Four albums into her blossoming career, Russian-born chanteuse Regina Spektor told the Music Mix she was ready to step outside of herself for her next album, Far, due June 23. That meant working with four famed producers: Jeff Lynne (E.L.O., Tom Petty), David Kahne (her producer on Begin to Hope), Garrett “Jacknife” Lee (U2, Weezer), and hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem). Collectively, Spektor says they pushed her down new roads she otherwise wouldn't have tried (one of which apparently includes the alien concept of “jamming.”)
With legions of new eyes and ears won over by 2006's Begin to Hope (and its hit single, “Fidelity”), Spektor represents that rare, beautiful thing in music: an off-kilter indie favorite who serendipitously crosses over into the mainstream. Over the phone, Spektor exudes a giddy energy that's easily identifiable in her music (and especially present in “Fidelity.”) But Far's lead single, the somber and serious “Laughing With,” is a radical turn in the other direction. (Listen to it below.) Click through the jump to read why Spektor thought the song was a good lead single, why she compares the new album to a Twilight Zone episode, and what it was like for her to work with four “amazing” producers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your reaction when Begin to Hope started to take off? It went gold in a number of countries.
Regina Spektor: Those numbers don’t fit inside my head. It’s just so hard to imagine that you go from hoping to sell your homemade CDRs to someone at a show to having that many people volunteer to buy it. It just amazes me that that many people would want to have it.
And “Fidelity” in particular. People just fell in love with that song.
When we were recording [“Fidelity”], it just felt so nice, like in my body. I thought, This is delicious. So much of listening to music is physical. It starts in the stomach and it needs to travel up to the lungs in this specific way. When that doesn't happen, you just feel it, you know when it's not right. It's very much a body experience. To me, “Fidelity” felt really good in my body when we finished. I guess people's bodies are the same in those kinds of ways. Sometimes songs just feel nice.
That leads into something I wanted to ask: Oftentimes you use your voice as an instrument to harmonize these different sounds, like oohs and ahhs. You even have a song on the new record called “Eet.” Are these vocal inflections just something you do naturally?
Yeah, I sing and hum so much in life. When I'm left to be on my own, I just go f—ing nuts. If someone would be listening at the door, they would think there are 30 different people in the room. I love finding sounds, and finding where you feel it. Sometimes you feel it more in your throat, sometimes in your nose. It's coming out of your actual body, which is the weirdest instrument of all. Most of the time I end up messing around and looking for new things. It's almost like when you go back to the same books all the time, and you're constantly reading through but you get to find that one sentence that it's like you've read it for the first time. I think that's what happens with voices and instruments.
Were you listening to any types of music that had an influence on this album?
You know, it's really weird. I go in and out of listening to music. I will go through really long periods without listening to music, especially when making a record. It might be a type of New York syndrome. You know how sometimes people in the city, they'll leave all of their walls really bare, because when they're walking around they are so bombarded with imagery? It's almost like that. I go through phases when I hear so much music – when I play festivals, or when I just really get into a record. I'll get into a record and I'll only listen to that record for a month. [Laughs] It's like you start living off it.
Did you have a different mindset going into record this album than the last one?
Some of the mindset was the same, which is always the same: Just a really strong spirit of adventure hits me, and I become a little explorer person. I've got my backpack, I've got my water bottle, and I'm off to f–ing god knows where – the desert, the mountains, the sea, touching everything, trying everything, following tangents and really just being in complete mad scientist mode. That's always the same, I think. But it gets more and more so with each record. I started out being a real purist. In the beginning, I was like, Records are only real records if they’re done all in one live take. Slowly, I was like, Well, I don't know if that's true. A lot of the records that I love aren't done that way. I think with this one I was letting go of trying to control everything, and trying to let things happen. Though I'm sure if you talk to some people they'll be like, “She’s a crazy perfectionist.” But I'm less of a crazy perfectionist than I was a little while ago. [Pauses] Well, I'm still a crazy perfectionist, but I'll try more things without being like, “No, I can't do that.”
So you'll experiment a little more, you mean?
Yes, I definitely experimented more. And then just little things, like I used a vocoder for the first time, which was really fun. I sang harmonies with Jeff Lynne and I've never sung harmonies with someone before. I nudge a little bit toward something every time.
You mentioned Jeff Lynne. What was it like working with him?
He's amazing, in every way. He plays everything and anything. He's just like, “Oh, we need drums on this, I'll play. Oh, we need guitar. Oh, we need 12-string, or banjo.” He can just pick anything up and play it. And he sings. It was really fun to get to sing with him. We sing harmonies on “Genius Next Door” and on “Blue Lips.” Certain things he did, I would never have thought to do, like the way the piano fades up on “Blue Lips.” I love things like that because they would have never entered my mind. That's the exciting thing about working with producers, because you get to work with ideas that would have never popped into your head.
Mike Elizondo produced the song “The Calculation.” All of my notes on that song end in exclamation marks. It's a very fun, happy song.
That [song] happened completely by accident. [Mike and I] were basically done with the four songs we'd been working on and Matt Chamberlain, who drummed on all the Elizondo tracks, was still there and he was about to fly off back home, and we just had a couple of hours. They said, '”Let’s jam.” And I was thinking, “I don’t f—ing know how to jam!” I only know how to write something, then learn it, then play it. I got all freaked out. Then I remembered I had this song I just wrote [“The Calculation”]. I quickly showed them the song and we recorded it in a few takes. I sat and played keyboard, Mike sat next to me on the couch and played bass and Matt was in the live room on the drums. It just sort of came together. Something happened with that song that makes me really happy. It had this carefree air about it, like I wasn't trying.
David Kahn's string-based “Human of the Year” has a lot of religious odes and imagery. What's that song about?
It's a story about this guy who goes into a cathedral and gets this award that obviously doesn't exist, “Human of the Year.” I have a few of those songs, that are stories. Jeff Lynne's “Genius Next Door” is a story like that. It’s like a little science fiction story in a song. Like a Twilight Zone episode.
And Lynne's “The Wallet” [a song about finding and returning someone's wallet] definitely fits in that category too. Does any of this stuff happen to you? Did you just happen to find a wallet one day while strolling down the street?
Most of it is just made up, or some sort of collage things I've heard or seen, little things that happen to me. It always ends up being collaged, it's never one or the other. In the made-up story, there's always something that I could relate to that's real, and in the real story there's always an element of fantasy that I've imagined.
What about the single, “Laughing With”? It seems very sensitive and topical, talking about war and God and poverty and pretty heavy topics. Did something from real life prompt you to write that song?
The way that I write songs, a lot of is not premeditated. I don't ever sit down and go, “I'm going to write a song now, and it's going to be this.” I never know what a song is going to be about. They sort of happen, or they don't. That makes me feel like a lot of it is not even my own conscious mind. Some of it is just things that float around my brain and I don't even know they’re there.
Why is “Laughing With” a good lead-off single for the album?
I'm really proud of my record label, Sire/Warner Brothers, for choosing that as a single. I think that it's not a typical single. I just feel so connected to [that song], it means a lot to me. It's nice to have something like that shared as an introduction to the new record. This record feels more introspective and internal than the last one. So, “Laughing With” is a good representation of that.
Regina Spektor's fifth album, Far, hits stores June 23.
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