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Regina Spektor: “I Don't Want To Be A Perfectionist, But I Have To Be”

The New York songwriter talks about her latest album “What We Saw From The Cheap Seats”, the mystery of art and the tough nature of the creative process

We talked to Regina Spektor in order to find out more about her way of working and her vision on pop, when she was visiting Spain to present her new album “What We Saw From The Cheap Seats”.

She's gone from being one of the faces of the Big Apple's anti-folk scene, to giving naïve pop its reason for being: Regina Spektor is a woman of contrasts. She can complain about losing many of the advantages of her daily life when she's working on her albums, while at the same time congratulating herself on being on her own and having the freedom to decide how and when she makes her art. The American with Soviet roots visited Spain a few weeks ago to present her recent “ What We Saw From The Cheap Seats” (Sire-Warner, 2012), and we took the opportunity to talk to her about what she calls her best work to date. We had a bucket-load of questions for her, but because of the limited time we could spend with her (thanks to Mater, the man from her label, and Regina's own incessant verbosity), the interview was reduced to the following.

It's been a long time since we last saw you in Spain. How was your gig the other night in Madrid?

Madrid is a brilliant city, and the audience was simply fantastic. If you want to know the truth, I don't know why it's been so many years! The first time I was here was in 2000, in Barcelona, and I didn't come back until 2006. I played the Apolo in Barcelona and Moby Dick in Madrid, but at the time I didn't get the chance to see much of the city, because I got there a few hours before the gig and I literally shut myself in my hotel room. That's why the other day I took the day off to do some sight-seeing; I went to the Prado museum, the royal palace and the San Miguel market.

Do you have the feeling that, with “What We Saw From The Cheap Seats” you reconnected with your audience? Many people were somewhat unsatisfied with “Far”.

Another journalist said exactly the opposite yesterday! [ Laughs] It may sound like the typical thing to say, but to me this one is the best I've ever done. I'm very happy with the result, and I feel it's a more accessible and direct album. It has new songs and some reinterpretations of older ones. I've never been given to chronological order.

I don't know about you, but to me “Far” was more cerebral, and it was hard to connect with it at first.

The same journalist said yesterday that “Far” sounded more commercial to him than this one. That's the true magic of music. There's no absolute truth in this game. To me, the term 'commercial' only has one meaning: to reach as many people as possible. What's for mass consumption and what's hard to listen to are very personal observations. I love it when this kind of debate about personal taste happens. I still remember my mother pushing me to choose “Genius Next Door” as one of the singles from the previous album.

How many concerts have you seen from the cheap seats?

Many, like everyone. The album title is a concept. I chose it about a year and a half ago, before I seriously started to work on the songs. Many people ask me what it means, but the only thing I can say is that it came up spontaneously, it's not at all a concept to seem intellectual or something.

"I'm all for art keeping a big part of its secrets"

Are you one of those who don't want to explain too much about the stories behind your songs?

The whys and hows of a song vary considerably as time goes by. They're always alive and they mutate constantly. Even yesterday, when I was walking through the Prado museum, I was really happy to be able to see paintings by Goya and Velázquez, but at the same time I was a bit uncomfortable with the audio guide explaining each and every detail about them. I'm all for art keeping a big part of its secrets. Art is, after all, an expression of time and space that can be enjoyed in a timeless fashion.

The band you played with in the studio - and also your inseparable piano - sound more powerful than ever. Is that also one of the reasons you're so happy with the album?

I agree, the songs sound really powerful. Mike Elizondo and his sound engineer, Adam Hawkins, are to blame. They're crazy for all things low fidelity. They placed a huge amount of lo-fi microphones all over the studio and they mixed more tracks than strictly necessary to come up with the perfect sound. They did a great job.

I was amused by your attempts to put on your Italian accent on “Oh Marcello”. How important is humour in your compositions?

If I told you all the things I find funny we would be here for all eternity. I laugh about a lot of silly things, but I don't see myself as a comedian, far from it. To me, sadness always has a fun part, and there's always something sad about anything funny. It's the cocktail of our lives. The line between tragedy and comedy is so thin that most of the time we live with it without noticing.

For this album you recovered “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”, which you already released in 2002, on “Songs”. What makes you re-record songs from your old repertoire?

I've done that on every record, so it's nothing new. I always think there are songs that can be done better. Each piece parts from a specific moment. However, re-recording them, they come back to life like the first day, but with a different touch. That way I won't get bored of them on stage.

So you're a perfectionist?

Yes. I wish I wasn't, but I am, even though it's not all about good quality. You can easily lose perspective on other things. The songs come up from a very specific context, and they're born and die as soon as the record's finished recording. But, even so, that perfectionism has made me waste part of my energy on things that have nothing to do with the music...

Do you give up a lot of things when you lock yourself inside your house to compose?

Luckily, my friends are always there, and they understand what my work is. I meet them, organise dinners at my place and so on. However, they know that there are other moments when I need maximum focus. It's like when a doctor has to urgently visit a patient in the middle of the night. In my case, I love getting lost in art and living on my own. When I'm submerged in an album, I can surround myself in the studio with people who are completely crazy. But at the same time I try to find moments to experiment, on my own. Getting away from everything and everyone helps us to mentally process everything that surrounds us.

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