a long talk

Regina Spektor, Before and After

The singer-songwriter on her new album, processing pain, and spotting demons

Photo: Shervin Lainez
Photo: Shervin Lainez

Regina Spektor has had a tough 2022, and not in the same way we all have (though that too). Spektor’s father passed away in April, during the lead-up to her upcoming album, Home, before and after, and a week before she was set to perform at Carnegie Hall.  After canceling the set, she wrote to her fans on Instagram, “May his memory be a blessing, as so many of you have said. And may you all be healthy and happy, enjoying life to the fullest and the sweetest, as my papa would wish for you.”

Conjuring old family memories and musing on the passage of time has always been a speciality of Spektor’s. She has a unique gift for priming her audience into a state of reflection, and listening to the new record, her first in six years, gets me all misty-eyed about the aughties culture she helped define and the ways we still live with so much of it now. Think of her touring with the Strokes and how their version of downtown indie sleaze is having a resurgence. Think of how “Fidelity,” along with “Chasing Cars” and “How to Save a Life,” built the sound of Grey’s Anatomy, and then remind yourself it’s still on the air.

So what does a Spektor album mean in 2022? Home’s lyrics are full of rhetorical questions and a cosmic, expansive sound that provides no answers. There are pop hooks (“SugarMan”) and big orchestral extended tracks, all French horn and existentialism (“Spacetime Fairytale”). Its propulsive second single, “Up the Mountain,” features writing that burrows into itself in a way that recalls “The Green Grass Grew All Around” (if you ever went to summer camp) or “Chad Gadya” (if you ever went to a Seder). In the final verse, she sings, “In the ocean, there’s a mountain / On the mountain, there’s a forest / In the forest, there’s a garden / In the garden, there’s a flower / In the flower, there’s a nectar / In the nectar, there’s an answer / In that answer, there’s another / And another and another.”

Those lyrics more or less sum up what it’s like to actually talk to Spektor. What starts as a tossed-off “Hope you’re feeling better” (we had rescheduled the original interview because of a severe migraine she had) turns into an internal debate about medical science versus traditional practices, which turns into a rumination on Halachic law, which becomes a description of how ants communicate, which leads to a biographical rundown of the Polish Jewish pedagogue Janusz Korczak, which of course leads to speculation about the psychological intentions of anti-abortion extremists, to existentialists, to Ukraine, to Tucker Carlson. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation, which eventually does in fact touch on the new album.

Photo: Jon Pack/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

First off, I’m sorry to hear you were sick.
It wasn’t proper sick. It’s a migraine. I know everybody gets them in different ways. When I get them, part of it is it gets kind of hard to say sentences. I can get my thoughts in my head, but as I’m trying to make a sentence, it’s just like, Did someone spike my tea?

I imagine it’s surreal, as a writer, to have that sort of aphasic experience.
It kind of actually blends totally with my type of writing. Migraines are such a mystery. But I do feel like there’s something from them that I always learn. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s something so uncomfortable and so painful and so shitty — of course you would never wish it upon anybody or yourself. I’m very grateful to western medicine. I think that vaccines changed the course of human history. But at the same time, with migraines, the best world-renowned migraine doctors told me there was no coming back with the amount I was having and how severe they were. Then this wonderful doctor, she gave me acupuncture, and she totally changed what I ate. I would have nonstop broth and witchy old-country things, and it truly took me from having migraines fill up weeks out of months to having them really occasionally.

It sounds like your brain, or your body, was telling you what you needed.
Sometimes people who are really healthy almost have the luxury of not taking care of themselves. People who have parameters on their life, it forces you to be thoughtful about how you eat and how you live. I’ve always thought that way about Orthodox Judaism because I’m Jewish. Once we immigrated to New York, I really learned a lot about the culture and the religion. It was so fascinating to me. You have to really be thoughtful. You have Shabbat every week, and you have to not turn on the lights and do things a certain way. It’s really difficult, but it makes you so present and thoughtful, when I’ve seen it close up, even though I don’t observe everything. It’s just so beautiful that within these parameters, sometimes people end up being much more aware and present. Like, I’ll find myself just mindlessly eating something. But nobody who’s really Orthodox ever does that. They’re always aware of what they’re eating and what time it is, and they’re aware of when sundown is, and they’re aware of how to prepare for something.

You can see Orthodoxy as extremely restrictive and by the book, but you’re seeing it as this grounded intentionality. 
This place is kind of guided by laws — just many of them, I think, are beyond our understanding, in layers that we’re not aware of. We have these senses, and they’re pretty limited. It’s like an ant crawling through the Taj Mahal. An ant is an incredible creature. They can do feats that put us to shame: how they organize their society, how much they can carry, how they can communicate basically telepathically with each other. But at the same time, they’re not aware of all this stuff that goes on here. They’re definitely not aware of other planets. I think we’re kind of like that, to think with our — let’s say even six senses, how about that? — that we can perceive what the hell this place is. It’s pretty funny. We can figure out some basic things, but really, what we do know, even at our most advanced, is so limited.

So what are the things you do to observe and situate yourself in space? How do you relate to the world and sense it?
It’s actually pretty hard for me to orientate myself here, a lot of the time, in general.

How so?
I think I use a certain kind of sonar, where I have really amazing friends and family, and we end up having really kind of special conversations, for lack of a better word. I’m married to an incredible partner. We just endlessly process things together. We’re kind of like dual processors of the world. I have these outlets for these questions, and I get to talk to people about how they perceive things and then orientate myself in that. And of course the arts help me a lot. Music, literature, and film, they comfort me. And I love listening to different lectures.

I think that, at least in this moment in history, we’ve gotten to a place where we’re very reactive. It’s very hard for us to be in uncertainty and in mystery, in the gray areas of things, in subtlety. I think that eras and societies, they have their general traits that emerge, and I think the era that we’re in, we seem to be very divided and looking for our tribes in a targeted way. We’re really trying to find people that think like us. And the place that I am most comfortable, for the most part, is not there. The way that I am is very out of step with where our society is pulling. I’m comfortable listening to a podcast or lecture or talking to a person, and maybe out of the 30 statements in the conversation, I internally disagree with or cringe at maybe 24 of them with somebody who’s really from another perspective. I like that opportunity. So many of the things I’ll roll my eyes at or be like, That’s actually not very true. But sifting through that, if it gives me one good idea, a new way of thinking, I can walk away with this tiny little seed. I’ve had to basically dig through a pile of manure to get to it, but I’ll be happy walking away with my little seed. For the most part — unless somebody is cruel or truly hateful. That’s different. I’m not talking about true hate.

You’re not talking about Tucker Carlson, basically. 
Exactly. That’s truly disturbing. I’ve taken myself out of the game because I feel like maybe some people can handle this stuff as exposure therapy or whatever the hell way they’re able to reframe it for themselves. But I would rather talk to somebody who maybe watches Tucker Carlson and get to see their humanity, and get to see other things about them, than to actually watch … I don’t even know what that is. I’m like, Is that a demon incarnate? I know you’re not supposed to demonize people, but sometimes this world is just so extreme. If absolutely incredible, giving people exist, there has to be a shadow element, as Jung said.

I think we live in a world where real demons walk the earth, and they gain power and do terrible things. I think that it’s always been like that. I also think that, at the same time, the way we all look back on eras only with hindsight, we can see the insanity that took place. But people in the moment thought that it was normal to use the guillotine to kill somebody and have everybody gather around. They used to bring children. I think the last public-view execution happened pretty damn recently. It was in the 1900s for sure.

But societies are like that. You think you’re doing something good. Your intentions are good. The people who are trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, in their minds, they’re saving babies. In their mind, they’re at the forefront of this kindness. They don’t want to see the statistics of how many hundreds of thousands of women were dying before there was legal abortion. They don’t want to understand the reality of what it takes to go through giving birth. I have friends who want their children, and they know what they did it for, but they can afford them. They don’t have depressed lives. They might have a thyroid that doesn’t work anymore and so they take a daily pill because, during pregnancy, something happened to their body and their body changed. Anti-choice extremists aren’t thinking about them. And we’ll never be able to convince them because, to them, it’s a noble course.

I’m too cynical about anti-choicers’ intentions. You have a very generous outlook. 
I don’t think you’re wrong when it comes to horrendous people, like their chosen politicians who press on their real beliefs. They know that they’ll vote against their other interests if you put this on the table because it means so much to them. And these are people who have themselves probably paid for quite a few abortions. And they will deny that abortion to somebody whose life is going to change for the worse. While, of course, they will hire somebody privately in a second for their own daughter.

I think we’ve missed some kind of very important off-ramp. We’re playing this game of chicken and replaying it in all areas of life; we’re playing it with other countries. We’re planting our feet deeper and hating each other more. I think the most dangerous thing you can do to a person is make them feel stupid.

This makes me want to ask about the song “One Man’s Prayer” from your new album, in which you take the perspective of someone who, to the outside, is a certain reprehensible type of toxic man. The song starts off pretty and yearning; it’s about loneliness, and that’s sympathetic. But then it curdles into misogyny and the kind of entitlement where these men think they’ve been robbed of what they deserve, which is control over women. What motivated you to take on this character’s voice? 
I love short stories, and I love films, and I love characters, and, to me, songs are like that but tinier. It’s not like I understand a person like that or that I feel like their path to this inner insanity is justified in some way or that I could even trace it, but I can see how it gets from point A to point whatever else. And if you follow a thread, then you’re making art. And you have to accept what happens in that thread. And you might be really frustrated because you might accidentally see the humanity in somebody you don’t want to see the humanity in. Or you might see the underbelly of something wonderful.

I don’t make universal art. I don’t make universal statements. I’m not a thought leader for large groups of people. The things that I make, I’ll never be like, Oh, this should be mandatory school reading. There are people that make huge group stuff. I’m much more interested in the gray area. And so you can’t really be fully committed to a group because you have to stay an individual.

I’m not trying to, with this record, make you think something or change your mind about something. If you are catching tiny little things that connect in some way to some genuine perception of reality, even if it’s from your imagination, then you’re doing something to help figure out what the fuck this is. Because it’s so confusing here. Maybe we have internal weather storms, periods where darkness comes and then lifts, and we can spend our time trying to bring these very divided, very unaccepting-of-each-other words a little bit closer because, otherwise, everyone’s just gonna fall through the cracks. I could sit here and be really intolerant of people, but where is this gonna get us? It’s just going to make me fill up with anger and sadness, but it’s not going to make Tucker Carlson stop saying what he’s saying. In a weird way, it’s going to give him even more power because even people who do terrible things, they still have that kid inside who just wants you to be like, You did really great. I’m going to take this artwork and I’m going to frame it, and I’m going to put it on the most visible wall of our house. And you are just the best kid ever. I just love you so much. That’s what he wants. Meanwhile, he’s got endless hatred going toward him.

This reminds me of what you were saying about “demonic” and selfless people in the world. The album has these themes like “Without night, is there morning?” on “Through a Door.” The song “What Might Have Been” is built on this: “Sickness and flowers go together,” “bombing and shelter go together.” Do you think for all of the dangerous men putting negativity out into the world that artists such as yourself, with the platform you have, are that equal-and-opposite counterpart? 
That’s the pinnacle of hope, that maybe it’s useful to somebody. When you’re making something, you’re just enjoying the ride, or at least I am. It feels very fulfilling to just be making it. Because I’m not always. So in those moments where I am, I’m just happy. It’s exciting to write because we don’t have that many places in our life where there’s just a true, utter surprise. A lot of the time, I just have no idea what the next word that’s coming out is. Once you’re done with it, and I mean really done with it, it’s very exciting because then you go through the same thing with production. What is this gonna be? And then you know the song, you know what it sounds like, and now it’s time to give it to someone. Right at that moment, you feel this combination of nervousness and sadness because you don’t have that next thing yet. You’re in this perfectly suspended moment where you have no idea if this is going to be of any use to anybody.

That’s kind of like the moment where I’m talking to you. It’s really nice. It’s a funny experience. You were quoting certain things from the songs, and I’m like, Oh! She heard it! Because I don’t know that many people will have listened yet. It’s such a privilege to be a part of things, and it’s not wasted on me. I have so many people that I love, whose art I love, who don’t get to put it out to that many people. They don’t get to have a little welcome banner, and I do. So I’m definitely grateful for it.

You’ve always done interesting things with rhythm, with the phrasing in your singing. But on Home, before and after, that’s really echoed in the production and the arrangements in a way that feels more pronounced. How are you feeling about people’s reactions to your first singles from
the album?
I’ve had this experience before, where I got so excited about the production. I remember it was a pretty big transition when I went from — I don’t remember if it was from Soviet Kitsch to Begin to Hope or Begin to Hope to Far — I remember being like, Oh, people are struggling to come with me, production-wise. But I always get the same feeling of excitement because if you’re hearing it, that means that I love it. I change things and go through things for a long, long time. I’ve had endless versions of songs, or I’ll follow a path and end up in a total dead end and we start from scratch. All of the producers I’ve worked with in the past, though sometimes begrudgingly, have all been okay because that is part of my process. So if you’re hearing it, that means I truly believe in that particular clothing for that song.

I feel like people always go with me on the songwriting, and then I just wonder if they’re gonna go with me on the production. I get into a weird thing where I’ve never felt people not go with me, which is very comforting for me. I myself have gone back over many, many songs. Just because I feel it in the moment doesn’t mean I’ll feel it in a year. And a year later, you would probably produce it totally differently, and five years later, totally differently. In that way, I’m very excited and happy. That being said, if everybody thought it was just sucky, I would definitely be disappointed. I would still love it. I really do love the production on this record so much. Will I love it in a year? I have no idea. But I think that right now, I got to make a record in a very different way for me, which is funny because I think I got to make it in a way that most people make records.

How’s that?
I was talking to a bunch of producers, and they were like, Yeah, this is how we do it. It was made during COVID. We were actually due to start recording together in person in New York City right as COVID hit. We had to cancel it. Then John Congleton was in California, and I was in New York, and no one was traveling anywhere doing anything together. He was saying to me, “Trust me, I make so many records where people just send me things. Sometimes they’ll send me themselves on voice memo and I make entire records around it. And I was like, “I can’t send you things, I have to be there in person.” We ended up doing it where I would record live piano in New York and send it to him, and we would work on it together and he would send me something, and I would be like, “That’s really cool. Let me rerecord this because I love what you did there, and I want to reflect it more. I want to accentuate it.” We did this back-and-forth thing, which I just thought I could never do. And it ended up being a lot more exciting and new.

The lesson that I keep learning is that limitations will sometimes make for exciting ways of trying something new. I really love new experiences. I don’t want to have déjà vu and make the same record over and over again. That would drive me crazy and be depressing. For me, it was so new that I got to experience a lot of new ideas and have new freedom within the record that maybe I wouldn’t have in person. I tend to sometimes jump the gun. If I don’t like something, I take it away right away. I don’t tend to live with it. I’m very instinctive. It’s really hard to know sometimes if this foreign thing will grow on you or if it’s just wrong. And this gave me the time and opportunity to sort of be a lot more open, and I think a lot of the sound comes from that space of having it travel West Coast to East Coast, East Coast to West Coast.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Spektor and her family immigrated from Russia when she was a child We looked it up together: France’s last public guillotine execution happened in 1977. Grammy-winning producer who handled production on Home, before and after
Regina Spektor, Before and After