A Composer of Her Own Kind: Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor, a singer-songwriter, who first emerged in the early 2000s, is known for her emotion-evoking, lyrical ballads and the many stories that she tells to audiences.


Warner Music Sweden, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Here is Regina Spektor in 2012, photographed for Warner Music Sweden, shortly before the release of her sixth studio album, ‘What We Saw from the Cheap Seats.’ This album debuted on May 29th, 2012 at #3 on the Billboard 300.

The piano took center-stage, surrounded by various other amps, boxes, and even a turquoise guitar, all lit up for the special occasion of Regina Spektor’s latest tour. It’s hard to miss this Grand Steinway piano that decorates the stage and commands the attention of all viewers. This is exactly the piano on which Regina Spektor performs her lyrical and melodic tracks, mesmerizing listeners. Her music speaks from the heart and is a collective of memories and experiences which Spektor has been able to capture.

This occasion for a concert was to promote Spektor’s latest album, ‘Home, Before and After,’ which came out in June 2022. Spektor originally meant to tour right after her album was released, but was forced to push back the tour to early March of 2023 due to catching COVID-19. The album itself focuses on leaving home and finding new adventures, as well as what home truly means, capturing the warmth and isolationism people have faced throughout the pandemic, through a series of ballads or silky chants.

But who is Regina Spektor? While known for her lovable personality, she is also an avid singer, songwriter, and pianist with a passion for storytelling through musical cords. Spektor was born in 1980 in Soviet Russia; growing up in a Jewish household, her father would try to find Western music, from groups such as Queen and The Beatles, to listen to, in order to expose Spektor to more than what was available in the USSR. Spektor started training on the piano at the age of seven and developed a fondness for the instrument and for classical music, hoping one day to become a classical musician. She used to lie in the dark, listening to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Because Spektor’s childhood has had such importance in her life, many of these experiences have been a source of inspiration for her music.

One of these heartwarming stories that has followed Regina Spektor’s life is one of kindness and generosity. After moving to the Bronx when Spektor was nine, her family didn’t have much money and could not afford to continue Spektor’s instruction in classical piano. One day, when her father was taking the train home, he ran into a violinist playing in the station and they started talking. Soon enough, the two realized that they attended the same synagogue, and Spektor’s dad learned that the violinist, named Samuel Marder, and his wife, Sonia Vargas, were a violin and piano duo that played all over the world. Spektor’s father remarked on how he and his family hadn’t heard classical music in such a long time, and Sam insisted that they come to their home one day to hear the setlist.

When she heard the sonata, Spektor realized how important the piano was in her life and, being only a child, marched right up to Sonia and asked for lessons. Many years later during her concert at the Capitol Theatre, Spektor recalled how she thinks life revolves around choices and “so much of it comes down to the choice of being kind when we can be,” and the generosity of Sam and Sonia is what has made her musical life what it is today.

In concert, Regina Spektor creates a dreamy and inviting atmosphere for her audience to listen to live music. The Capitol Theatre was transformed for a night by the enchanting light show that accompanied Spektor’s music. Each song was matched with lights that conveyed a different energy. (Dara King)

It is clear that Spektor greatly appreciates the people that have helped her along the way, speaking fondly of her parents and family friends. “He [Sam] dedicated countless nights to music, and it was his life. And then he and Sonia gave me music as my life.” Music has ebbed and flowed in various ways throughout Spektor’s entire life, whether it was the classical training of her childhood and records that were so hard to get ahold of in Soviet Russia, or the people who appreciated music and wanted to see Spektor succeed in sharing her engaging pieces.

After graduating from her four-year studio composition program at the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College in three years, Spektor started her professional musical career in the streets of New York City’s anti-folk scene. The anti-folk movement itself aimed to reevaluate the folk scene of the 60s in an ironic and less-serious manner, oftentimes through seemingly out of place lyrics that discuss the niches of life. Often, the musicians within the scene produced thought-provoking and exploratory music as they moved from venue to venue. Regina Spektor would play in any place that had a piano and would sell CDs of her music that she made and produced.

Spektor creates music using not only her experiences, but the thoughts and emotions behind them. All of her piano pieces are masterfully crafted, and there is a spark behind each piece as it can carry away the listener to new emotions. It is easy to tell that there is genius behind each piece. The artist has produced many classics and popular songs such as: FidelityTwo BirdsOn the RadioSamson, and Après Moi.

One of her most penchant motifs throughout her songs is not found in the vivid imagery or characters which the melodies find their subject to be, but instead the repetition of a singular word or line over and over again before the song ends. This pattern can even be traced back to ‘Oedipus’ from Spektor’s second album, ‘Songs.’ One of the most prominent showcases of this is within the song ‘Fidelity’ from Spektor’s 2006 album, ‘Begin to Hope,’ as Spektor repeats the phrase, “break my heart.”

Regina’s first two albums were self-released and sold as CDs at her shows. Her 2001 debut album, ‘11:11,’ was heavily influenced by the jazz and blues that surrounded Spektor at the time, and each song is an individual story told in weaving poetry. In this album, it is easy to see the teenage influence in Spektor’s mind; although Spektor has always looked on the more whimsical side of life, it is easy to see how hefty life lessons were heavily woven by her into stories in her earlier albums. This same pattern of jazz and narratives was followed in Spektor’s second album, ‘Songs.’ Also self-released, ‘Songs’ was recorded in its entirety on Christmas Day of 2001, each song taped in one take. Even in these earlier documentations of Spektor’s music, the lyrical and melodic design of her music is as specific as later albums. It is clear to even new listeners of Regina Spektor that she has spent her career not trying to find her voice, but instead that she has been honing the style she has had since the beginning of her professional career.

The next two albums Spektor released in 2004 and 2006, ‘Soviet Kitsch’ and ‘Begin to Hope,’ were where she gained a larger following. By this time, Spektor had signed to the record label Sire and had toured with groups such as The Strokes, Kings of Leon, and the Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson. ‘Soviet Kitsch’ was originally another self-released album, but Spektor re-released it upon signing to Sire. It received moderate success and brought Spektor to a wider audience. Most of the songs follow a vigorous approach to describing narratives and a strong instrumental. As the Airborne Toxic Event’s Mikel Jollett said when reviewing the album, “Regina Spektor plays folk music with something of a punk attitude.”

By far, Spektor’s most popular album has been ‘Begin to Hope,’ which debuted at number 70 on the Billboard 200 before eventually rising to number 20. This popularity was for good reason, as the songs Spektor released captured raw and relatable emotion spun into an album. The heavy musical accompaniment to the lyrics in ‘Begin to Hope’ help to curate a heady feeling that listeners can lose themselves in. ‘Being to Hope’ is still a pop album, but throughout its songs, Spektor is able to dive deeply into topics that have some weight to them. As Irish singer-songwriter Orla Gartland said while discussing this album, “Suddenly, here was an artist who made music that was catchy and accessible but also rammed full of heart, dripping with authenticity and charm.” ‘Fidelity,’ one of Spektor’s most popular songs, addresses the vulnerability of truly being in love and how Spektor finds refuge in her music. This album encapsulates the expressive and vivid experiences of life and how people find their way through these experiences.

Looking to the future, it seems that Spektor will continue to make music and tour and may even release a documentary. She seems to be looking forward to what is upcoming, in terms of her career. Regina Spektor has and continues to fill a void of the music industry, with music that leaves listeners in awe.

Music has ebbed and flowed in various ways throughout Spektor’s entire life, whether it was the classical training of her childhood and records that were so hard to get ahold of in Soviet Russia, or the people who appreciated music and wanted to see Spektor succeed in sharing her engaging pieces.