By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
Just a few minutes ago, Regina Spektor was chatting excitedly and laughing between sips of tea. Now, she's shrinking to the far end of a sofa on the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel, squinting her huge eyes and twisting her rotini-like hair. Inevitably, the subject of religion has come up. You'd think an artist whose current single mentions God 33 times would have her views on the concept all worked out, especially considering her well-known backstory: She's a Russian Jew, whose family immigrated to the Bronx in 1989 for religious freedom. But no, she's actually pretty wishy-washy on the whole subject: "I don't even know half the time what exactly I believe," she says, sighing impatiently. "I do know that in some moments, I'm sarcastic about religion, and sometimes, I'm in awe of it, and sometimes, I'm angry at it, and sometimes, I love it."
Spektor has only recently realized that the song in question, "Laughing With," from her astonishing upcoming fourth album, Far, might be a provocative choice for a first single. It hadn't even occurred to her to be apprehensive about playing it on Good Morning America. A kind of answer to Joan Osborne's 1995 hit "One of Us," the catchy tune, dressed up in Spektor's signature classical-influenced piano and playful, yearning vocals, imagines God with a sense of humor at a cocktail party, while recognizing his ability to wreak havoc on daily life. "No one laughs at God in a hospital," it starts off. "No one laughs at God in a war/No one's laughing at God when they're starving or freezing or so very poor." It's an inspiring, life-affirming piece that could easily be taken as sacrilegious.
"People are asking if I'm worried, like I should be bracing myself for some sort of backlash," she says. "But it's not like it's a manifesto. None of my songs are." Though Far's other advance single, "Blue Lips," also addresses the concept of an omnipotent deity, Spektor insists that it isn't for thematic effect. "It's not like I'm the spokesperson for my company, and I'm like [in an announcer's voice], 'OK, our new policy is we're going to use the word God a lot!' " She pauses, grins, then bursts out laughing again.
What she means is that she's not particularly scrupulous in her choice of songs. Her albums are just collections of newly recorded tracks, some penned many years prior to their release, plucked for no explainable reason from the vast back catalog of quirky tomes she's filled her riveting shows with for years. (She claims to have about eight records' worth at the ready.) Originally, her act was a stripped-down affair: just her, a piano, and perhaps a wooden stick to rap on the back of a chair for percussion. A regular during the heyday of the Sidewalk Café antifolk scene that spawned marquee-ish names like Adam Green, Ben Kweller, and Nellie McKay—perhaps only Juno soundtracker Kimya Dawson went on to rival her current level of commercial success—Spektor got her first show by way of a white lie, creating the illusion of a draw by begging her parents' friends to crowd in.
Soon, she was a darling among the fast-rising set of downtown acts that included the Strokes. The band invited her to be the opening act for their Room on Fire tour in 2003 and 2004, promoting her major-label debut, Soviet Kitsch, to a much wider audience than she could reach playing Sidewalk. "I remember how amazing it was that she was so powerful alone onstage," says Strokes drummer Fab Moretti, whose side project, Little Joy, opens for Spektor at this week's Beacon Theatre show in a happy full-circle moment.
Far, out on June 23, is a long way from Spektor's initial ramshackle sound. Guided by several pop producers—including Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple) and Traveling Wilbury's Jeff Lynne—the album further refines the radio-ready sound put forth on Spektor's previous album, Begin to Hope, while retaining her most distinctive characteristics, which, according to Elizondo, are her piano skills and her inflection. "She has an incredible purity to her voice," he says, "but in a rhythmic sense, she almost sounds like an MC sometimes." Her vocals express a point of view that pans from the intimacy of a budding romance at a kitchen table ("The Calculation") to the perspective of Earth from space ("Blue Lips"), each frame an ephemeral meditation on the subject at hand.
Spektor says she can't explain the meaning behind any of her songs, because she doesn't so much write them as much as let them happen. One recent example is "The Call," her contribution to the soundtrack for the 2008 movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. "I'd been asked to write things before, and it always feels uninspired, wrong," she explains. However, she continues, the moon looked a certain way when she stepped out of the private Caspian screening in midtown. She checked her voice mail, and her friends had cancelled the cocktails they were supposed to meet up for, so she walked all the way home, went straight to her piano, and discovered the tear-jerking chorus: "You'll come back when it's over/No need to say goodbye." She sent a demo off to the folks at Disney, and three days later, she was flown first-class to London to record the song with a full orchestra for the movie's finale sequence. "It was one of the most pure things that ever happened to me," she says.