome guy who became a really good friend of mine," Spektor says. "He would introduce me to music and he played me — for the first time I heard Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel or a full Elton John record was all through him. You know what it is with me? I'm so backwards that a lot of the time I'll know someone's music, but I won't connect the name of the person to the music. I sort of felt kind of in that immigrant bubble, where it was hard for me to connect the dots."

Spektor's family moved to the Bronx from Russia when she was 9, which would have been the late 1980s.

"I feel like such a music late bloomer," Spektor says. "The thing is, I listened to tons of music; it just wasn't pop music. I listened to tons of classical music. I feel so lucky to have learned classical piano and to have my amazing teacher in Russia, and have my amazing teacher in America."

'A Little Kid Learning How To Play The Piano'

Perhaps one song that reflects Spektor's classical background is "Firewood." To Cornish, it sounds like a "classical breakdown," for lack of a better phrase.

"I picture it as a little kid learning how to play piano," Spektor says. "It's cool that to you it seemed classical and to me it seemed totally amateurish. But that's the awesomeness of — I don't know, just letting things out of your hands and into other people's worlds and having it completed by them."

Spektor's attitude toward fans' uploading recordings seems at odds with a significant portion of the music industry.

"I grew up poor, and there are a lot of people that grew up a lot poorer than I am," Spektor says. "Though, to me, I think that if somebody doesn't have an easy life, they should at least have access to free books and film and music. I think that I feel very lucky to live in this time where people can go online and get everything I've ever made, whether they have a lot of money or not.

"So much of the music that I found out about — whether it was late, it's better than never — was through people burning CDs for me and people making cassette mixes for me and people giving it to me for free. I feel really grateful that people can just type in my name and listen to things that I made. I feel so lucky for that."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PARTY")

REGINA SPEKTOR: (Singing) You're like a party somebody threw me. You taste like birthday. You look like New Year's.

CORNISH: And this song, "The Party," is from the new album by Regina Spektor. It's the latest in a line of critically-acclaimed and successful pop records with her trademark vocal curly-cues and contagious piano melodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PARTY")

SPEKTOR: (Singing) And we're coming out right along to sing my new song.

CORNISH: Spektor came to NPR to talk about her latest release, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats," but I couldn't resist asking her about one of the first public radio interviews she did back in 2005.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Regina Spektor is our musical guest.

CORNISH: It was for the program, The Next Big Thing, at WNYC and we took a listen together.

SPEKTOR: I just wrote a song last night and I don't know if I remember it, but I really want to remember it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. Me, too.

SPEKTOR: So I'll try.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPEKTOR: Wow, that's so slow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIDELITY")

SPEKTOR: (Singing) I never loved nobody fully. Always one foot on the ground.

CORNISH: What's it like hearing that now?

SPEKTOR: It's weird. It's such a mindtrip. First of all, I completely forgot, completely forgot that that actually happened like that. Wow.

CORNISH: And, at the time in the interview, you talked about writing that song the night before and staying up until 3:30 in the morning and hoping you weren't bothering the neighbors.

SPEKTOR: (Unintelligible) hear it in my voice. Yeah.

CORNISH: But you also said that you never write songs down. And is that still true?

SPEKTOR: Yeah, unfortunately. I try to be better now, at least about recording little things because sometimes I still have, like, things just disappear. You know, you always think, oh, I'll never forget that. That's so obvious. And then, of course, you forget it completely.

CORNISH: That sounds scary to me, as a fan, when you say disappear. I feel like there are lost Regina Spektor songs somewhere.

SPEKTOR: There's so many. There's tremendous amounts. I mean, I actually - I am so lucky because, almost from the beginning, people would record the shows and I just - I am so thankful to them, first of all, for taking the time and putting it up online and sharing it with other listeners. But also mainly with myself because there are so many songs that I would not know how to play and it gives me such relief to know that they're somewhere.

CORNISH: On this album, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats," it sounds like you have songs that span a couple of years, like just because we're listening to the Regina Spektor album now, it doesn't mean that these are songs that have come from the last year of your life or the last...

SPEKTOR: Yeah. Oh, yeah. No. It's more than a couple of years. I mean, there are songs on this record that must be 10 years old or more.

CORNISH: Like what?

SPEKTOR: Probably "Ne Me Quitte Pas," which on the record, is called "Don't Leave Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NE ME QUITTE PAS - DON'T LEAVE ME")

SPEKTOR: (Singing) (unintelligible).

This song is one of the songs that I released on my record called "Songs." It was self-released record and I didn't really know anybody in the music industry at that point, really. I was out of college and I was playing a lot in bars and cafes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NE ME QUITTE PAS - DON'T LEAVE ME")

SPEKTOR: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

I met this really awesome guy who became a really good friend of mine, Joe Mendleson. He would introduce me to music. He played me - like, for the first time I ever heard Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel or a full Elton John record was all through him and...

CORNISH: I like that you said a full Elton John record.

SPEKTOR: Well, because you know - it is true. Well, because you know what it is with me? I'm so backwards in the fact that, like, a lot of the time, I'll know somebody's music, but I won't connect the name of the person to the music, you know, because I sort of felt kind of in that immigrant bubble where it was hard for me to kind of connect the dots.

CORNISH: And we should say that your family emigrated from Russia when you were what. nine years old?

SPEKTOR: Yeah, yeah. Nine and a half.

CORNISH: So this was, I believe, maybe the late '80s, so it might make sense that some of those names - you're still connecting the dots on some of those pop culture names.

SPEKTOR: Yeah. I know. I feel like such a music late bloomer, but the thing is, you know, I listen to tons of music. It's just that it wasn't so much pop music. It was more like I listened to tons of classical music. I feel so lucky to have learned, you know, classical piano and have my amazing teacher in Russia and have my amazing teacher in America.

CORNISH: One song that showcases, I think, a lot of your influences would be "Firewood."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIREWOOD")

SPEKTOR: (Singing) The piano is not firewood yet.

CORNISH: Towards the end of this song, there is a kind of orchestral breakdown. I don't know a better way to describe it. That makes me think, oh, yeah, classical music training.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIREWOOD")

SPEKTOR: I picture it as like a little kid learning how to play in my mind. So it's cool that, to you it seems like classical and, to me, it seems like totally amateurish, but that's the awesomeness of having - I don't know - just letting things out of your hands and into other people's worlds and having it be completed by them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIREWOOD")

CORNISH: When you mentioned being happy that people upload videos of your song, it's almost the opposite of what most artists are saying now about their work.

SPEKTOR: Yeah. I mean, I can't really relate. You know, I grew up poor and, you know - and there are a lot of people that grew up a lot poorer than I am, so, to me, I just - I think that if somebody doesn't have an easy life, they should at least have access to free books and films and music. And I think that I feel very lucky to live in this time where people can go online and get everything I've ever made, whether they have a lot of money or not.

CORNISH: Well, Regina Spektor, thank you for talking with us about this album.

SPEKTOR: Thank you so much, Audie. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL TOWN MOON")

SPEKTOR: (Singing) Thought you ought to know by now - I thought you ought to know by now, everybody not so nice, nice. Everybody not so nice, nice. Baby, baby, baby...

CORNISH: Regina Spektor talking about her new album, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats." And NPR Music will live stream a Regina Spektor show for free on May 31st. You can check it out at NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL TOWN MOON")

SPEKTOR: (Singing) That there's a small town in my mind. How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.