In the High School Musical that is modern American pop, Regina Spektor is a much-loved theater nerd whose popularity surprises the cheerleaders — because, like, she's so weird. Spektor blends modern piano pop with an arty bohemian streak that balances her idiosyncratic oddity with ample craft.
Spektor's self-conscious quirk keys her allure, but she doesn't need haute couture outfits or red-meat gowns to sell it. It's central to her very being, and as a result she mostly sidesteps pretension with her unaffected enthusiasm. On her sixth album, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, Spektor can get away with beat-boxing on "All the Rowboats" or unabashedly aping a trumpet on "The Party," because she's not embarrassed to be herself. That kind of authenticity can offset a great deal of preciousness.
Speaking to Spektor is no different. Though she's now 32, her voice still rings with a melodious girlishness just short of sounding helium-induced. Her words tumble headlong like a jar's worth of change through a coin sorter, with a chaotic intensity that ends quite orderly. Her life, she explains, is lived through the perspective of an artist with everything she sees and experiences impacting the work.
"Even if you don't write a song for a really long time or you don't write your novel — whatever it is — the room is there, and you're always an artist anyway," Spektor tells the Scene before a show in Minneapolis. "It's just your system, so you might not be able to put it into a tangible form, but if you're walking down the street, your artistic system is taking it all in as art."
Spektor — her mother a music teacher, her father an amateur violinist — moved to the Bronx from Moscow when she was 9. She studied piano at SUNY-Purchase Conservatory of Music, completing her degree in three years before diving into New York's anti-folk scene. There she found her voice in that earnest, anti-commercial movement, and somewhat surprisingly was signed by Sire, which re-released her third album, Soviet Kitsch, in 2004.
"I really spent a very long time basically — for lack of a better description — talking them out of signing me," Spektor says. "Nobody even listens to [the albums] until they're done, and in that way it's a very artistically protected world where you really just get to do what you want with your art. I feel like I've been really lucky."
Spektor scored a huge hit on 2006's Begin to Hope with the single "Fidelity." It's rife, like all her albums, with the kind of vocal affectations that earn American Idol singers Velveeta sponsorships. Still, Spektor manages to pull it off when she elongates the word "heart," as Axl Rose once did with "mine." It's that charm again. Far, her 2009 release, was significantly more polished by comparison, and lost some of the quirk. Luckily, Spektor's idiosyncrasy returns on Cheap Seats, but the tension between "odd" and "pop" remains. It's the central oxymoron of Spektor's approach.
"It's such a complicated thing, because obviously there are people who want to take over the world," says Spektor. "Their happiest moment is if everyone knows their stuff. And obviously I care about people hearing my music too, a lot. I work really hard to get it out there as much as I can within my own limitations of stuff that I feel I can comfortably do. I do want as many people as possible to hear it, I just don't maybe expect them to like it and want it. I don't really feel like it's very important for me that everybody get it. All I want to do is reach the people who would naturally get it."