Even in conversation, Regina Spektor speaks like a poet, conjuring up vivid scenes to better illustrate her artistic process. But despite her fantastical turns of phrase, the singer-songwriter doesn’t think that she’s good at interviews. “I don’t have an easy time, necessarily, in interviews where I have to say, ‘This song came from that,'” she recently told Rolling Stone. “I’m always at a loss for words, because I don’t fully know.”
Fortunately, for the past three years, Spektor hasn’t found herself in such conversations often. After the end of a 2013 tour, she stepped out of the public eye to have a baby, spend time with her family and write new music. “I didn’t really plan it,” she said. “I was a little bit holed up because I was pregnant for a while, and then I had the baby, so I was just more in my own world.”
This year, Spektor has returned with a bang. She worked on a song with breakout hip-hop star Chance the Rapper, contributed to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly anticipated new project The Hamilton Mixtape and even created a gorgeous cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for the animated film Kubo and the Two Strings.
All of this has led up to Spektor’s new album Remember Us to Life. Along with incorporating a broad range of sounds ranging from full orchestras to processed pianos, the LP features all newly composed songs, a first for Spektor. “As I was writing all the songs, the desire to put older songs onto this particular record just kind of left,” she said.
Just before kicking off her current tour, Spektor talked with RS about collaborating with Chance the Rapper, a certain presidential candidate she’d rather not name and the experimental impulses that fueled her newest album.
You’ve been pretty off-the-grid for the past few years since your last album. How did the hiatus come about?
Yeah, the record came out four years ago, and then my tour ended three years ago. I don’t know – there’s always that natural flow, where you make so much art, and you travel the world playing the art, and then you have to kind of go back to your family and go back to your other life. It wasn’t a very planned off-the-grid thing. It’s like, I was working all the time, and things were happening all the time. I guess it’s just … I don’t know. Maybe everybody just kind of has another record right in their pocket or something and they just try again, but I definitely don’t.
It’s clear that you spent at least some of that time writing, because on this record, all of your songs are brand new. What was it like to start with a totally blank slate this time?
It was interesting because I didn’t really plan it. I was a little bit holed up because I was pregnant for a while, and then I had the baby, so I was just more in my own world. As I was writing all the songs, the desire to kind of put older songs onto this particular record just kind of left, and all of a sudden, I just wanted all of these songs to be on it. I ended up writing so much that not even all of my new songs made it onto this, because it would’ve been a very big, very long record. Even the deluxe edition is 14 songs. I guess the fun thing about making records is that they sort of find water; they sort of find their own level. They find what they want production-wise, and who they want their people to be in the boat with them. And then it’s just kind of out in the world.
You were almost on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book earlier this year. How was the process of working with him on a song?
As a matter of fact, it’s one that actually ended up on the record, “Same Drugs,” which is a really cool song. It was interesting because he sent it to me exactly the same way that it appears on his record. At first it was hard for me to imagine what I could really add to it, because it was very complete. But then, I started to sort of hear myself, and he also muted the last verse. So then I wrote a verse, and then I sort of wrote other little things, and just sort of found my way here and there, found little spots in which I could sort of interact with what was there. But then, I think he had to put it out very soon, and so, afterwards, he called me and he said, “I really love what you did, but I feel so attached to what I already have there.” Which made sense. And he ended up putting out exactly what he sent me, which was already pretty good.
I completely understand. I think that maybe if we started it before it was completely finished it would have made sense. But I feel like at first, songs are very malleable, sort of like when you make that liquid that’s going to become Jell-O. You could still add some stuff to it, and it’s still changeable. But once it sets, I feel like you sort of just get very attached to how it is, and it’s very hard to make room for something in it. But I really loved the song, and of course I was sad, because I got really attached to the version that I did. I was like, “Fuck, man! That would’ve been so cool if that came out!” But at the same time, I am a complete control freak when it comes to my music, so I understand that impulse completely.
You got to go visit your birthplace, Russia, on your last tour. Did that experience have an effect on the mindset that you were in while you were writing this album?
You know, it’s hard to know. I feel like I’m sort of built for emotional experiences. I think that’s just how I go through the world, and how I think. I think that it all just kind of goes in, you know? So I have that, and I have things that I go through with my family, and it’s just … it’s just everything! Sometimes I watch something happen on a street corner, and then it’s an intense emotional experience for me! [Laughs] I think that we’re all kind of built in our own ways, and we process the world through our unique systems. And I think that maybe the longer I live, the more I accept the system that I have, you know? But I think it’s always been like that! Everything just goes into this big trap door in my mind or in my heart, and then it just starts to sort of brew there. So I’m sure that it’s in there, but I wouldn’t know how to sift and figure out what of it is there.
Well that’s another thing that I kind of love about your music; with a lot of artists nowadays, they’re almost expected to bear their personal demons on records. You still bear your soul, but it’s in a very different, kind of fictionalized way, whereas other artists are very autobiographical.
Yeah, that’s cool! And it’s not necessarily even on purpose. Like I said, I’m just doing what feels natural to me. I do think it’s just really interesting how mysterious art is, and I’m grateful for that, because something about it always remains new, or ever-shifting. So I don’t have an easy time, necessarily, in interviews where I have to say, “This song came from that,” or people ask me, “How did you write this?” And I’m always at a loss for words, because I don’t fully know.
I feel like that almost makes your work more genuine, though. You’re not necessarily saying, “Oh, I’m going to take this experience and turn it into a song.” You’re just writing whatever it is that you’re feeling.
Well, I am writing it from what I’m feeling, but because I don’t know the other experience, I would never go so far as to say that it’s more genuine than anything. That’s actually where a lot of our problems as humans in the world comes from – the fact that we know how we experience something, and so we think that it’s the right way to experience it. But there are so many different ways and so many different systems, and so many different backgrounds and temperaments.
I love Joni Mitchell so much, and her work comes from autobiography. She really did write all about her getting together with people and breaking up and her love and her internal searches, and everything is sort of autobiographical. You really could just go through it all like that. And to me, just because I don’t write like that, I’m really grateful that I get to experience this whole other system.
We’re more alike than not, and I think that the more we try to justify our own way as being the better way, the more we’re in trouble. And that happens in everything: It happens in religion, it happens in parenting, even in hair-cutting! People will say, “Oh, you have to cut wet hair.” And somebody else will say, “No, you only cut dry hair!” And the truth is that there is somebody who is amazing at each, and you can go and have an awesome haircut from both of those people; they just see it different ways.
Donald Trump seems to feel the opposite way. So what is your view, especially with your background as an immigrant, of this current political chaos that we’re in?
You know I almost hate to talk about him, because I almost feel like this is how school shooters should be treated. Like, their names and their pictures should not be on the news; they should just be ignored. And I feel like … he should be ignored, so I don’t even like to say his name in my short little moments speaking on my soapbox [laughs]. I almost feel like he should be treated like Voldemort. Like, He Who Shall Not Be Named.
But at the same time, my true feeling is that this person is severely mentally different. You know what I mean? Like … I wouldn’t go so far as to diagnose him, but he seems like a sociopath, at least. Just somebody who is so malleable, that there is no “there” there. But at the same time, I don’t think he is to be dismissed, because there have been a lot of mentally ill people running countries as long as history stretches back. We’ve had paranoid Caesars, and we’ve had czars that killed their own sons, and we’ve had Stalins. We’ve had people that you can’t just lightly say, “Oh, this person is crazy.” Look at the ancient story of Cain and Abel. That’s somebody who felt paranoid and less-than and insecure, and killed their brother for really no reason, other than what was going on in his head!
“I almost feel like Trump should be treated like Voldemort. Like, He Who Shall Not Be Named.”
My hope is that as dark as times seem sometimes, I do think that human connection and human awareness and education are the key to everything. As long as we keep trying to keep the channels free, and prevent propaganda, prevent iron curtains … it’s very hard to do. It’s somewhere between resigning yourself and saying, “Hey this is just how things go,” and being completely devastated and paralyzed with fear and anger. I think that changes come from a personal place. If you feel angry, and you want to help immigrants and people in your community and children and families, then get involved. There are local schools, there are churches, there are synagogues, there are nursing homes where a tremendous amount of elderly people go ignored and are staring at a wall.
Being angry at him is not going to do anything. Make friends and share the fact that there are tremendous amounts of immigrant families that are participating in our country. All they want is peace and education for their kids and a better life, and spreading that message really will do more than giving him more airtime.
One of the things that I’ve always really loved about your music is that it seems like experimentation is almost like its own form of consistency for you. Do you ever feel like doing things in a similar way as you did them before, or are you always trying to push boundaries?
Well, on my own personal quest, it’s definitely really, really important for me to feel like I’m getting to do something that I haven’t done before, because that’s what sort of just keeps me interested. Writing the songs sort of happens no matter what; I’ll feel inspired and I’ll write a song. But the studio stuff is very interesting in a different way, because that’s the place where you can learn, you can push boundaries and expand sonically.
I grew up on a tremendous amount of classical music, and I felt like on this record, I got to really, for the first time, experiment more with arranging strings in a much bigger, more involved way. So it was very exciting for me to just have the strings be a much bigger part of this than before, even though I’ve always kind of ventured into using samples, or sometimes a quartet or sometimes a trio. My first time properly having any little bit of time [in the studio] was Soviet Kitsch. And even on that, even though it was very, very limited time, that had live strings because I was just dying for them. But this one, I really got to have the time to have all of these different sonic experiments, and to process things in a new way, and to kind of find what each song needed, so that was very exciting.
Also, Leo Abrahams who produced the record, he sort of comes from a more experimental kind of background, too. I came at it like, “The strings are definitely gonna be a giant part of this record.” I almost felt like the subconscious of the record was strings. And he was very interested in processing the piano. When he heard the songs, he said that so much of it had been written in the piano parts that he wanted to sort of use that and process the piano in all of these different ways.
I think my favorite example of that is on “Obsolete.” I love that song.
[Laughs] It’s funny, I think that my favorite example of that is on “Obsolete,” too!
It’s just so watery and cool. How was it that you recorded the piano on that song?
Well, we recorded the actual piano, but then he was recording a track of live processing that he was doing as a performance at the same time. So as I was playing, he was doing a performance that was recorded. His performance was so special that it really just kind of happened all together. I really love how the piano sounds on that. It’s an interesting thing, because when you’re writing a song, you’re hearing it sort of in the real world, and then you’re hearing it in your imagination with imaginary production. And imaginary production is almost like imaginary colors, where if you were going to dip your paintbrush into a red, you might not be able to find that same red that you can see in your mind’s eye.
So much of production is reconciling your imagination with reality, with the physical world. Because you might hear a sound, but you’re limited, so maybe the French horn is the closest to that sound that you have. I think now, with synthesized sounds, we have more access than ever before. People used to just use what was around. They couldn’t reverb something out. The violin sound is like the violin, and it’s always the violin. And now we can make mix the violin with a flute and put it through a phaser, and then we can scale it up with a volume pedal. We can do all of these things now.
But still, you’re still reconciling these things with your imagination, and you just start to hear what’s in the real world, and you start to forget. It’s almost like the fading of a dream as you get further and further into the day. It could be very vivid in the morning, but then it’s just kind of fading and fading – you don’t really remember the colors. I think the thing with recording these songs is that you’re sort of feeling around for that spot where the song is still itself, but then there’s something new about it that you didn’t even know was there that you’re discovering.