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Regina Spektor on J.D. Salinger, Rap Music, and Singing ‘Criminal’ in High School

Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor. Photo: Richie Buxo / Splash News

You know how Regina Spektor’s music sounds sweet and playful but it’s really devastatingly honest? That’s sort of what hearing her talk is like, too (at least in an interview). She’ll tell you a story about a man who died in a concentration camp, but she’ll tell it with enough childlike lilts and thoughtful pauses that you’ll feel for a second like you’re listening to a bedtime story. The Soviet-born, Bronx-bred artist recently released her sixth album, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats; it includes reworkings of older songs [“Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” from 2002’s Songs, for example] and new tracks like “Small Town Moon,” which opens the album and gives us this gem of a lyric: “Today we’re younger than we’re ever gonna be / whoo!” (Add all the whoos you want — that’s a sad line.) Vulture spoke with Spektor about J.D. Salinger, rap music, and that other beautiful singer-songwriter at a piano, Fiona Apple.

I saw you at the United Palace Theatre a few weeks ago.
Oh, cool. That theater is so beautiful. I saw Ani DiFranco there and it was great.

Yeah, it was an amazing show. I was seriously crying with tears down my face during “How.”
Oh wow, that’s amazing. And also: sorry. [Laughs.]

It’s okay. It’s just a really good breakup song. I don’t understand how you can write something like that when you’re married.
I mean, so much of my music is just, like — I relate more to people who write fiction. I love stories; there’s so much experience around us all the time and our imaginations are so strong and we have all this access to people’s lives and their stories that, I don’t know — it would be really annoying if I had to just write autobiographical stuff all the time, you know?

So in “Small Town Moon,” when you say “I wish you wouldn’t have broke my camera” — I guess someone didn’t actually break your camera?
No. Not that I’m not comparing myself to him, so please don’t think that I’m some crazy maniac — but I wouldn’t ask J.D. Salinger if there really was a Glass family. It’s like, when I read Nine Stories by Salinger, I just like … first of all, I cry when I read it because it’s just so beautiful. But also, I don’t even want to know what’s real, what’s not, what’s his imagination, what’s drawn from some sort of personal experience. To me, that’s actually the destruction of art, you know? The origin. You don’t want to know the origin of everything. That’s for scientists.

It makes sense that you like J.D. Salinger because you both have a bit of an obsession with youth. 
Oh yeah. If I could ever write children or understand children the way that he does, it would just be amazing. I mean, the only other writer that I think has that understanding of children is Janusz Korczak.

I don’t know who that is.
Oh, he’s amazing, dude. He’s a Polish writer who basically like — he wasn’t just a writer, he was like an educator and he basically changed worldwide policy on how orphanages are run. I mean, he literally had the chance to go free and he decided to join his kids in the concentration camp and told them stories until they all died together in the gas showers because he just couldn’t live with the idea of being saved and having them all go to die.

Wait, so he died in a concentration camp?
Yeah. If you go on his Wikipedia page, you’ll get kind of a good idea of him as the man. But the way he wrote children is absolutely amazing.

Do you read a lot of children’s books?
Yeah. I mean, I love children’s books like Astrid Lindgren [Pippi Longstocking], stuff like that. It’s not so much the Goodnight Moons or Everybody Poops. I feel like a lot of the time children’s books are written down for children and they’re not really written by people who respect children. My parents read a lot of ancient Greek myths to me when I was little; it captures you in a very strong way.

There were a lot of men yelling “I love you” at the show that I went to. I sort of liked that even though you acknowledged them, you didn’t say “I love you” back. Because it’s like, you don’t know them. Is that a conscious decision for you?
It just depends on my mood. It depends on where I am mentally. Sometimes people could be really rowdy and you can just interact and then laugh about it. And other times it kind of makes me almost feel like a stripper, you know? ‘Cause they’re just like, Oh baby. So if you’re in one mood then it feels like flattering or positive, and then if you’re in a different mental space, the same complete thing can feel totally like, Oh yeah? I’m here to entertain you? I definitely have a side that’s like, Hey, this is not a conversation; I’m playing a show here.

What about your noises? Do you practice them a lot?
No, no. If I’m playing around with stuff, I’ll figure [out] what the right little guys are for what song. But I don’t walk around the house doing [makes a drum noise].

What would you call that sound you just made?
We figured it out in the studio; supposedly I’m a synth drum, which is like an eighties drum machine. In my own mind, really, whenever I try to drum with my mouth it’s for the most part like an eighties drum machine. I don’t know why.

It sounds exactly the same live as it does on the album.
It’s actually really stressful for my drummer because he has to match me perfectly and we definitely practice getting it together.

Your producer Mike Elizondo has worked with Fiona Apple, who also has a new album coming out. Do you consider her an early influence?
Oh, for sure. I was in high school when “Criminal” became a big hit. Actually, when I was 18 and a senior in high school, I tried out for our high-school rock band that was called The Boptones. I auditioned a capella and I got in as a singer and one of the three songs that I did at our school concert or whatever — at our school rock concert — was “Criminal.” It just captured my imagination so hard. And there’s gotta be footage of me doing it. Luckily, it was a time before camera phones, but I think even my parents have a VHS or something with me singing it, and I obviously tried to do my best Fiona Apple impression.

Will you please release that somehow?
If I ever find it, I might. If she doesn’t get mad, then maybe I will; but I don’t know how good my rendition is. I think that we’re all just better off listening to the original.

Mike has also worked with Jay-Z and Eminem. Could you see yourself working with a rapper? Like, having Eminem or someone sample your music?
Oh, I love Eminem. I mean, when I first heard about Mike — like, that he wanted to work with me — I didn’t know anything about him except that he’d worked with Eminem. And I was just like, Oh he worked with Eminem. I want to meet him so bad. And I think inside, like secretly, any time I’ve ever met anybody who knows Eminem or has done anything with Eminem, I go on this entire mental [rant]: They’ll play my songs for him. And then he’ll want to do a song with me or he’ll want to use the chorus like he did on “Stan. And so of course it would be really cool, but there’s not a lot of rappers that I really care about that much. It’s sort of hard to care about something that’s just so opposite to your ideals. I mean, the reason why I love Eminem so much, or I love Biggie Smalls, but he’s not around anymore, is they’re storytellers. And so they’re like acting out these awesome fiction stories and they’re playing all these characters and there’s all this humor and heart mixed together. But I think nuanced rappers are a rare bird because, for the most part, it’s just so self-aggrandizing that it’s exhausting. It’s like the same way that I feel about wearing shirts that have brands written right on them; I feel like, Why would I want to wear your stupid vain T-shirt? If you just have, like, a flower on it — but you just ruined it by putting your name on it, you know? And I think I feel that way about rappers. Like, you almost had me, but then you started talking all this shit about yourself and how great you are, and now I just want to turn it off.

Regina Spektor Covered ‘Criminal’ in High School