Someone just dropped a load of plates in the Soho café where Regina Spektor is sipping green tea, and she couldn’t be more pleased. “That sounded great, right?” she marvels, breaking into one of her frequent grins—earnest, enigmatic, and seemingly limitless. It makes you wish a motorcycle would careen through the café’s plate-glass window.
Spektor, the 26-year-old singer-pianist who just unfurled her pop-wise but resolutely idiosyncratic new album Begin to Hope, loves the anarchic possibilities of sound. Her music is full of feints and pauses; when singing, she’ll hiccup and stutter just to skew the melody and rhythm. She trusts her muse, and her muse repays her with some of the best songs coming out of New York. But instead of dropping dishes, Hope‘s mixture of lush piano and voice, big drums, and electronic flourishes keeps the plates spinning.
“There’s this huge discrepancy between the things that I make and the things that I love,” says Spektor, who immigrated with her family from the USSR to the Bronx when she was nine. Thus, she sees most things with the sensitivity and remove of an outsider. Working on Hope, her fourth album (and second for a major, after 2004’s breakthrough Soviet Kitsch), she sought to broaden her sound with the help of producer David Kahn, retooling songs she’d written as far back as college. “I’m starting to hear more and more songs,” she explains, “where I want the beat or the bass to be the heart of the song.” The Strokes, pals who famously gave Spektor her first big break by bringing her on tour as an opener, were among her inspirations. “The thing that blew my mind first hearing the Strokes was that they were the closest I had heard rock come to classical,” she says. “Their music is extraordinarily orderly and composed. It’s almost like Mozart.” When “Better,” Hope‘s first single, needed some oomph, Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi stepped in and lent the song its precise, driving kick.
Perhaps that oomph will help Spektor avoid being typecast: “I’m not an intense girl with a piano,” she says firmly, and while that’s a little like Metallica objecting to being called a metal band, her point is clear—she’s not like all the other intense girls with pianos. Take Nellie McKay: As one of the few in the batch who share Spektor’s sense of humor and flair for writing about topics other than herself, Nellie’s the slightly jaded, totally polished throwback icon, while Regina is a warm, thoroughly modern sensualist with her own peculiar approach. “It’s much easier for me to write a new song than to figure out a cover,” she says, acknowledging that people never believe it. She had difficulty adjusting to the instruction at the conservatory she attended, but still connected with the musicians all around her. ” ‘That’s weird strange Regina, her head’s always in the clouds,’ ” she says, describing how she was perceived growing up. “I knew this world existed. I’d just been in diaspora.”
And yet she’s not as precious as all this makes her sound. “Just thinking about it almost makes me cry,” she admits of her increasingly devout fan base. But moments later, she offers a resounding “Fuck that!” to those who’d have her play their favorite songs exactly as they’re recorded: “It’s death. It’s the worst thing I can think of. Purism, it’s boring to me.” Nor does she have patience for those who confuse her with the characters in her songs. “I’d go to people’s shows, and they’d say, ‘This is about the end of a relationship,’ ” she recalls, obviously horrified. “And I’d be like, ‘Ugh, that’s so gross! You came out and said something absolutely crazy.’ ”
Spektor’s also patriotic as only an immigrant can be, even sparring occasionally with U.S.-bashing Europeans. Recently a British merch manager drew her ire by responding to Regina’s request for large T-shirts with a dry reference to large American men. “It brings out the ‘don’t fuck with me,’ ” she recalls, “considering that you have a huge neo-Nazi population here, and your banks are full of my grandparents’ teeth, and you only gave women the vote in, like, 1989.”
Coming from Russia to the U.S.—welcomed by a middle-class extended family and a close-knit Jewish community—instilled Spektor with more than an appreciation of America. It also helps explain the sense of wonder so vividly conveyed in her songs. “We came to my cousin’s house in Rockland County, and they had a dog and a swimming pool with a slide in it,” she recalls, grinning again. “The whole suburban American dream. It was so awesome.” She and her cousin Marsha reveled in the little luxuries. “We used to eat seven yogurts a day. Sometimes we wouldn’t mix the fruit in—I’d eat the top, and then the bottom. We’d get a million different kinds of cereal. Suddenly we’d only eat cereal with orange juice, because it was exciting.”
Of course, not everything was yogurt, puppies, and swimming pools. “When we moved to the Bronx, we lived in kind of a sketchy building,” she remembers. “Bell Atlantic was on strike when we came to New York, so my parents would have to leave me at night, go to the pay phone and call Russia, pumping in quarters. There were so many nights when I fell asleep terrified.”
That mixture of anxiety and wonder permeates Begin to Hope, which never settles on a mood, method, or outlook. On the minimalist, punky “That Time,” Spektor strums guitar like she’s at her first lesson, speak-singing about good and suddenly very bad times with a friend on the Lower East Side. “Aprés Moi” (the title alludes to Louis XV’s promise of a “deluge” after his death) is a floridly operatic tale of flooding and perseverance, sung partly in Russian. Producer Kahn’s influence is most obvious in “Edit,” which pairs choppy electronics and oblique, incantatory lyrics with a spare, wandering piano line. Spektor’s accent, light in conversation, twists her singing voice just so; airy and dynamic, her vocals flit from frisky to mournful.
For all its adventurousness, the album centers around a single, unnameable ache, but don’t mistake that for pity or resignation. “Some people are like, ‘Dare I say, this album sounds more mature,’ ” Spektor says, a little wearily, but with a laugh. “And yet some of these are my oldest songs.” At a recent small show at the Angel Orensanz Foundation—a former synagogue downtown—she actually seemed a bit like a nervous kid at a recital, restarting a couple of songs while wearing a lovely, formal dress you imagine she’d change out of immediately afterward. But when she played—unaccompanied by studio frills, and with lightning illuminating the windows—the whole room seemed to cave in around her. Her parents, as always, were in the front row.