Perfect Sound Forever

Regina Spektor

by Caitlin Pasko
(October 2008)

In tenth grade I sang Mozart's "Lacrymosa" in All District Chorus. It is still the only song I absolutely cannot get through without choking up. I became obsessed with it, learning everything about the song I could, worshipping Mozart and the myth behind his Requiem. I started writing songs in tenth grade as well, and when I performed I called myself Lacrymosa, a moniker I still use today. In twelfth grade I discovered Regina Spektor. My friend Hannah played me "Lacrimosa," a track off of Regina's second album, Songs, and I've never felt anything like how I felt that day, riding in the passenger seat, listening to that song for the first time. I became fascinated with Regina Spektor the way I had become fascinated with "Lacrymosa," fascinated by her indie classical style, so similar to my own.

On April 19, 2008, Regina Spektor celebrated the second annual Record Store Day by performing a free concert at Sound Fix Records in Brooklyn. The show was on a Saturday morning, but because I need money almost as much as I need Regina, I chose to work instead. I was lucky enough, though, to find several videos of her five-song performance online.

I was happy to discover that Regina performed "Genius," an older song that has never been properly recorded and is just about never performed. The song centers around the legend of a local lake, nicknamed "the porridge" after it mysteriously thickened over night. Regina introduces us to the local kids, who continue to swim in the lake, drunk and indifferent to the condition of the water, as well as "the genius next door," "bussin' tables [and] wipin' clean the ketchup bottle labels." We learn that the "genius" enjoys smoking weed and reading German fables, and that at night, when everyone is sleeping, he swims into the lake, naked and alone, "just him and this secret he was keeping."

Whereupon Regina stops telling the story and, with both her voice and piano, scolds the "genius," calling him a "foolish child" while switching from a fluttering arpeggiated rhythm to a crawling chordal one. Regina picks the story up again at the start of the next morning. The genius is sleeping now, and the rest of town is going about its business. Regina adds a layer to the story just before ending it, stating, while never explaining, that "in the morning the film crews [started] arriving…atheists were prayin' full of sarcasm, and the genius next door was sleeping, dreaming that the antidote was orgasm," suggesting, through the imagery of reporters and prayers and the use of the word 'antidote,' that perhaps the "genius" is responsible for the lake's sudden change in consistency.

About a minute and forty seconds into her Record Store Day performance of "Genius," Regina suddenly looks up from her hands, stares the crowd straight in the eye, and grins sheepishly and perhaps slyly, breaking the focus of her audience and making them grin and laugh too, until her sequence is finished, when her eyes return to her hands, to her piano, transporting her mind and her audience back to the "genius next door." This gesture, whether spontaneous or practiced shtick, is a perfect example of how Regina's art operates. It is both Regina's songs and her live performances that make Regina Spektor, the character, exist. She may not write, or expose, her true self in her songs--that's what she's told interviewers many times. But she writes her character – semiconsciously, if that--into her performance.

Tim O'Brien, one of my favorite writers, often writes about his experiences in the Vietnam War, while at the same time classifying his work as fiction. I found a blog discussing a segment from one of his short stories, "I Killed a Man," from The Things They Carried.

"Here is the happening-truth," he writes. "I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief. Here is the story-truth, He was a slim, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him" (Life...).

While the events in O'Brien's story may not be factual, the story itself conveys an emotional truth. "I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again," he's written. Regina says something similar to this: "I come up with a lot of characters. I create little worlds. It's like writing fiction. But my songs are always an extreme version of myself. I can take chances I wouldn't take in real life," she told MTV. "Maybe I'm becoming less of a narrator and more of a character these days," she said in another interview. "I was always used to observing and writing third-person narrative stories about things I was seeing. Then as time went on, I started placing myself in these scenes, more like an actor."

When I read through the comments on the O'Brien blog, I found one that really stuck out. Terri B. wrote, "I think that turning happening into story is a way to make sense out of what has happened. It gives you the time and space to think and reflect. Changing the actual into story makes it no less true. Of course you run into people who then read your work and ask 'did that really happen?' There will always be assumptions that your expression is autobiographical" (Life...).

"People expect the truth, or they expect accessible one size fits all love songs. What happens is, if you're not writing one-size-fits-all accessible love songs, they don't know what to do with you," Regina told Alternative Press. "That's why I end up having the word 'quirky' in every fucking article about me."

Terri B. goes on to explain that she experienced this confusion with a poem she wrote. "I wasn't writing about an event -- I was writing about an emotion that we've all faced."

So I wonder, is "the genius next door" a genius in the sense of possessing a brilliant mind? Or does he simply represent the genius that inhabits us all, hiding somewhere in the mysterious lake of our clouded minds. Perhaps the "genius next door" is Regina in disguise. "So many people believe that their lives are art-worthy," Regina has complained, explaining that her songs are never personal or confessional. "What happened to imagination?"

This is a peculiar thing for Regina to say, since her life seems right out of a storybook. When she was only nine and a half, her family emigrated from Moscow to the Bronx. "We came for religious and political freedom. Russia was a very unpleasant place to be Jewish." To make matters worse, the Spektors had to leave the family piano behind. While this was a profound disappointment for Regina, who had been taking lessons from her mother since she was six, "she didn't think of the lack of the instrument as an obstacle," said Sonia Vargas, a classical piano teacher at The Manhattan School of Music, who began giving Regina free piano lessons after a chance encounter on a subway platform. "I would say, 'Did you practice?' And [she] would say, 'Well, I practiced my fingering technique on my knees," Vargas told Rolling Stone.

Regina studied at the music conservatory of SUNY Purchase, and after finishing the program in only three years, she moved back home, supporting herself by working odd jobs–very odd jobs, such as farming butterflies, assisting private investigators, and turning pages for concert musicians. In addition, she was performing her own songs around the city. "It was really hard. I was going from playing things by brilliant people like Mozart and Bach to these crude attempts to play and sing at the same time, written by me for me. It was horrible."

Perhaps Regina's strange vocal style developed from this anxiety about "crude" songwriting and from her love of sound and language. Regina "stretches words... into epic solos, then crams long sentences into her mouth and spits them out in a few exuberant bars," as Josh Tyrangiel described it. She also incorporates sounds, such as hiccups, hisses, pops, and gurgles. "The hiccup sounds," she says, "were like discovering I had a tambourine in my throat."

"The way I write is influenced by the way a classical composer would write, but the aesthetics that I love are pop and punk and hip hop," Regina says. The only pop music she knew growing up in Moscow was the Beatles. "I listened to [the Beatles] before I knew English. I learned all the songs phonetically even though I couldn't understand a word." Her favorite album was Rubber Soul. "I love the characters [the Beatles] were able to create, these bigger-then-life people like 'Nowhere Man'."

It is no surprise, then, that Regina's songs tend to be a "stylistic melting pot," sounding like "Chopinesque miniatures, Weimar Cabaret songs, and Eastern European dances, [all] at the same time." Strokes' producer Gordon Raphael likens Regina's songs to little books, "stories that demand close attention. Her sense of detail is so intricate and phenomenally layered." Raphael had recently returned from London after recording over thirty bands there, and although he was exhausted and ready to take a break for the Christmas holiday, he agreed to meet with the then unknown Regina, anyway. "I said hello, and she smiled, and I said, `What do you do?'" Raphael told The New York Times."She sat down at a piano with a drumstick in one hand and started hitting a chair, and with her left hand played piano to `Poor Little Rich Boy,' all the while singing it with this big smile on her face. And I said: `Oh my God, this is insane, this is amazing, we have to make a record right now. So let's start recording'. "

With Raphael, Regina recorded Soviet Kitsch, her third album. The album took two weeks to record, quite different from 11:11 and Songs, recorded in a day each. Regina was eventually signed to Sire Records on the condition that "I get to pick my producer, I get to pick my songs, I approve all of the masters, I approve all of the artwork, I approve everything. I didn't want to do it any other way."

"Lacrimosa" is the song where Regina's classical and pop influences most obviously come together. It begins with an urgent, staccato piano line, bouncing up and down the length of the piano, back and forth, repeatedly. "We keep on burying our dead/We keep on planting their bones in the ground!" As she says "ground," she slides up to a C as the piano slides down from A major to F major, and switches from staccato to legato, smoother and more connected. "But they won't grow/The sun doesn't help/The rain . . . DOESN'T HELP!" She suddenly shouts, signaling for the piano to return to the staccato urgency once again. This time, instead of playing straight through the staccato section, she bangs on the piano and growls, not like an animal, but like an instrument. "If my garden would have a fence/Then the rabbits couldn't just come in/And sit on the grass/And eat all the flowers/AND SHIT!," She shouts in the same manner as before. But this time, instead of returning then to the staccato, she stays legato.

Suddenly Regina is Icarus, known for his failed attempt to escape from Crete after flying too close to the sun and causing his wax wings to melt. "Hi I'm Icarus/I'm falling DOWN!" she shouts. "Man for judgment must prepare me/Spare/Oh God in mercy/Spare me," a loose translation of Mozart's "Lacrymosa." Regina reverts back to the staccato section once more, singing, "Man I have a terrible feeling/That something's gone awful/Very wrong/With the world/Is it something we made?/Is it something we ate?/Is it something WE DRANK!" Then, Icarus returns again, and instead of returning the piano to the staccato after asking to be spared, Regina continues to play legato, while singing, "La cri mo oh oh oh oh uh uh uh uh suh," acting as an instrument again. Regina repeats the first verse, but instead of saying "The rain doesn't help," she complains of being left with only a cemetery, or "a giant crop of names and dates." After loosely translating Mozart's "Lacrymosa" once more, she sings the actual Latin, and then ends the song by playing the drums with brushes, only with her voice, singing, "ahh ahh dun tsi tsi dun ahh ahh."

Songs is my favorite Regina album, followed closely by Soviet Kitsch. Begin to Hope, her fourth and most recent album, is also her most produced, and my least favorite. It's not that the songs on Begin to Hope don't please me. But the more layers she adds, the more Regina she seems to take away. What Regina Spektor sings, and how she sings what she sings, is so much more important than how perfect she sounds. I love hearing Regina desperately sing, "This is my corazon!" on "Making Records." Her voice cracks and her downward trill is ruined, thrown off its scale, and it doesn't even matter. It's better that way.

Last year, at Town Hall, Regina got all the way through her set without making a mistake. Then, just as she began her encore feature, "Us," she hit a sour note on the piano, paused, giggled, and happily shouted, "I knew I couldn't get through the whole show without fucking one up!" She seems to delight in making mistakes, calling them out, and being happily excused by her audience. I would go as far as to say that I look forward to hearing her sing a wrong lyric or play a wrong note, just to hear her say "Oh fuck!" in her sweet voice, through smiling teeth.

I decided to scour youtube for videos of Regina making mistakes, using various combinations such as, "Regina false start," "Regina messes up," and, "Regina stops," and I found some gems. During "The Consequence of Sounds," performed at Tonic in 2005, Regina forgets a lyric and has to ask the audience what it is. After realizing, a minute later, that her lyric was right all along, and that she was accidentally emphasizing the wrong syllables, she continues the song, smiling a huge smile, demanding that the audience sing along with her, and they do, cracking up all the way through.

In another video, filmed at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, Regina messes up before even finishing the first line of "That Time." "What . . . FUCK! I always forget one thing at every show! What's the first line?!" she shouts. The entire audience yells the lyric to her. "Wait! No! I can't hear you! One at a time!" She pauses and then laughs. "Is that even possible?" She blames it on the "weed smoker" and then starts the song again, then stops again, and says, "It sounds so surreal . . . it's like there's a teleprompter in my head and I'm just following the words and not really . . . What's happening? What happened? All right." The audience laughs with her, laughs at her frazzled state. She stops and gains composure. "Take seventy-two!" The crowd laughs. "We are going to get through this together!" Regina then apologizes and starts the song again, getting through it this time, in fact putting on one hell of a performance.

It is not until you see her perform that you realize she is writing about herself--that is, herself as everyone else. "[My songs] represent certain views about the world and certain emotions and a certain empathy and sympathy and love for humanity, and all kinds of huge, huge things, but they're much more abstract," Regina explains. "They're a lot bigger than a presentation of my personal life or something like that." And that is what I admire about her, more than her music, more than her lyrics, more than the fact that we both have plants named Mozart sitting on our windowsills. It is that when she signs "ReSpekt" as her autograph, she is demanding respect, and giving so much of it at the same time. That is the Regina Spektor character: Regina being us, performing with us and not for us, just as we laugh with her, because she is us and therefore she is laughing, too.

Special thanks to Robert Christgau, who edited this paper for his NYU class

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