Regina Spektor on the importance of good posture
One of pop music’s greatest anomalies recounts the little things that have shaped the arc of her 20-year career on the new episode of The FADER Interview.
Regina Spektor has stories to tell Shervin Lainez / Sacks and Co.

With each of Regina Spektor’s eight albums, the Moscow-born singer has solidified her unique place in the pop pantheon. The classically trained pianist’s talents were forged in Russia and blossomed in the Bronx — her DIY explorations in the early aughts, Lower East Side indie rock scene evolving into her current brand of widescreen, orchestra-embellished hits.

Spektor’s songs — which reveal slice-of-life truisms wrapped in fanciful storytelling — have won the singer an ardent fan base, not to mention powerful syncs for film and TV. She’s lent her music to to countless classics: from Girls to Grey’s Anatomy, Sex Education to 500 Days of Summer, the opening of Orange is the New Black to the end credits of Bombshell, and even The Hamilton Mixtape. All of which is to say, her music is part of the fabric of pop culture.

In June, Spektor returned with her first album in six years: Home, before and after, recorded at the height of the pandemic in a converted church just outside Woodstock, New York. And on Friday, she’ll reissue her 2002 debut, 11:11, along with a box set of unreleased early recordings titled Papa’s Bootlegs.

Earlier this week, I caught up with Spektor, who, in conversation as in song, skips from one unexpected tangent to another. We discussed the nebulous nature of inspiration, what’s revealed in her dad’s “bootlegged” camcorder archives, how the #MeToo movement galvanized a reframing of the past, and what, exactly, the deal is with Regina Spektor Day.


Regina Spektor has stories to tell Shervin Lainez / Sacks and Co.

This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.


The FADER: The last time I saw you play was when you did this wonderfully intimate set at Rough Trade in Williamsburg, R.I.P.

Regina Spektor: I get so bummed when great places like that close. Something of New York gets less New Yorky when things like that happen, in the same way that, for humans, things tend to get out of hand, and then you start looking back, like, “Where did it go wrong?” I always think about posture. You can have bad posture when you’re a teenager and you’re fine. And then, at a certain point, if you don’t look out, you become a bad-postured adult, and you have all this pain in your body. And then, one day… you can’t unbend because you have this hump, and that hump started somewhere.

I don’t wanna be one of those people who’s lamenting this nostalgia world. But at the same time, I’m like, “I have to be vigilant so that my beloved city doesn’t wake up one day and doesn’t know how it got there, and all the artists can’t function.” I know there are really cool things happening all the time, so it’s not there yet. But sometimes, I get very protective of New York.

There has to be a balance of evolution and preservation.

It’s funny, because I made this box set for the 20th anniversary of 11:11, which I made in college. I had nothing from the era, really, because it was before camera phones and nobody was making demos of anything. If you were broke, you weren’t doing anything like that. My dad had come to my earliest shows at [SUNY Purchase] and on the Lower East Side, and he recorded them with his camcorder just for us. He gave those to me when I was telling him I didn’t have anything to even make a special birthday re-release of the record, and I ended up making a whole other double LP for this box set out of those little bootlegs. It sent my mind to that 1999, 2000 New York — how many places you could walk in for free and see people play music. You could be kind of broke and still live.

I grew up, musically, in the immigrant bubble: You live somewhere new, but you don’t have the money to actually partake in things. I never had money to buy records. I was a record company’s worst nightmare because I lived in the time when people could burn CDs. And once I was in college, it was like my entire music education was the five people who would come and hear me play at the little campus corner. [They would] come up to me, like, “This song made me think of Tom Waits.” I’d be like, “Who’s that?,” and they’d give me, the next day, a stack of all of his records burnt, and everything would blow my mind. That happened to me with all of the musicians. I’d really only been exposed to classical music, classic rock, Soviet bard singers… So when I got to Purchase, it was the first time I heard jazz and blues, and I became obsessed. I didn’t know how to play jazz, but I loved it, so I started trying to make my own version of that. That’s why I started writing a bunch of a cappella songs: because I didn’t have the chords. But in my imagination, they had big bands under them playing these big arrangements.

When we move on from different stages of ourselves, we accept the person that we were or we get disgusted and mad at that person. When you’re really young and creative and you’re try[ing] to find [your] own self expression… you’re super influenced and malleable, and the cycles pass really fast. You get so filled with embarrassment for the previous you. I’d be playing my next songs [at] these shows downtown, and somebody would come up to me after the show, like, “Do you have a CD I could buy?” And I’d have a backpack that was so heavy full of these 11:11 CDs, [but] I’d be like, “You can’t buy this because it’s not gonna sound like what I just played.”

When you were looking back through all this footage, what surprised you? What did you see in this girl who was up on stage, playing these songs you have a conflictual relationship with?

At first, I was like, “Oh, there’s nothing here. I can’t do this.” And then my husband Jack [Disher], in his wisdom and kindness, was like, “Try it again. Just remember, you’re listening now that you’ve made records and lived all this life. Try to listen from the place of, ‘This is a teenager starting to write songs.’”

I tried again, and as I listened, I realized I didn’t remember any of the songs; they’d completely been erased from my mind. I didn’t know what word was coming next. But then, the next time I’d listen, I’d be like, “Oh yeah, I vaguely remember that,” and I started finding things of value, like, “Wait a minute. This girl is so free and experimenting all the time.” It was a combination of forgiveness and appreciation: “She worked so hard. She was obsessed with songwriting. She spent all of her time writing songs. She’s the reason I actually get to make music in my life… because she decided to write songs and stuck with it until they didn’t suck.”


You recorded Home, before and after in a church during the pandemic. When did you get into the studio?

I didn’t see any humans outside of my immediate family for the most part during COVID. I was supposed to start recording in April with John Congleton at Electric Ladyland. I remember having a phone call with John when, and he was like, “I could still come. I feel comfortable with it,” but I was already seeing the numbers. I was like, “Trust me, this is not gonna happen.”

It coincided with me being pregnant, so I made peace with the fact that I wasn’t gonna get to make the record for years. And then Jack [found] this studio not far from where we were staying. At that point, I just wanted to play a real piano, so we reached out and they said, “You can come and practice.” I would come in and be totally alone with a piano in this huge church. And as I played, I finished some more songs. [Still,] I was like, “There’s no way we can make a record.” [But] John would keep in touch, and he’d say, “You don’t understand. Everybody makes records remotely. People send me voice memos, like, ‘turn this into a banger.’” I was so used to doing it how I do it… me and a producer… very intimate, hands-on, in the space all the time together. But I always do feel like if you can capture the heart of the song, you can build on that. And if it’s not there, it doesn’t matter what you do.

Once I started being able to capture these songs, John was so amazing at working remotely. He was so patient because we worked deeply, and doing it in that way, remotely, is tedious. And then we brought Jherek [Bischoff] on to do all these orchestral arrangements, also remotely. There’s that famous quote: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” But we danced about architecture from morning to night, and it actually got us places.

I love that your songs are storytelling in the purest form. There are, of course, slivers of you in there, but your songs are not confessionals. So when I listened to “One Man’s Prayer,” which is very much from a male perspective — and a very particular kind of male perspective — I was curious: What was the kernel of inspiration there?

It’s a specific mindset of a very specific kind of man, [but] there are so many of them. He’s not unique in any way. One of my worries is putting too much agenda into art. I know it works for a lot of people — there’s an entire genre of activist art — but I think that art serves its most medicinal purpose, where it actually can change or awaken something, when it comes from a place with less agenda and more inspiration. When you’re inspired, you’re not molding something to your own will. That’s more like craft. But when you’re exploring, pulling on a thread, then whatever comes, comes. You might not like it. You might not even agree with it or want it out there, but you’re in the role of “Well, I’m the artist and this is what I wrote and I’m putting it out there with the faith that there’s something useful in it.”

Art with agenda is propaganda. I come from the Soviet Union, the land of propaganda art. I know what it sounds like, what it looks like. Every once in a while, you can have propaganda art that’s amazing, but it’s once in a blue moon. Usually, it’s because the person who’s making it accidentally put unconscious, deep, soulful things into it and revealed something about themselves that they didn’t mean to.

When the #MeToo movement happened, it threw this lens onto things, and I looked at my own life anew with this lens. I think it happened to women and men, both, like, “Was that? Was I? Was this? Did he?” I’m always interested in how people perceive themselves [versus] what they actually do. Right now, we’re kind of living in the era of the anti-hero. We live in a way where people can explain their cruelty or their entitlement away because maybe they’re victims of other things. It’s that hero-of-the-story syndrome.

It’s like where we started, that analogy of posture: Where does it go wrong? Somebody starts out with good intentions, but maybe they really make bad choices and do bad things for 20 years. In their mind, they’re just that young kid who just wants to have a good life and live well and be liked, but they have left a trail of damage behind them. So when does that person who has good intentions wake up and say, “Oh my God, I think of myself as good, but am I bad?”

That moment doesn’t happen for most people: They’ll keep being like, “Well, she was crazy,” or, “They deserved it,” or, “I had to do it ’cause what was I gonna do? I was gonna lose my job.” Cut to: “I was just taking orders.”

I was thinking about the people putting kids in cages at the border. I came here as a refugee to the United States. I’m under the same status, and that one stroke of a pen could make your life one way or a different way. I kept thinking, “How do they do it?,” trying to figure out excuses: “Well, they have an ailing father, and if they lose their insurance, their father’s treatments go.” I thought, “I bet each person who’s taken a child, screaming, crying, from their parent, and put them in a fucking cage has some excuse for themselves. They’re the hero of their story. They don’t go to sleep thinking, ‘I’m a bad person.’”

The guy in the song, in his mind, is a good guy. Even at the end, he’s justified: He just wants the best for himself. He deserves it because he wants it. That feeling of wanting something, of needing something, is powerful and motivating. For some people, the idea that you could feel that much feeling, want something that much but not be given it, is almost unfathomable.


We’ve only got five minutes left, so I’m gonna pivot from this dark-ass place we’ve landed in. Let’s end on your Bronx Walk of Fame induction, and the fact that former mayor Bill de Blasio declared June 11th Regina Spektor Day. How do we observe this day? How do we give thanks?

I love your version of Regina Spektor Day [happening] every year, but no: It was just June 11th of 2019. It was one day. It came and went. It was magical. Like all fun parties, it ended up in the kitchen of Gracie Mansion with everybody taking shots and eating leftovers.

I never pictured any fancy things from my music, ’cause I write strange little songs. (Some of them are strange big songs.) I’m an outsider by nature, so in moments like that, when I’m invited so in, my mind is always blown. When I got to play for the Obama’s at the White House and I brought my parents… These are immigrant story book moments. It’s almost too much for my heart, the American dream-ness of it all.

If you think differently as a kid, and you’re a bit of a dreamer, and you kind of have a hard time concentrating in school, the things you’re good at are not valued much outside of your family. It’s not like your math teacher is excited that you’re practicing piano or reading a lot of books. Being an immigrant, it took me a while to learn the language, and I think there’s some part of me that’s forever, in my own self-image, cemented as a loner, a quiet observer, not the center of things.

Having a day in New York City declared by the mayor, getting to be on Broadway, having the Bronx Walk of Fame, it makes me feel like I’m accepted. This tiny little voice inside is like, “Everybody did come to my birthday party.”


Regina Spektor has stories to tell