Regina Spektor was born on February 18th, 1980, in Moscow, Soviet Union, to a musical family. Her father, a photographer, was also an amateur violinist. Her mother was a music professor in a Russian conservatory and now teaches at a public elementary school in Mount Vernon, New York.
Spektor studied classical piano from the age of six, practicing on a Petrof piano given to her mother by her grandfather. She was also exposed to the music of rock and roll bands such as The Beatles, Queen, and The Moody Blues by her father, who obtained such recordings in Eastern Europe and traded cassettes with friends in the Soviet Union. The family left the Soviet Union in 1989, when Regina was nine, during the period of Perestroika when Jewish citizens were permitted to emigrate. The seriousness of her piano studies led her parents to consider not leaving Russia, but they finally decided to emigrate, for religious and political reasons.
Traveling first to Austria and then Italy, the family settled in the Bronx, New York, where Spektor graduated from a middle school yeshiva. She then attended the Frisch Yeshiva High School in Paramus, New Jersey on a scholarship for two years, but, feeling out of place, eventually transferred to a secular public school, Fair Lawn High School, in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, where she finished the last two years of her high school career.
Spektor has stated that she was originally interested only in classical music, but that she later became interested in hip hop, rock, and punk as well.
Beginnings as a songwriter
In New York, Spektor gained a firm grounding in classical music from her piano teacher, Sonia Vargas, a professor at the Manhattan School of Music. Spektor studied with Vargas—whom Spektor’s father had met through violinist Samuel Marder, Vargas’s husband—until she was 17. Although the family had been unable to bring their piano with them from Russia, Spektor found a piano on which to practice in the basement of her synagogue, also utilizing tabletops and other hard surfaces for this purpose.
Although she had always made up songs around the house, Spektor first became interested in songwriting during a visit to Israel with the Nesiya Institute in her teenage years. Attracting attention from the other children on the trip for the songs she made up while hiking, she realized she had an aptitude for songwriting. Following this trip, she was first exposed to the work of Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and other singer-songwriters, which gave her the idea that she could create her own songs. She began writing her first a cappella songs around age 16, and wrote her first songs for voice and piano when she was nearly 18.
Spektor completed the four-year studio composition program of the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College in Purchase, New York, including one year’s study in London, at the University of Middlesex - graduating with honors in 2001. Around this time, she also worked briefly at a butterfly farm in Luck, Wisconsin. She gradually achieved recognition through performances in the anti-folk scene in downtown New York City, most importantly at the East Village’s Sidewalk Cafe, but also at the Living Room, Tonic, Fez, the Knitting Factory, and CB’s Gallery. During this period, she sold her self-produced CDs 11:11 (2001) and Songs (2002) at such performances.
Spektor’s songs rely on a mixture of styles and techniques, often starting with a piano riff and integrating moans, nonsense words, warblings, and other noises. Spektor has said that she has created 700 songs, but that she rarely writes any of them down.
Spektor’s songs are not usually autobiographical, but rather are based on scenarios and characters drawn from her imagination. Her songs show influences from folk, Jewish, Russian, hip hop, jazz, and classical music. Spektor’s musical style has drawn many comparisons to fellow singer-pianists Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. Spektor has said that she works hard to ensure that each of her songs has its own musical style, rather than trying to develop a distinctive style for her music as a whole.
Spektor possesses a broad vocal range and uses the full extent of it. She also explores a variety of different and somewhat unorthodox vocal techniques, such as verses composed entirely of buzzing noises made with the lips, beatbox-style flourishes in the middle of ballads, or the use of a drum stick to tap rhythms on the body of the piano or chair. Part of her style also results from the exaggeration of certain aspects of vocalization, most notably the glottal stop, which is prominent the single “Fidelity”. She also uses a strong New York accent on some words, which she has said is due to her love of New York and its culture.
Her lyrics are equally eclectic, often taking the form of abstract narratives or first-person character studies, similar to short stories or vignettes put to song. Spektor usually sings in English, though she sometimes includes a few words or verses of Latin, Russian, French, and other languages in her songs. Spektor’s music is further set apart from mainstream folk music by its frequent literary references, such as to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in “Poor Little Rich Boy”, The Little Prince in “Baobabs”, Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood in “Paris”, Ezra Pound and William Shakespeare in “Pound of Flesh”, Boris Pasternak in “Après Moi”, and Sophocles in “Oedipus”. Recurring themes and topics in Spektor’s lyrics include love, death, religion (particularly Biblical and Christian references), city life (particularly New York references), and certain key phrases have been known to recur in different songs by Spektor, such as references to gravediggers, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the name “Mary Ann.”
If the lyrics of her songs were actual/accurate reflections of her own experiences and emotional/mental state, then Spektor’s ‘Begin to Hope’ album could be interpreted as illuminating her confused upbringing and somewhat disturbed mental state, as she sings about drug overdoses and grandiose ideas and a somewhat bent (or at least untraditional) perception of reality. An example of this can be heard in tracks such as ‘Apres Moi’ where a deep and haunting array of lyrics such as ‘be afraid of the old, they’ll inherit your soul’ are projected by the artist. The artist also sings about hallucinations, waking up in fear and rubbing up against strangers.
In Spektor’s early albums, many of her tracks had a very dry vocal production, with very little reverb or delay added. However, Spektor’s more recent albums, particularly ‘Begin to Hope’, have put more emphasis into song production and have relied more on traditional pop and rock instruments.
Since roughly January 2005, Spektor has performed on a bright red Baldwin baby grand piano. She opened for The Strokes in 2003 on her first North American tour. Subsequently, she appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” twice, ‘The Tonight Show’ with Jay Leno twice, ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’, and ‘Last Call with Carson Daly’ twice. She has toured the United States and Europe. Although she generally only performs original material, she performed her first covers in 2005, of songs by Leonard Cohen and Madonna for the 2nd Annual Jewish Music & Heritage Festival at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. During both these performances she threw out big cheeses to the audience. No one knows why.
While with The Strokes on their 2003–2004 Room on Fire tour, Spektor performed “Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men” alongside the band.
In 2006, Spektor embarked on a successful headlining tour of the United States and Europe, selling out numerous clubs and theaters.
Beginning in 2005, Spektor’s music has been used in various television programs and commercials. In late 2005 “Us” (from Soviet Kitsch) was used in a commercial as part of the “What Do You Want To Watch”? series for the United Kingdom’s Sky Television. The advert features a clip from a documentary on skateboarder Danny Way. In the summer of 2006, a clip from “Us” was used for the teaser website for Microsoft’s Zune project at ComingZune.com, as well as for a promotional campaign for MtvU. It was also used for a commercial for a Dutch cell phone provider, called KPN. “Somedays” was used in a 2005 episode of CSI: NY and “Samson” was used in a 2006 episode of the same series. “On the Radio” was used in an episode of ABC’s popular Grey’s Anatomy. “Field Below” was used in a 2006 episode titled “The Last Word” of CBS’s Criminal Minds. “Fidelity” was also used in a recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” titled “Sometimes a Fantasy”, in an episode of Veronica Mars titled “Friday Night Sleights”, and in an episode of “Brothers & Sisters” titled “Sexual Politics”. “Better” is currently being used in a commercial for XM Satellite Radio. Spektor also sang the title song “Little Boxes” of Showtime’s television series Weeds in the 2006 episode “Mile Deep and a Foot Wide” and her “Ghost of Corporate Future” was used both at the beginning and end of the episode. On January 21, 2007, she was featured on CBS News Sunday Morning. Spektor’s song, “Fidelity”, featured in the trailer of the romantic comedy “27 Dresses”.
Regina Spektor gained a great deal of media attention in 2006 when her video for “Fidelity” was viewed over 200,000 times in two days on the YouTube website. On SIRIUS Radio’s “Left of Center” channel, her single “Fidelity” was voted by listeners as the #1 song of 2006.
In Australia particularly, Spektor’s music has rapidly gained popularity in mainstream culture primarily due to ‘Begin To Hope’ being played on the nation-wide radio station ‘Triple J’, where it eventually became a feature album. Prior to ‘Begin To Hope’, Regina Spektor had only a small following in Australia in comparison to the US and Europe.
Most of Spektor’s early albums have been released exclusively in the United States. Her compilation, ‘Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Short Stories’, has been released worldwide.
2001 - 11:11 (Regina Spektor)
2002 - Songs (Regina Spektor)
2004 - Soviet Kitsch (Sire/London/Rhino)
2006 - Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Short Stories (Transgressive)
2006 - Begin to Hope (Sire) US sales 160,720
Singles and EPs
2003 - Reptilia b/w Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men by The Strokes (Rough Trade)
2004 - Your Honor / The Flowers (Shoplifter)
2005 - Live at Bull Moose EP (Sire)
2005 - Carbon Monoxide (Transgressive)
2006 - Us (Transgressive)
2006 - On the Radio (Sire) UK #60
2006 - Fidelity (Sire) US #84*
2006 - Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Short Stories (Transgressive)