Regina Spektor will always bring an element of her classical training to the pop music she writes. Across seven albums — including her latest, Remember Us to Life, released in September 2016 — the Russian-born, New York City-based pianist-singer has created songs informed by her studies at SUNY-Purchase's Conservatory of Music. Spektor graduated from the school in 2001, the same year her debut album, 11:11 was released.
Spektor says the main thing her classical training did was allow her to "search in a different way" across the piano keyboard, looking for new melodies. Meanwhile, the versatility of a piano — coupled with the sheer volume of classical pieces she was required to learn during her studies — allows her to draw upon a broad expanse of sonic textures. "The range is so big," she says, "from muted and percussive to lyrical and very water-color-y." Classical studies, she adds, "allowed me to know what's possible."
While Spektor is thought of primarily as an album artist, no less than four songs from Remember Us to Life were released as singles. The leadoff tune, "Bleeding Heart," starts as a gentle piano-and-vocal number, featuring Spektor's lovely upper register. But mid-song, a stomping rock arrangement takes over, before returning to an elegiac, melancholy outro.
Working that kind of variety into a single song can be a long process. "If you really through-compose things — which I, for whatever reason, tend to do — by the time I show up at the studio with the songs, so much of that is there." Then, she says, it's a matter of her and co-producer Leo Abrahams "taking the chord apart" to work out the final arrangement.
Highly polished arrangements such as the bouncy classic pop of "Older and Taller" are the result of Spektor's collaborative approach with co-producers like Abrahams. "The fun thing about the studio is that you can have vague ideas," she says, "and then you could come across something that you never would have thought of. But it just feels right, and you start building on that."
For Spektor, that means staying open to change. Even if she arrives at the studio with "every little word sitting where it's going to sit, and every little thing is where it is, in the studio you get to deconstruct that," she observes. "And sometimes it becomes something really different; that's very exciting to me."
Though she writes alone for her own albums, Spektor is enthusiastic about her extracurricular collaborations. She has recorded with a wide array of artists, including The Strokes, Ben Folds, Sondre Lerche and Thomas Dolby. And in 2016 she recorded a cover of George Harrison's Beatles-era tune "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" for the film Kubo and the Two Strings.
Still, she emphasizes, it's important to be selective. "I want to make sure that I'm able to help and be useful," says Spektor. "I would never want to do it just to do it."