As a high-profile concert this season, many students new to Regina Spektor may begin listening to her music with curiosity, and finishing it with confusion. Bounding between various styles and instrumentation, Spektor’s music often avoids easy categorization. However, delving into her personal history will help illuminate her aesthetic variety.
Born in Soviet Russia in 1980, Spektor started taking piano lessons when she was 7 years old. Russian musical training is rigorous as Spektor recalled in an interview with New York Times writer Wyatt Mason: “Respect, concentration, reading notation, hands’ interaction with the piano — it’s the beginning of technique.” After emigrating to the United States in 1989, Spektor continued her studies with Sonia Vargas, a well regarded pianist, who provided them for no charge. She channels those classical influences in her work, as well as her sixth and latest album, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats. Spektor plays her luscious scales with ease on “Firewood,” a track that succeeds because of its musical simplicity in Spektor’s voice and piano.
For a different aesthetic side, her more eclectic songwriting can be traced back to her anti-folk roots, a movement known for subverting the traditions of folk music through musical experimentation. Songs like “Oh Marcello” illustrate this well, combining a faux-Italian accent with sporadic tempo changes and vocal beat-boxing to create an eclectic mixture of textures. Touring with her husband Jack Dishel (stage name Only Son, former member of The Moldy Peaches, another anti-folk group), the anti-folk tradition still informs her songwriting, and with Cheap Seats, we can hear it as well.
These anti-folk and classical influences shape Cheap Seats to be radically diverse, often coalescing into the same tracks. “Open” is one of these, primarily acting as a traditional (but not stale) piano ballad, where Spektor channels her classical technique. However, her experimentation arises later in the piece as well, vocally cutting the track with gasping breaths, creating a musical phrase that epitomizes the dichotomy of her music: beautiful, but surreal at the same time.
It’s this fine balance between these musical influences of her work that ultimately form a balance of between the genuine and the ironic in her work. It’s a precarious balance to be sure, but to fully enjoy Spektor’s music, embracing these dichotomies is the best way to appreciating both sides of her peculiar, proficient songwriting.
- Jacqueline Ristola