Traipsing through the musical killing fields takes balls. When musicians release an album, they openly place the target on themselves. Critics pour over albums, devouring them with a savageness rarely seen outside the Serengeti, picking their bones dry like starved hyenas.
Men and women’s life work become punching bags. A album’s artistic value is derided for being too pretentious, too banal, for lacking structure and vision, for seeming phoned in, for being overproduced, for being under-produced, for being ‘too hip’, for having poorly-written lyrics, for being written above the audience’s head, for trying too hard, for sounding too much like it should, for abandoning its roots, even for trapping itself inside a creative box that wraps the artist so tightly in their own delusions of grandeur that they will never evolve.
Regina Spektor has her critics. Every artist does. Spektor, however, is rarely criticized in the same vein as her contemporaries. She’s a well-spoken, accomplished musician whose songs successfully walk the lyrical tightrope between overambitious wordplay and stale narrative. She uses literary references and splashes of different accents and languages in her lyrics courtesy of her diverse background (She was born in Moscow and raised Jewish in the Bronx), without seeming aloof. And her recently released major-label debut, Begin to Hope, didn’t find itself in the crosshairs for abandoning the coffeehouse intimacy that, to many, gives Spektor her charm.
When critics dissect Spektor’s work, the stylistic flaw most often listed is also her most unique attribute: her idiosyncrasies. Many have taken their knocks at Spektor for her quirky method of delivery. Her music is often laden with breathy purrs, hums, and playful beatboxing that accompany the diverse array of melodies she hammers out on her bright-red Baldwin piano.
Spektor is criticized, in essence, for being herself.
When she speaks, it’s easy to tell that she’s not affected, or if she is, she hides it well. A notoriously private person, her voice is soft but articulate, and exudes a genuine curiosity when she questions the nature of people’s desire to delve into the minds of the artists they listen to.
“I don’t fully understand the fascination of people wanting to know the ‘real’ you after listening to your songs,” she said. “People always want to know which part of the song really happened, they want to know some sort of a ‘Truth’. For some reason they can see the same actor acting in 17 different movies, using 17 different hair colors, using fake props, changing their voice, changing their accent, being evil or being the victim, and they are okay with that. They understand that it’s just a movie, they understand that it’s an art. But with music they forget. Music, somehow, is life.”
Spektor’s songwriting is particularly cryptic. Often written in the third person, her music presents a paradox, telling the stories of others with the intimacy that seems as though it could only come from personal experience. Spektor says that the idea of using a narrative approach to songwriting has always appealed to her.
“I think that it’s more exciting to use my imagination or explore other people’s lives rather than sit there and write about my own rather limited life,” she said. “It’s much more gratifying to me.”
She admits, however, that songwriting is a very personal art, and that over the course of time it would be impossible to write music from a completely objective point of view.
“You don’t ever know the true lineage of your songs,” Spektor said. “Maybe I’m becoming less of a narrator and more of a character these days. I was always used to observing and writing third-person narrative stories about things I was seeing. Then, as time went on, I started placing myself in these scenes, more like an actor.”
Begin to Hope, released June 13 on Sire Records, is evidence of this. Lyrically, the twelve-song collection seems driven from a more personal, introspective place. Spending two months in a New York City studio, Spektor took more time recording the album than all of her other releases combined, including 2003’s Soviet Kitsch, which was recorded in just eleven days.
The Russian-born Spektor says that, while she still likes to record quickly, her eagerness to experiment with new arrangements and instrumentation led to the lengthier studio session. The finished product presents a stark contrast to the minimal production of Soviet Kitsch and 11:11, which featured little more than piano, occasional strings, and Spektor’s trademark voice, drawing comparisons to Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell. Begin to Hope is a slightly more elaborate and polished offering that features a host of string arrangements, electronic and natural percussion, and guitar.
“To work like this had been a dream of mine, but I thought it would be years before it happened. I definitely tried to put every aspect of myself into it,” she said. “I wanted it to have more of a ‘record’ feel to it. Each song in and of itself was a complete process.”
She said she was particularly excited about using more electronic instrumentation and natural percussion on the album, something she says she’s always longed to do but had never had the chance to explore as deeply as she would like.
“I’ve loved rock and hip-hop and for a long time and I’ve always heard beats in my head. There’s a lot of bounce to those things that I just love, that just connects with my heart,” she said. “I really wanted to play with electronic instruments and bigger arrangements. Still, on this record, there are some songs where it’s really sparse. You don’t want to arrange just for the sake of arranging. I had to be careful so the music wouldn’t be more fun to make than to listen to.”
Spektor, who is touring Europe through July, says that her inspiration is derived from her love of travel and experiencing the beauty and art of the world. Maintaining that passionate curiosity, she said, is paramount in her life.
“The more I experience in this world, the more questions I seem to have about where this life is leading,” she said. My world is spent looking at all the arts, it’s extraordinarily uplifting. When I see great art, I feel strength. It’s just as important as food you know, to have great art in your life.”
At 26, four albums deep into her songwriting career, Spektor has never thought twice about making music on her own terms. She embraces her quirks and unconventional style while maintaining humility about her work. While others may blindly sprint across the meta-critic firing range, Regina Spektor walks slowly, never missing an opportunity to stop and smell a flower along the way.