Tuesday, June 23, 2009

From Russia With Love: Regina Spektor interview

When I interviewed Regina Spektor last month, I promised to put the full transcript on the blog...

Well, the concise, polished version went up on the BBC website earlier today - so here is our full discussion, complete with awkward pauses, stupid jokes and tortured baby metaphors.

We join the chat just after the pleasantries of saying hello, talking about the album (it's great) and the video for Laughing With (Regina gets to take her head off).

Sorry about the length of this post - but I think it's an interesting discussion with one of the industry's more intelligent and thoughtful singer-songwriters. To break the tedium, I've thrown in a couple of videos with songs from her new album, which is called Far, and available now from your local record store.

So many of your songs aren’t released. How come?
I don’t get to make enough records to stick them all on to. This record came three years after the last one.

Was that on purpose?
No! It was just I was touring so much and working so much that it just kinda happened and then I woke up and I was like “ahhh, shit, it’s been three years.”

How big is the backlog of material?
Wel, I might not have enough songs to keep filling records 'til I'm 80… but maybe, like, 'til I'm 50!

It must be interesting to go back to those songs five or six years later and seeing how they’ve changed.
It is. It’s really fun to work on, plus I always feel like some sort of relief – like after I do one of the older songs onto a record because I’m like “oh, you’ve been patiently waiting your turn”. Like, on this record, Blue Lips, Genius Next Door, Wallet – there’s a bunch that just had to be on a record someday.

So it’s not all new material.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever made a record that was strictly all new material.

Once they’re on tape, is that the final, finished version? Or is it more like giving birth and watching them grow up and mature and flee the nest? Oh dear – that was a bit of a tortured baby metaphor. Sorry!
[Laughs] That was a tortured baby metaphor! I don’t know… I guess that if an old song ends up on a record, I know where it is and it stays where it’s at. But if I just wrote a song and I put it on a record right away, it has to go through that arc and things will change here and there.

Regina Spektor - Eet

The new album has loads of big name producers – what you attracted you to each of them?
First of all, I didn’t really know at the time how big they were. And I didn’t really know what they’d done. Ssome of them had reached out to us and some of them we were suggested to reach out to. And then Jeff Lynne – I memorised his name off a Tom Petty record that I really like called Highway Companion because I just loved how it sounded and I was like 'I'm gonna remember this producer’s name'. Because I never remember producer’s names. When people ask me “so who would you like to work with” I have nothing to say.

So he was the one that I came up with because of how great that record sounded. And later I found out he’d done all this other stuff – and how much of his music I had heard, but I didn’t know it was him.

The mark of a good producer is they adapt to the artist. How much did that happen on this album?
That’s what happened with all these producers – Guy and Mike and Jack, And then David Khan worked on Begin To Hope with me, so with him it was like “old hat!”. But it was really cool. They weren’t so different – I’m not trying to say they were all the same but I think that their approach was that they really care about music and they cared about my songs and they listened to me and didn’t try to force me in any way. They all care about their families and friends.

Do you get absorbed into people’s families when you’re working with them?

Well, it depends on whether we’re working near their families. With Garrett, he was working with me in London but he lives outside London, so I only got to see a lot of pictures of his kids and his wife and their dogs on his laptop – and they were all really, really cute. And, um, but with Jeff, his studio was in his house and so I had lots of dinners with him and his family and his friends, and I had Thanksgiving at his house which was really fun. And with Mike, he had just had a new little baby and part of the work that we did was in New York, but another part was at his studio which is in the same place as his home – and so I got to hang out with his kids and his wife… and his dog [laughs nervously].

You make it sound like the dog was the most important!
I love dogs! I’ve always wanted to have a puppy – but that would just be terrible and cruel because I’m never home.

And then… with David it’s just like he’s an old friend at this point. With him it’s home in New York and we get to hang out.

They’re all men. Was that on purpose?
No! Not at all! I don’t know any lady producers. Because I’ve not had an organised search, it didn’t even enter my mind to make it a point to look for a female producer and make it a point to see what that’s like. It’s funny. How did that never enter my mind?

Are there any working female producers?

Linda Perry is the obvious one.
Yeah, but she co-writes with her artists. I want someone who produces people who write their own music.

Maybe there are so few female producers because the job taps into that geeky boy thing of wanting to press buttons and play with cables.
But a lot of producers don’t know how to work the desk. They just let the engineers do it. As a matter of fact on this record all of the producers except David had engineers. He can just do anything. He’s techie and artsy!

But yeah, I don’t know. There’s also not a lot of female grips and roadies. There are some. I’ve seen some. But I’ve not even seen names of producers.

It should be sorted out – let’s start a campaign.
Yes! Let’s put out a call and say "where are you??"

Or set up a place where women can learn the trade?
But how do you even learn? Who has studied production? It’s one of those things you fall into. I don’t know… I’ve actually thought many times that I would love to produce a musician or an act. Maybe I could be the first female producer.

What would you bring to the table?
I love arranging! I just love writing parts for songs and just writing a bass part here, and a synth part here. Just playing around. But I wouldn’t be very techie. I’d have to have an engineer.

Funnily enough, we spoke to Harry Gregson-Williams about the work you did on the Prince Caspian soundtrack and he was very complimentary about your arranging skills.
Actually, it’s funny being here in London because I was just thinking about him and that experience at Abbey Road and Narnia and how amazing he was. I got here and I didn’t know what to expect. Walking into Abbey Road was like boom, boom, boom – giant, giant, giant. Harry was recording a 90-person choir, so I was just sitting there quietly but he was just so warm and welcoming, “come into the room, you can sit here”. And he’s so talented, it’s great. To do that – to conduct and write scores. It’s really, really cool.

Regina Spektor - Laughing With (live)

How does that compare to the little studio you go into with David in New York?
It’s completely different. But I think that one is not better than the other. Like everything, there’s always a trade-off. Something happens in the legendary room and something happens in the little room. And there’s always plusses and minuses. But I have to say, if there is the most perfect studio on the planet, it’s Abbey Road. Because no place sounds or feels like that. Especially that Studio2 where the Beatles recorded most of their things. It has that sound.

We were recording strings, and this amazing thing that happened. Thirty-six string players were in there, but you could tune in and hear just one instrument, or zoom out and you could hear everything blended. And I think that’s why The Beatles sounded so good – I mean, they had great ears, but I think that that kind of room makes you see yourself really clearly, so you can’t get away with anything semi-crappy. It has to be perfect.

There’s an atmosphere in recording studios that I always liken to walking into a church. Do you feel that?
It’s got the hard work in its walls. You can feel it. People have really given of themselves, and really cared about music here. I think any place where people try really hard – like schools – you get good feelings from those places.

Did you enjoy school?
Yes! All of them. I mean, I’ve been to a lot.

Did you ever get up on stage and perform for your classmates?
Talent shows? Yes! I played my little classical piano – just whatever I was studying at the time with my piano teacher.

In my school, people would always be asked to play The Entertainer in front of the school when they passed an exam.
That is hard! I actually tried to play ragtime when I was studying and the dexterity of it was really hard – to do two things at the same time with just the left hand. The stride is really hard to do.

What would your piano teacher say about the way you play now?
She’s heard me and she was really nice about it. She liked it. But I remember when I was younger she always used to tell me off for over-using the pedal. It masks a lot of mistakes!

The two songs on your new single - Laughing With and Blue Lips – are a bit more downbeat. Is that indicative of the album?
It’s still got a lot of songs that are fast… I think every album is a mix. I don’t think I’ve ever had one that is more subdued or happy. It’s sort of diverse. It represents every aspect of life. And to me that feels more natural. It would feel really weird to have just one side of me represented on the record – like to have all the songs slower.

When Begin To Hope came out, some fans were a bit annoyed it was so polished. What will they make of this album?
Well, I don’t know. I think a few things happen, and I assume it happens to everybody because it happens to me.

First of all, music sometimes has to grow on us. So maybe some of the people that had that experience and they started to understand it. And then there’s the people who it didn’t grow on. And of those people, some were just like “it’s okay, I don’t like this record but I might like the next, and I might like the live shows” and so they’re open to not liking every record. And then there’s a small part of people who, let’s say they don’t like the record, and they get kind of mad. They’re like "this has all been ruined" and they go out into the world and look for their new obsession.

It's certain people's jobs to be purists. They champion new music and, when the rocket takes off, they're like the booster stage that naturally falls off - because its their job to help the next musician who comes along.
It's a bittersweet thing, but there are always people who are coming along with you and some who are dropping away.

Regina Spektor - Blue Lips (live)

Begin To Hope was deliberately a slow-burning, word-of-mouth success, but it’s sold a million copies now... Are you ready for those million people all buying the new record?

First of all, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that all those people will do that – because I just don’t think that that’s how it works. But music should not be shoved down people’s throats and I really work hard to present myself in the way that I want to new listeners. I believe in hard work and things that take time. I don’t want to have some random song that gets overplayed and people get bombarded with and never want to hear again. It’s much better when you feel like you’ve worked your way towards something real. And the people that come to the shows aren’t random people who heard just one song and it’s been sold to them and so they’re just listening to it that week.

The worst thing is when people turn up for that one song and talk through the rest of the show.
That would be a nightmare. I’ve had really good luck – just because my show is quite quiet. If people are being really loud they get shushed.

Have you ever had to tell people off?
Oh yeah. Plenty of times! Yeah. I kind of enjoy it a little bit more than I should, actually. It’s a way to get my New York, “you talkin’ to me”, anger out. Ever-so slightly.

I get mad on behalf of the other people. They’ve come all this way and they’ve paid money so you’d better shut up so they can listen.

When you’re in the audience, it can be quite intimidating to tell someone off for talking. You feel like you’re taking your life into your hands.
It is kind of dangerous. And it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the audience. That’s why like I always think I have to do it.

Finally, can you do your dolphin impression?
Wait a minute… It goes… Kind of… No, I’m too jetlagged. So no dolphins!

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