Legacy of a Soviet childhood

Legacy of a Soviet childhood

Singer-songwriter Regina Spektor talks about her music and Russian roots ahead of playing at Stereoleto.

Published: July 11, 2012 (Issue # 1717)


Regina Spektor is currently on tour in support of her sixth album, ‘What We Saw from the Cheap Seats.’

Regina Spektor, the Moscow-born, New York-based singer songwriter, returns to Russia for the first time since she emigrated to perform in St. Petersburg and Moscow this week.

“I’m really, really happy to be coming, I’m very excited,” the 32-year-old Spektor said of her upcoming Russian concerts in a recent phone interview with The St. Petersburg Times from New York.

Now on tour in support of her sixth album, “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats,” Spektor, who is greeted with an impressive response elsewhere, sounded unsure about her fame in her country of birth.

“I don’t know for sure if there are people who know about me or not,” she said.

“It seems some people know of me. But I don’t know if it’s true, I have no idea, because I know that they don’t play me on the radio or show me on television. I guess you know me because you follow music. Probably you know me from the Internet, right?”

In anticipation of her visit to Russia, Spektor released a Russian-language version of “Don’t Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas),” her second single from the new album, which she introduced on her Facebook page as a gift to her fans in Russia, signing the message “Reginka” — the Russian diminutive version of her first name.

Spektor, who prefers to speak Russian with Russian journalists, sounded surprised when her third album “Soviet Kitsch,” originally self-released in 2003, was mentioned during the interview. Even though it was included in NME’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the decade, she believes that it is not that well-known.

“Many people in America don’t know ‘Soviet Kitsch,’” she said.

“Most know me for my later records, for [the 2006 album] ‘Begin to Hope’, so it’s really nice to hear, thanks very much.”

While speaking, Spektor frequently uses “we” when talking about both Russia and the U.S.

Born in Moscow in 1980 into a musical Russian Jewish family to a photographer and amateur violinist father and a music professor mother, Spektor learned to play classical piano there before she left the Soviet Union with her family in 1989 during perestroika under Gorbachev.

“I have a lot of memories: I was almost ten, so I remember very many things,” Spektor said.

“I loved my life there, I had a very good childhood. I’ve always been very close to Russian culture and remain close. My parents brought a large number of Russian books and records with them, communicated in Russian at home, and Russian humor, food and everything remained a large part of my life. So it stayed with me. You could say my childhood was more connected to being in Russia with my parents than to American food, for example.

“Of course it was a difficult change for me, but if you have good parents and you’re with them, you’re fine everywhere and everything is interesting. They made everything interesting for me. It was great when we were on holiday in Estonia, it was great when we went to school in Moscow, it was great learning music. And traveling to Vienna and Italy and then to America was great. Being in New York was great. They made everything really good for me. I’ve always felt a lot of love and attention, and that’s the most important thing for a child. Everything else is secondary.”

Spektor said her exposure to Soviet ideology was minimal due to the early age at which she emigrated, and due to her parents’ interests. When Soviet collectivism was mentioned during the interview, she asked what it was.

“We planted a vegetable garden when I was in kindergarten,” the singer said.

“I was still a little Octobrist [a youth organization for children between seven and nine years of age]; I didn’t even finish second grade [in Russia], that’s why I don’t remember… I do remember that we learned poems about Uncle Lenin and stuff like that, but in my family we paid more attention to poets, classical music, Pushkin and culture than Komsomol [Young Communist Union], the party or things like that.”

On the cover of “Soviet Kitsch” — which featured classic Spektor songs such as “Ode to Divorce,” “Us” and “Ghost of Corporate Future” — she was pictured in a Soviet naval cap drinking from a bottle against a backdrop of Russian nesting dolls.


Spektor was born in Moscow but emigrated in 1989 at the age of nine.

“I came up with this title because it’s true that when you’re growing up, especially when you’re a teenager in New York, you always feel that you’re a little different, especially if you’re an immigrant,” she said.

“It’s true for any immigrant; you feel the same whether you’re from Mexico, Puerto Rico or Spain. But what was especially interesting with being from Russia was that we had had the Cold War between us and America. And just as there was propaganda in the Soviet Union, there was a lot of propaganda on the other side as well. And people were really scared of Russia, and there were all kinds of stereotypes. And when I came into this culture, I didn’t know where all that came from. But it came from exactly where it came from [in the Soviet Union] — from propaganda.”

Spektor said that with the cover and the album title, she wanted to confront those stereotypes.

“When I grew up and people found out that I was from Russia, they would immediately start saying certain things,” she said.

“Not everybody, but the average, not very educated person would start saying something about vodka and Communism and things like that. And I got so tired of it when I was growing up, because it always seemed a little bit funny and a little bit sad. That’s why when I was making that record, I wanted to make an ironic statement: ‘Look, that may be how the Soviet idea appears to you, but inside, if you listen to it, that’s how it sounds.’”

“But on the whole I feel that a large part of my personality stems from the fact that I am from Russia, that I am an immigrant, that I understand the language and can write literature in the original as well as the fact that I grew up listening to [Russian] singer-songwriters. Of course, that’s a huge part of me. And it has had a great influence on me, just as my music is influenced by the fact that I grew up in New York, in the Bronx, just as my music is influenced by the fact that I studied classical piano, and didn’t just teach myself to play. When you play Chopin, Mozart and Bach that much, the music enters you and simply becomes part of you.

“And of course the fact that I am Jewish has also entered my music in a big way. I am sort of a mixture, a mongrel; I took a little from everywhere, mixed it up and am trying to express myself somehow.”

Spektor first paid homage to her Russian literary heritage in 2006 when she added an excerpt from Boris Pasternak’s 1913 poem “February. Take ink and weep” in Russian to her English-language song “Apres Moi,” released on her breakthrough album “Begin to Hope.”

This April, Spektor went further, releasing a two-track record of songs by the late iconic Russian author, poet and singer-songwriter Bulat Okudzhava. “The Prayer of Francois Villon” (Molitva Fransua Viiona) and “Old Jacket” (Stary Pidzhak) were put out as a 7” limited-edition vinyl, “Regina Spektor Sings Bulat Okudzhava,” on Sire record label. The songs were also included on “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats” as bonus tracks.

Spektor is reputed to be outspoken about certain political issues. Last year, she supported the Occupy Wall Street protests, when — despite hundreds of arrests made in New York — the mainstream U.S. media either ignored them or dismissed the issue as a fringe movement. She said, however, that she had reservations about mixing art and politics.

“I have two different feelings about musicians and actors and activism,” she said.

“On one hand, I have a lot of very strong opinions on many, many topics, just as very many people involved in art have. On the whole, art is an expression of your opinions. Even if you write something that goes against your opinion, it sort of passes through you. You’re a filter.

“When we had elections, I supported Obama very firmly, and when certain things were happening in Israel, I supported Israel. Nobody wrote about or showed the Occupy movement, and they wanted to show it as though it was only a bunch of hooligans. We have a lot of propaganda on the news, too. Even when the war in Iraq was about to start, I went to protests and there were 100,000 people, and they still didn’t show it.

“That is me as a person. But there is also the me who creates art, and I am not necessarily sure that the best thing for my art is to be so vocally political, because doing so would mean using my songs, for which I have great respect. I love that they are not concrete, that they’re sort of in a world of their own, regardless of time and country, and exist in some other emotional space, where anyone — whatever their political leanings and whatever country they’re from — can relate to them, join this art and feel something of their own.

“Sometimes I feel that as a person I should step aside from the microphone when delivering some of my opinions. Because the songs are not anchored in time, and my opinions are always changing. Sometimes I follow something really closely, and sometimes it becomes too difficult for me and I get too sad emotionally, so I stop following the news altogether. Sometimes five months may pass and I don’t follow the news or read anything on the Internet or in the papers, nothing. I just leave this world and throw myself into creating art and making soup.

“That’s why it’s difficult for me to be a sort of spokesperson, because at some times I come close to it and at other times I move away from it. That’s why my statements on political issues are not quite consistent. That might be wrong, but it’s where I am as a person. Sometimes I have strength for it, and sometimes I don’t. In that sense, I am not a revolutionary. I am more interested in things that are timeless and more global than specific issues.”

Regina Spektor will perform as part of Stereoleto: Stereo Day music festival on Saturday, July 7 in the Kirov Central Park of Culture and Recreation (TsPKiO),

Yelagin Island. Metro Krestovsky Ostrov / Staraya Derevnya.

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