Regina Spektor wanted to do it all. “The people I look up to are unattainable,” she admitted in an early New York Times interview, proceeding to list the artists she aspired to be like: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Tennessee Williams, Tchaikovsky, etc. “It shouldn’t matter that I’m a via-Moscow-Bronx classical-music punk girl. I should be able to do anything, right?”
From the very beginning, Spektor was determined and ambitious. She’s attributed her tenacity to her experience as an immigrant. Spektor moved to New York City from Russia when she was nine years old in the late ’80s, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. She had started studying classical piano before she left, and there was talk of her family staying behind because of how dedicated she became to the craft. But they settled down in a Russian Jewish community in the Bronx, where Spektor found herself without a piano of her own. She continued to practice, though, at her synagogue and on practically any surface she could find, banging out music on counters and tables and humming to herself. She absorbed the pop culture around her, trying to figure out her strange new world as she went. “In America, it took me a while to learn English,” she said. “I realized that I was just speaking ridiculous sounds. Suddenly the words started to mean things. I cracked the code.”
Eventually, she picked back up her more formal piano training and started to write songs of her own, influenced by singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and Tori Amos, and jazz singers, especially Billie Holiday. (Spektor would go on to write a song inspired by Holiday’s life story.) Her debut album, 11:11, was recorded during her senior year at SUNY Purchase Music Conservatory, where she earned a bachelor of music in studio composition. She handed out CDs of the album at the many shows she performed in and around New York City, which makes its exact release date hard to pin down. But the album and its 2002 follow-up Songs made her a staple in the city’s burgeoning anti-folk scene. She attracted the attention of the Strokes via their producer Gordon Raphael, who would go on to produce Spektor’s 2003 album Soviet Kitsch. Her big break would come when she was asked to open for the then-stratospheric band on the tour for their sophomore album Room On Fire. That led to a record deal and crossover into mainstream consciousness, from the Orange Is The New Black theme song on down.
But before all that there was 11:11. I came to Spektor’s music a little later, as I imagine most did, right around the time she released her breakthrough album, 2006’s Begin To Hope. It proved to be an important stepping stone for me in the transition from being an annoying Broadway kid to an annoying indie rock kid. Her music was theatrical and most of the songs had narratives; she seemed erudite and worldly, her lyrics were peppered with allusions to literature and the classics. I was encouraged to dig around for Spektor’s earlier albums: Soviet Kitsch, which was clanging and discordant and consciously odd, and 11:11 and Songs, which were a little harder-to-find (they’re still unavailable on streaming services).
At 20 years old, Spektor already had her own distinguished presence. The songs on 11:11 are made up of simply-plucked bass lines and rudimentary percussion; the only instruments allowed much personality are the sweeping, often boisterous piano arrangements and Spektor’s own voice. It’s smooth and capacious, occasionally adopting a gravelly rasp as she transitions into her upper register. She often smashes words together and pulls them apart, and her eccentricities let her mold hooks out of some truly ridiculous phrases. She’s focused on wordplay and building worlds. 11:11 in particular pulls from what Spektor knew growing up: the sounds of New York.
The album crackles with the life of the city and the people in it. On “Back Of A Truck,” she offers up glimpses of characters in tantalizing fashion: a gym teacher who thought himself “a sweat-socked demigod,” the “androgynous powder-nosed girl next door” who “had eaten her dog and was back for more,” a sweatshop run by Miss Lucy where the immigrants worked, who “turned to pumpkins at the 12 o’clock stroke.” The song builds to mumbled conversation between the people in the street selling wares out of the back of their trucks, all trying to make a living and get by. The eight-minute “Pavlov’s Daughter” is sweaty and claustrophobic, as Spektor’s narrator is forced to contend with the existence of a neighbor in tight quarters:
My name is Lucille and I know how you feel
I live downstairs
I hear you taking out your garbage
I hear you loving your girlfriend
I hear you loving yourself too
I hear you flushing your toilet
I hear you turning your thoughts off
I turn mine off too
The only thing I hear is you
And you don’t sound nice and you don’t sound right
And you don’t sound good and you don’t sound right
All this is delivered at a frantic clip — it’s the peak of Spektor’s affectations on the album, a song filled with yips and growls and screeching vocalizations. It’s a lot to take in, but if you give yourself over to it, it’s powerful stuff, especially as the song bleeds into woozy psychosexual compulsion: “Pavlov’s daughter woke up in the morning/ Heard the bell ring,” she mewls. “And something deep inside of her made her want to salivate/ So she lay there drooling on her pillow.”
Spektor often sounds much older than she is on 11:11, adopting the perspective of the different characters she sings about — peeks into a world that are worthy of a short story writer. On “Buildings,” she tells both sides of the story of a couple who seem destined for failure. “He was a husband who drove his wife home drunk from the parties,” she sings in one verse; the next: “In the morning she’d wake up and crouch recollections all day/ But she would always always wake up the next morning.” The song devolves into a furious, fragmented style of singing that reflects both the relationship disintegrating and the crushing reality of day-to-day existence, filled with coffee and commutes and constant disappointment. “But time is not given and time is not taken/ It just sifts through itself,” she sings, a philosophical musing buried amid shouts that, hey, they build buildings so tall these days.
“Mary Ann” is about a wife who poisons her husband, and Spektor delivers the tale with a gleeful satisfaction. The title character keeps her man in porcupine gloves and they make prickly, unsatisfying “porcupine love.” Her world is nice and ordered until one day she snaps:
Miss Marry Ann
Kept her cans
In alphabetical order
Miss Marry Ann
Began to have
Some thoughts of murder
Miss Marry Ann
Started to think
Real hard about her future
Miss Marry Ann
Preferred her meat
To be freshly butchered
So goes the lively, curious world of Regina Spektor. The songs on 11:11 are jaded and often very funny, but there’s one notable exception in “Braille,” an early take on the touching narratives that Spektor would zero in on with songs like “Samson” and “Us.” It’s about the love a mother has for her son, who she had at a young age and named Elvis to “make up for the royalty he lacked.” It’s some of Spektor’s most poignant writing and one of her best songs, a tender and beautifully simple track about the flicker of hope in the darkest of times. “From then on it was turpentine and patches/ From then on it was cold Campbell’s from the can,” she sings, laying out their future like falling dominoes. “They were just two jerks playing with matches/ ‘Cause that’s all they knew how to play.”
Spektor has always embraced earnestness, which has occasionally tripped her up in more recent years as she’s struggled to find the balance between sentimentality and the more cynical edge that characterizes her most successful songs. But when she finds that balance, her songs feel like no other. “I just think there shouldn’t be a song I can’t write, ever, in any aesthetic,” she once said. 11:11 is an early example of that daring and, by extension, Spektor’s immense talent and promise. Its character studies are intimate and intoxicating, and it captures the creative spark that would eventually endear Spektor to so many.