Singer-songwriter Regina Spektor is born.
Listening to her mother play the piano in their one-bedroom Moscow apartment, “I’d wrap my legs around her and be a little monkey on her back and listen through her. I guess one ear was out.”
“When I was little, there was a tremendous amount of music. My parents let me shut out the light and listen. In the dark, I’d put on all of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.”
At 7 she began studies at a rigorous Russian piano school, learning notation and technique. Her studies were interrupted in 1989, when her family immigrated to the US during perestroika. Aided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the family relocated to 231st Street in the Bronx. But they could afford neither piano nor lessons for the girl. But the pianist Sonia Marder, taken with Regina’s ardor for the instrument, agreed to tutor her for free, which she did until the girl was 17. Her lessons were augmented with classical piano training at the SUNY Purchase Music Conservatory. During her studies, she was exposed to blues and jazz artists, including Billie Holliday.
Spektor began listening to Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and Tori Amos at the same time she began writing her own songs. She won the attention of Andrew Slater, a producer who would later become president of Capitol Records, but fought his advice to move to Los Angeles as well as his advice on her songs. As Spektor recalled, “When he said: [Her songs] should be shorter; you should think about structure more, I would bristle so hard. No, I said, I’m not changing my art for anything. I’m doing it how I’m doing it.” She stayed in New York for seven years, working as a receptionist and as a child-caretaker at a Bronx social service center, while playing downtown clubs and making demos of her songs, but without finding a way to make others hear what she heard. As her song “Fidelity” (the theme of the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black) puts it:
Her father, Ilya Spektor, is a photographer and violinist. Her mother, Bella Spektor, was a music professor in a Russian college of music and now teaches at a public elementary school in New York. Spektor’s upbringing exposed her to a range of musical influences that still guide her in her musicmaking. “It doesn’t mean that you won’t write a simple, pure pop song. But that I think is the difference between the Beatles and Queen and all these awesome bands. You could hear that they were listening to Irish music and classical music and jazz and rock ’n’ roll and blues and also symphony. It’s all in there.”
Spektor produced albums on her own titled 11:11, Songs, and Soviet Kitsch. After extensive European touring, her album Begin to Hope found a popular audience. Since then, albums including Far, Live from London, and What We Saw from the Cheap Seats have solidified her reputation with audiences around the globe.
See also: “Regina Spektor: Cool Jewish Women,” My BatMitvahStory.com; “Women front and center at this celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month,” Jewesses With Attitude.
Listen to “Regina Spektor: On Growing Up a ‘Soviet’ Kid” on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, whjer Spektor talks about her album What We Saw from the Cheap Seats.