Anyone who’s seen her live will tell you that Regina Spektor has no trouble holding an audience captive.
She can switch from serious classical playing to more playful passages, grab a drumstick and tap on a nearby chair, swing into many character modes with her versatile singing, maybe drop in some percussive vocal sounds while she’s at it, and switch from Russian to English at the drop of a hat.
They were like, ‘You should learn an instrument, because then you could write songs’. And it just dawned on me, 'Oh yeah, I know an instrument.'Regina Spektor — NPR, 2012
She seems so much at ease, constantly flashing her broad smile, that you’d think such abilities must have come naturally.
But Regina’s story is one born from her cultural heritage, her community, her own engaging talents and a summer camp that gave her the self-belief she needed to tie it all together.
Her musical parents had hopes of her becoming a classical pianist or composer, but as she grew older her love of Mozart and Bach broadened to also include The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. And her instincts to sing were also surfacing.
“I was always humming or singing in the shower, singing to myself. But my parents found it really annoying because every time I would listen to something I would just try and parody it,” she told NPR in 2012.
“So, if I was listening to Edith Piaf I would try and sound like Edith Piaf, and I used to sing a lot of fake opera. I just really loved the act of singing. I never really wrote any words and I never ever thought to put it together with playing piano because, to me, it was just completely separate things.”
Until a pivotal trip to Israel as part of a youth arts program called Nesiya brought about an important realisation.
“I had, up til that point, felt really out of place,” she told NPR. “Because I was so interested in art and music and scribbling little poems, doodling, and there weren’t any kids like that in my school. I felt really out of place because of that.
“So, for me, it was very exciting. Not only was I getting to go to Israel for the first time, but I was also surrounded by teenagers from all around America and Israel who were dancing, drawing and sculpting, playing instruments and writing poems, sketching.
“I would hum and sing and people would walk around me and say stuff like, ‘You have a really great voice, that’s a cool song…’ stuff that I’d never heard in my life from anybody, and I had a very hard time believing it. But they were like, ‘You should learn an instrument, because then you could write songs’. And it just dawned on me, oh yeah, I know an instrument. I could write songs. So, when I got home I started trying to write songs and that’s how I sort of began.”
To hear her phrasing, the way she plays with syllables as she sings about the voices and sounds in her mind in ‘Fidelity’’s refrain ‘and it breaks my har-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-are-are-are-arrrrt’ – while a violin string is gently plucked, along with a simple beat – is a moment of distilled joy.
“To me the voice is an instrument, just like any other instrument,” she said. “And the same way that you can play piano in a really percussive way or it can be really flowing, you could use a pedal and sustain it, or you could use the mute or you could have so many different colours.
I live life and I spit out little songs as a trail of little excretions of songs...Regina Spektor — Pseudo.com
“I love to use every colour of every instrument when I record. Like, if I’m working with cello, I’m going to use tremolo. I’m gonna use a lot of pizzicato and all kinds of distortion.”
And whilst she can control and experiment with a broad sound spectrum, she’s content not to need to know and control other aspects of her creativity.
“If the songs demanded a paternity test, I wouldn't know which event to go to,” she told ABC’s 7.30 in 2012.
“I feel like everything I experience, read, just walking through New York City for one day let alone living there… all of that goes into a giant cauldron and it's all passing through.
"It's very rare that it’s just a clear ‘here’s the trigger’ and ‘here's the result’. I think it's just a composite and a lot of things inspire it.”
Her sense of humour shines throughout Begin to Hope. From the faux macho hip hop inspired ‘Shake it up’ which kicks off album opener ‘Fidelity’ to the final tracks’ lyric ‘oh summer in the city means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage...’.
Deeper ruminations on humanity, borrowed from biblical verses, give cause for a chuckle. In ‘Apres Moi’ Spektor sings ‘Be afraid of the lame, they’ll inherit your legs. Be afraid of the old, they’ll inherit your souls.’
But, if you think she’s joking around, you’d be wrong.
Backstage after a 2007 show, she explained the symbiotic relationship she has to her music.
“For me, songs are a byproduct of me being here,” she said. “Like an earthworm eats stuff and makes a trail of earth behind them, that’s their byproduct.
"I live life and I spit out little songs as a trail of little excretions of songs and that’s my byproduct to this world. Then I try to perform them. Since I’ve created these little monsters, now it’s my job to let them live!”