Piano Woman

Photo: Sandro

It was about halfway through Regina Spektor’s Passover-eve show at the Williamsburg venue Warsaw when a loudmouth in the audience said something inappropriate at top volume. Better to not dignify the comment (sexist, lame) or its author (male, boorish) by committing it to print, but suffice it to say, it stank. Lingered there in the air for a moment as the crowd pondered how, or whether, to respond. Up in the balcony, members of Spektor’s family—including her grandfather, who’d never seen a proper show of hers before—were undoubtedly steaming, a combination of fury and frustration.

Behind her piano, though, Spektor was a model of calm. She blinked a couple of times, smiled an innocent smile, then gently leaned into the microphone and talked back. It was measured and smart, playful and vindictive. In sum, brutal. There was an exuberant whoop through the crowd, which came to a shushed halt the moment Spektor, having ably brushed the dirt off her shoulder, launched into the next tune.

“I grew up with the idea that you have to fight your own battles,” she said a few weeks later, sitting on a jutting rock in the barely tamed thicket of Riverdale Park in the Bronx. Now 26, she is on the verge of releasing her fourth album of increasingly idiosyncratic piano ballads, Begin to Hope (Sire), her first recorded for a major label. Though Spektor regularly plays to large crowds, she’s always presented decidedly small songs—her voice and piano, her voice and guitar. Given that, Begin to Hope is a departure, a record that uses more and bigger sounds to achieve, somehow, the same intimate effect. It is radio-ready pop, if indeed radio were ready for Spektor’s whimsy and warmth.

She was anomalous from an early age. “You know that Dylan song, ‘I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now’?” she asks. “The year before we came to America, I felt so adult,” she says. “I was a 9-year-old who looked like a 6-year-old. I was just tiny, and I felt so grown up, so conscious of what was happening. My mom told me she was amazed at how openly Jewish I was when I was little,” she says, recalling the anti-Semitism that ultimately led her family to the United States. “The Jewish question, it still exists. There’s still enough to J’accuse about.”

Before leaving Russia, Spektor had studied classical piano, but after arriving in the Bronx, she was relegated to practicing her finger work on windowsills; her parents had to leave the piano behind. “In my family, we were never blessed with money. In a lot of ways, we had failed in the American sense of owning this or owning that, but we have been overly successful in terms of education. We’ve always had educators come into our lives when we needed them.” Though she ultimately found a teacher to give her free lessons, the teenage Spektor ran up against her own limitations. “Playing piano is almost like being an athlete,” she says. “The art happens amidst routine. For me, it was always a real struggle. I wasn’t consistent enough to make that my art.”

Soon, she began experimenting with writing her own songs, a break with her rigid classical training: “It was very painful to be so crude. You go from being at a certain level to being an Oompa-Loompa person. You don’t have the dexterity.” Having not been raised on pop music, she also didn’t have the traditional songwriting reference points, or boundaries, all of which proved to be a boon. Her songs quickly grew florid and intricate, her lyrics teeming with oddball characters that she didn’t discover and inhabit so much as cut from whole cloth. (“Miss Mary Ann kept her cans in alphabetical order / Miss Mary Ann began to have some thoughts of murder.”)

Upon graduating from the conservatory program at SUNY-Purchase, Spektor found a home amid the “anti-folk” types who performed at the Sidewalk Café in the East Village. Her first release, 11:11, was a jazz-vocal album with slight quirks. But her second, the self-released Songs, recorded top-to-bottom on Christmas 2001, revealed a more intrepid spirit: revisionist stories about Samson and Delilah, Oedipus Rex, and more, delivered in an extraordinarily powerful voice with a slight pinch, giving it a naïve edge. It’s fabulist cabaret as incisive emotional therapy.

After Songs, a friend introduced Spektor to Gordon Raphael, fresh off producing the Strokes’ debut, Is This It? When he saw her perform, he was hooked, posting to a British music Website that Spektor was “a revelation … one of the purest musical offerings I’ve ever seen, certainly among the most brilliant.” He produced her third album, Soviet Kitsch, and introduced her to the Strokes, with whom she would tour and record.

Begin to Hope is her first album that’s had the luxury of more than two weeks’ recording time. “The old songs, they’re not fulfilled,” she says. “It’s like trying to cook a meal with just a couple of ingredients. It’s not that you didn’t dream of doing it, but you didn’t ever have the chance.”

And so the piano chanteuse is exploring her pop ear: sprightly guitars on “Better” (courtesy of the Strokes’ Nick Valensi) and “That Time”; quick dance-floor beats on “Hotel Song” and “Edit.” Her songs, formerly extravagant only in lyric, are suddenly ornate—a mature eccentricity— without losing the vivid vocal presence that’s become her signature. (Additionally, the concert staple “Samson,” which originally appeared on Songs as a minimal dirge, is revisited here, updated with atmospheric textures and a quick tempo.)

“The Jewish question, it still exists. There’s still enough to ‘J’accuse’ about.”

She’s still reaching backward, though. For the first time, in “Après Moi,” Spektor sings in Russian, quoting from the late poet and Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak. “I read a lot in Russian. I’m very connected to the language and the culture,” says Spektor, who is fully bilingual. (She also reads Hebrew.) “But I can relate more to a Russian person my parents’ age than one my own age. I’m more of a regurgitator, an homage payer.”

It is, however, deeply affectionate homage, born of extremely close family ties. On the cover of Soviet Kitsch, she wears her grandfather’s cap from his time in World War II, and her father appears in her music video for “Us” in his father’s military regalia.

Dad is also Spektor’s enforcer online. If you want to be her friend on MySpace, you’ll have to get past him. He personally handles all approvals—“People at my shows are like, ‘Say hi to your dad!’ ”—and Spektor thrills in blurring expectations. “I don’t resent, but I get amused, a punky sort of amusement, at how people judge what is adultlike and what is childlike,” she says. “If something is really exciting to me, I’ll literally jump up and clap my hands. I guess that’s what children do—they don’t look around to see who’s judging them. You don’t get a medal at the end for being an adult.”

Piano Woman