Regina Spektor notices things. Walking down a Manhattan street, she homes in on a white feather spinning in the breeze; she tunes in to ambient noises, hearing the music in passing conversations and beeping car horns. For the Moscow-born, Bronx-raised singer-songwriter, the sights and sounds other people miss are all flashes of inspiration for her own music: offbeat piano-pop songs that prize detailed storytelling over confessional emotions. "It doesn't feel natural to me to write some diary-type song," Spektor, 29, says. "I want to write a classic like 'Yesterday,' but weird songs about meatballs in refrigerators come into my head no matter what – I can't help it."
Cold meatballs don't actually make an appearance on her new, fifth album, Far, but there are plenty of other evocative images: the enchanted lake in "Genius Next Door" that locals call "the porridge" because it's "as thick as butter"; or a found billfold in "The Wallet," whose contents include a Blockbuster card and "an old stick of Juicy Fruit."
"Regina's songs are like literature," says producer Jeff Lynne, who recorded four songs for Far. (Mike Elizondo, Jacknife Lee and David Kahne also contributed.) Lynne doesn't usually work with new artists – the ELO founder and Traveling Wilbury's most recent credit is Tom Petty's Highway Companion – but says that Spektor's demos blew him away: "It hits you right in the face how brilliant it is."
In person, Spektor is as vibrant and loopy as her bright auburn curls. She overflows with nervous energy, subversive wit and an acute artistic sensitivity. "I guess the word that people would use for that is 'neurotic,' maybe?" she jokes, over iced green tea and chicken salad on the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel. "I'm constantly questioning myself. I don't ever want to have a style. There are times when I catch myself doing something and I think, 'Is that too me-ish?'"
On 2006's Begin to Hope, Spektor finally found the sweet spot between her screwball humor and her pop sensibility. Slowly but surely, the record has sold more than 600,000 copies, thanks to the chirping, cello-laced single "Fidelity." Yet Spektor says she's always felt a bit out of sync with what's on the charts; her heroes are Kafka, Shakespeare and Mozart.
She learned to appreciate the classics early on, studying piano from the age of seven. Though their resources were scant, her musician parents made sure they had a piano in their one-bedroom Moscow apartment. Still, the world outside was a hostile one for the Jewish family. When the Spektors fled Russia in 1989, they had only a couple hundred dollars and a few suitcases. "My parents explained to me that I probably would never play piano again," says Spektor. "They knew that they might be scrubbing floors in America – and to buy a piano was not realistic." Instead, her parents bought a boombox to listen to classical radio, and Spektor practiced scales on her knees until she found a piano in a synagogue that she could use; eventually someone donated a used upright to her family.
At first, Spektor found living in the U.S. overwhelming – "Everybody smiled so big," she remembers – but she quickly acclimated to life, and the abundance of food, in New York. Spektor ate so many bananas in the beginning – they weren't easily available in the USSR – that she couldn't touch one for a decade.
It wasn't until high school that she got into pop music, or the possibility of writing her own material. "I thought, 'Why should I write bullshit when I have Bach and Mozart, who are amazing?' " she recalls. "Pop felt simplistic and crude."
Once she started performing, Spektor's parents were 100 percent supportive – so much so that she had to ask them to stop coming to her gigs: "I knew it would hurt their feelings, but I wanted to know what it was like to play without your parents there. They would come to every dive; they would drive me down to the Village for a crowd of five people."
Now, five albums into her career, Spektor plays to crowds in the thousands – but she's still searching out new musical possibilities: "If I had time, I would go make a punk or an electronic record. Maybe I'll write an opera. None of it is part of a bigger plan – I'm not on a path to anywhere. Maybe I'm on a series of tangents for my whole life."
This story is from the July 9th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.