We’ve Got A File On You: Regina Spektor

Shervin Lainez

We’ve Got A File On You: Regina Spektor

Shervin Lainez

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

“I love the idea that anything can be a song. Anything.”

Regina Spektor tells me this while “sipping oxygen from a can,” in a hotel room high in the mountains of Colorado. She had grand plans to practice old songs to add into the line-up for her show that night, performing her new album Home, before and after, but the altitude has gotten the best of her.

This freewheeling sense of imagination is a defining quality of Home, before and after, a classical-pop opus recorded with a full orchestra. Spektor bears listeners through the misadventures and ruminations of sometimes wretched, truth-seeking protagonists. There’s a rousing piano ballad about grabbing a beer with god, a jaunty character study of an incel, a paean to a heartbroken mother, a nine minute-long fantasy epic about the nature of time, and a heartfelt classroom lecture on human existence.

The opulent production and conceptual ambition mark how much Spektor has evolved from the scrappy punk pianist of 2003’s Soviet Kitsch. But brilliant storytelling is a constant. I think about her scenes all the time: Samson eating a midnight snack of Wonderbread, retrieving time out of a kitchen cupboard, going to a protest just to rub up against strangers. Her taste for baroque vocal gymnastics, cheery melodies, and motifs like raindrops and birds have gotten her slapped with dismissive labels like “quirky” and “twee.” But her songs are much more than dreamy love stories. They’re trips into Spektor’s mind, often funny, dark and outrageous, capable of infecting you with her reverence for the mysteries of the world and the complexity of people.

The song that got Spektor signed twenty years ago was “Poor Little Rich Boy,” a scathing but empathetic character study of a Fitzgerald-reading asshole, plunked on the piano with one hand and tapped out with a drumstick with the other. It ends with something like scatting. As the legend goes, Spektor immigrated from the Soviet Union when she was nine and grew up in the Bronx. At 21, she met the drummer Alan Bezozi at the Lower East Side’s Sidewalk Cafe, where she’d play “anti-folk” open mics (alongside acts like the Moldy Peaches, who her husband Jack Dishel’s played with). Bezozi introduced her to Gordon Raphael, The Strokes’ producer, who played the song for Julian Casablancas. He was hooked and invited her on 2003’s Room On Fire tour. This star-crossed co-sign got her a deal with Warner Brothers, but her subsequent albums, 2006’s Begin To Hope and 2009’s Far, became chart hits thanks to contagious love songs like “Fidelity,” “Better,” “Samson,” “Two Birds,” and “Eet.”

Over the next twenty years, Spektor has become a commercial powerhouse and an indie legend, defying her oddball sound and outsider origins. A feature of her career that feels almost as unlikely as opening for the biggest rock band in the world is her close relationship to Hollywood. Starting with Begin To Hope, Spektor’s hits started getting synced to mainstream shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, 90210, Criminal Minds, The Good Wife, and How I Met Your Mother — just to name a few. Sometimes, she provided sunny background music (in season three of Grey’s, “Fidelity” plays, confusingly, while Addison confesses to Callie that she aborted Mark’s baby), and other times, a generalized melodramatic pathos (“Samson” rolls as one of the stars of CSI: NY weeps looking at blood spatters in the apartment where she shot her abusive boyfriend).

It’s no mystery why showrunners and music directors worship her ability to set a scene. In many cases, her contributions to film and TV help tell the stories: just watch the trailer for 27 Dresses or the pilot of HBO’s 2011 Laura Dern show Enlightened. The way “Us” and “Hero” conjured the idea of epic but doomed love in (500) Days of Summer made her a god to millennial teens and forever linked her to the aughts hipster moment. Her ability to dream up a song about anything has been put to use in original songs for Disney movies, blockbusters, and, perhaps most famously, the theme for Orange Is The New Black. In the last few years, she’s become a presence on Broadway. She was recruited by Lin Manuel-Miranda to sing “Dear Theodosia” for The Hamilton Mixtape, and performed her own Broadway residency in 2019.

Today, Spektor still feels utterly one-of-a-kind, floating outside of music trends and debates, even as she inspires them. Lately, her songs circulate on TikTok (“Folding Chair” went viral as a body positive anthem), in the singer-songwriter renaissance (she was covered by Lucy Dacus), and in conversations about the re-evaluation of women artists of the aughts (Pitchfork recently bumped up the official score of Begin To Hope).

Over the phone, she walked us through her “ancestral art lineage” and some of her biggest pop culture moments over the years.

Home, before and after (2022)

This is your first album in six years. What led to you taking that long of a break, and then that made you want to get in the studio and record again?

It wasn’t on purpose! I also didn’t really notice time passing. I was very busy. I was scheduled to record on April 1 of 2020 — studio time was booked. John Congleton, my producer, was supposed to fly to New York.

It wasn’t that you needed six years off to go sit in a cabin and write a masterpiece.

No, no. I write songs just as I live. I’ve never felt that kind of pressure: “Oh, I need to write a record.” It’s more the pressure to decide which of the songs I’m writing all the time will end up on a record. Often, songs wait their turn for decades. It was time for “Raindrops” and “Loveology” because people kept requesting them at shows, especially at my Broadway residency. My fans really take better care of my songs than I do. I toss songs under the bed and remember them 20 years later.

This album almost listens like a rock opera, about all these flawed characters on their different adventures. I know you’ve dabbled in writing musicals. Did your recent experiences with Broadway inspire you on this album?

I don’t think that it’s so much Broadway… Broadway is actually so musically conservative, though Lin [Manuel-Miranda] has done tremendous work to break that open. It’s just not that sonically adventurous. But the thing I love about old Broadway musicals is just how much the songs are really songs you know? They’re not tracks, they’re songs. I love story songs, so that part of me overlaps with Broadway. But there’s a lot of me that doesn’t at all. Everyone has sort of their ancestral art lineage.

My lineage very much has roots in classical music, and then the Beatles and very sonically adventurous rock. Song songs. Like, the American Songbook, those standards, where each one is their own little trip. I love that very much. And then I don’t really get to share this with my American friends and listeners, but there’s a huge part of me that’s so connected to the Russian singer songwriter bards that I grew up with. They’re always with me. And they wrote the most amazing songs about all kinds of crazy things. I just love this idea that anything could be a song. Anything.

Syncing music to TV shows like CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, The Good Wife, Veronica Mars, etc. (2005-present)

Were you surprised when TV shows started wanting your songs? So much was made about how eccentric and odd and different you were, and then huge, mainstream hit shows like CSI want your songs.

You know, it’s funny. I didn’t know anything about anything — how labels, TV, business worked. In the beginning I was like, “I’m gonna do everything DIY, I’m terrified of corporations wanting to turn me into something I’m not.” I would say no to everything. Then when I got signed and finally felt very confident that I’d have creative control, then I got very interested in working with TV. I was getting introduced to people at the label. I went to the television person and was like “What do you think? Which of my songs could be on TV or in movies?” And very gently she was like “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen for you.” And they were wrong.

It started with CSI — Anthony E. Zuiker, who created CSI, had seen me on VH1 and heard my song. And it inspired him to write an episode! And at this time it was the number one show in America. He contacted Warner and requested my song. And they were so, so surprised. Afterwards I bumped into that lady at the show, and she was like “Well, I guess we’ll have to work our way down from there.” He also actually wanted me to act on CSI. I was very scared that I wasn’t going to be good at it. Now in hindsight, of course, I should have just tried.

Recording a cover of “Tiny Little Boxes” for the Weeds theme song (2006)

The cool thing about being a part of television and film was that most of my experiences were with people being into my music, and getting inspired by a specific song. Like, with Weeds, a writer took a song called “Ghost of Corporate Future,” and used it as sort of like inspiration for an episode. That’s the most exciting thing, is when someone takes something you made and makes something new. I love when dancers choreograph to my songs or a capella groups do them. Any kind of reinterpretation, or just like a bounce-off thing, where they’re writing a whole new thing based on it.

Writing “The Call” for The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)

I remember seeing that Narnia movie in theaters and hearing your song, and being so surprised that these two things I like, indie rock and fantasy YA novels, were colliding. How did you get that gig and write that song?

They reached out to me, the director and the composer, Andrew Adamson and Harry Gregson Williams, who just liked my music. It was back in the old days, and this woman traveled to New York with the film handcuffed to her body to bring it to a screening for me. I learned something really important during that experience. I’d had dinner plans after the screening and then they canceled on me. So I got straight out of the movie and just felt everything and didn’t get interrupted and walked home and went straight to the keyboard.

I sent them the recording and they were like “Great, come to London, we’re going to record at Abbey Road with the London Philharmonic.” It was my dream. I got to watch Harry conduct a 90 person choir. It was funny, it was a lot of sitting around because their schedule was so crazy. But I ended up living there for a little bit. But I learned how important it is not to let a feeling dissipate when you want to capture it. If I’d gone to dinner with my friends, I might not have written that song, or anything at all. It taught me to protect creative space, guard it. Sometimes you have to miss social things to stay in a certain mode or headspace or world.

Writing “One Little Soldier” for Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell — that movie was another one where they showed me the movie and I really, really felt immediately inspired by it, and just went and wrote the song. Two days later it was popped into the movie. It was so so fast and really fun to just have that exact thing about having an atmosphere in your mind. And feeling really connected to it. And I really, I really loved that movie.

“Us” and “Hero” appearing on the (500) Days Of Summer soundtrack (2009)

When that movie came out, you’d already toured with the Strokes and had a pretty big hit with “Fidelity.” How big of a moment was that movie for you?

So the director, Mark Webb, did the “Fidelity” and “Better” videos. That was a really, really special film project where I felt … there’s two kinds of projects. Sometimes people just kind of need a song. And they just plug in your song, but it really could be anybody. I also feel that way about duets, I’m like “Oh, it doesn’t really matter that it was me.” Then, there’s things you really light up for that are very special to you. He really loved those songs and really got those songs. He comes from music videos, so he’s great with songs and being able to put the emotional part of the song into the film. When he showed me the film, I loved it so much, and I told him, I thought those were the perfect uses.

Did you dial into the “manic pixie dream girl” discourse around the movie at all? Basically, initially people were critical of Summer’s character for fitting this specific stereotype of a “quirky woman.” Then more recently, people started talking about how messed up Tom’s character actually was for putting her on this pedestal to the point where he ignores her needs and interests.

Oh no. I didn’t. I missed all of that. But I guess it’s good that people are working things out for themselves!

Writing the theme song “You’ve Got Time” for Orange Is The New Black (2013-2019)

You first worked with Jenji Kohan on Weeds, and then she tapped you for Orange Is The New Black. Tell me about writing that song, and your relationship with Kohan more generally. Both those shows are about women with very complicated lives and lots of secrets. Do you think there’s a thread there?

Jenji is amazing. I really look up to her. We met her when I first got signed. Even before Soviet Kitsch was officially released, at this little showcase Warner Brothers put together where they had me play a few songs. None of the film and TV people knew me, so they created a way for me to be comfortable, they set it up at a little bar. She came up to me and we started talking and clicked. She knew The Bronx really well because she went to Columbia. And we were just joking around about all the good places to find cool clothes in my neighborhood. They’re all closed now, don’t even go looking.

Then they used my music for Weeds, and then they used they had me sing one of the versions of “Little Boxes.” When she was still in the process of casting Orange Is The New Black, she was doing a lot of casting in New York and said, “Let’s meet, I want you to write a song for this show.” She told me about the premise and some of the vignettes over lunch, you know, some of the stories. I instantly started to imagine things, I was so excited about it. It just sounded so cool and unique, and to have a show with so many women of different ages and races. I went out on tour and she’d send me links to the unedited episodes as they’d finish. My husband and I would wait to get a new one, each was such a treat.

How is your process different when writing songs for movies?

To me, there’s just different categories of art. Songwriting is one aspect of myself. That’s one job. Then recording the songs and being in the studio, that’s a whole other job. I totally use different parts of myself doing that. Then playing live is yet still another job. Working on these projects, when somebody opens up their art, and invites you into it to collaborate or be inspired or arrange, I think of that as homework music. My own songs come from this place. And then “You’ve Got Time” or “The Call” or the animated show Central Park, those come from a very different place. It’s a muscle I don’t get to use unless I do that, so I really really love [doing songs for TV and movies].

A film like Narnia or Orange Is The New Black, it’s an entire world that someone has birthed out of their imagination and then it takes hundreds of people to bring it to life. You become just one tiny person, a part of a bigger vision. So you really need to think about that big picture and what serves it. When I was working on “The Call,” everything about it, the words I was choosing, the way I would deliver it, it was specific. It’s almost like making a dress for someone instead of taking it off the rack. It’s like, “Oh, this person is trusting me to make a dress for their body.” That’s how I think about it.

Have you ever been asked to do a movie or show you turned down?

Yes. I’ve been screened a tremendous amount of movies and TV shows, some of them I just didn’t connect with, or didn’t have an idea or just didn’t hear anything. Sometimes it’s a bummer, like, I love this movie, this would be a great project to be a part of. But I don’t feel like I could really contribute. When that happens, I’m not just going to write something just to write it. So yeah, I’ve turned down many things, and many of them I’ve really liked. But I tend to be able to say yes more than no. I love being invited in, and often, those projects will inspire something later for myself.

Participating in the Meet Me In The Bathroom oral history of ‘00s NYC rock ‘n’ roll (2017)

You were interviewed by Lizzy Goodman for Meet Me In The Bathroom. What was it like to participate in that myth-making around your early career, or be turned into a character in that book? There’s a whole chapter named “Soviet Kitsch.”

I think you summed it up with the myth thing. None of that was real, you know? I mean, none of those things are really real, right? People look back on things and they create scenes out of it. At that time in my life, I was very much an outsider, in my immigrant bubble. I was broke, I didn’t spend much time in Manhattan. I played at Sidewalk Cafe and The Living Room and Pianos during their indie comedy night, Art Land, in people’s apartments, every place that existed.

When you say like, the stories aren’t real, do you just mean it wasn’t as glamorous as it all sounds?

Yeah! I mean for me, I was just sitting on the subway traveling to the Bronx, back and forth, and playing shows. It’s like, I wasn’t making the scene. I wasn’t hanging out with The Strokes or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I didn’t know anybody! Then I got so lucky by meeting Alan Bezozi who heard me playing, and who introduced me to Gordon Raphael. I was probably the only person who didn’t know who the Strokes were in 2002. He gave me their CD and I was obsessed. And I haunted him while he recorded. But, there was no budget, I wasn’t signed, I didn’t have anybody. So I was just begging him to play my songs to the Strokes to see if they’d maybe tell their label about me. I had these very unrealistic ideas and I got so lucky.

Do you ever think about what would have happened, or where you’d be now if you never met him or The Strokes? Those alternative histories?

I don’t. If I did, then I might as well be like, “Well, what if the Iron Curtain never fell and I stayed in Russia?” Would I be a songwriter writing in Russian? Or would I be something else? Or what if my dad never met Sam, my piano teacher, on the subway, and he’d never said “Why don’t you come over and we’ll play some classical music?” He taught me for free. I wouldn’t know how to play. I think going into those things just isn’t useful.

Home, before and after is out now via Warner Records. She’s currently on tour and is performing at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night.

more from We've Got A File On You

Hi. It looks like you're using an ad blocker.

As an independent website, we rely on our measly advertising income to keep the lights on. Our ads are not too obtrusive, promise. Would you please disable adblock?