Singer-songwriter Regina Spektor, 32, was born in the Soviet Union and studied classical music from an early age. Her first major tour was with The Strokes in 2003; since then, she’s released four acclaimed albums. She talks to Laura Barnett about writing songs and making a living from music...
How did you get into making music?
I studied classical piano from the age of six; then, at around 16, I started writing songs. Friends started telling me that I sounded like other singers – Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell – but I’d never heard of them. So I’d go and listen to their music, and think, “Wow, this woman is brilliant!” It was kind of a backwards process.
How long was it before you were able to make a living from music?
From around the age of 22. I was doing lots of little shows, just playing for tips. I did tons of weird jobs to support myself – I worked in a butterfly farm, as a receptionist, with kids in the Bronx. I hated it: I was too drained to write music, and I couldn’t even afford to move out of my parents’ apartment. Eventually I said to them, “Can I give up my job and just live like a scumbag in your apartment and write music?” And they said, “Yes, you have to follow your dream.”
You’ve said before that you feel your songs “just flow”. Do ever you find the songwriting process difficult?
When I’m inspired, it doesn’t feel difficult at all. But you have to practise a lot so that when inspiration comes, you’re prepared. Sometimes I write a song, and then I have to go back and learn how to play it.
Your lyrics are full of literary allusions. Do you think it’s important for young musicians to engage with other art forms?
Yes, I think it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t see how you can have anything to write about without reading, looking at fine art, watching plays and films.
Is the internet a good way for young musicians to get noticed – or does it just increase the competition?
There’s no clear answer. For some people, the internet is the perfect way to get noticed: maybe they’re shy, and they just want to have a friend film them performing in their bedroom. But if you’re someone who loves being in front of an audience, then you’re better off just getting into your car and hitting the road.
Have you ever felt under pressure from people in the music industry to look or behave a certain way?
Never. I don’t doubt that people do feel that pressure, but they also have a lot of choice about who they work with. From the beginning, I was extremely vocal about what I wanted, to the point of being paranoid. I would rather not have got signed at all than got signed on terms that were not my own.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a young musician?
Experiment, play around, and resist the temptation to buy into branding culture. You see musicians becoming like tiny little marketing directors – it’s as if they’re sitting in boardrooms working out how to market themselves. Then they tour, and they feel like they’re dying inside. So the number-one amount of time and effort should be put into just loving what you do. Then, even when you’re jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, you’ll know that it’s all worth it.
Regina Spektor’s new album, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, is out now. She is playing at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 2 July and O2 Apollo Manchester on 4 July. Find out more.
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