Coloring outside the lines

Singer-songwriter Regina Spektor takes her music to the next level on her CD `Begin to Hope'

September 13, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

Regina Spektor can't help that her music is quirky. That's just how it is. The important factor is that her songs never feel calculated, says the alt-pop singer-songwriter.

While recording Begin to Hope, her latest album and first set of original material for Sire/Warner Music, she was careful to let the music breathe and not indulge herself.

"It wasn't anything planned, just natural circumstances," says Spektor, who headlines Rams Head Live on Wednesday, the first date on her national tour. "It was the first time I had time and resources in the studio. ... This is more relaxed, and I could layer arrangements. It wasn't like racing the clock for studio time."

On Spektor's three previous albums, all released independently, she didn't have access to much instrumentation outside of the piano she played.

"I wanted to have more drum machines and beats on Begin to Hope," says the artist, calling last week after a sound check for a performance in Liverpool, England. "I wanted to mess around with the beats this time. But it's not just a fun toy. Sometimes you can have something more fun to make than listen to."

But that's not the case with Begin to Hope. The music folds in elements of classic soul, imaginative Laura Nyro-like pop and Tin Pan Alley. The production is sparse. The focus is squarely on Spektor's high, crystalline vocals and left-field lyrics, rippling with biblical and confessional folk influences. "Fidelity," the standout Top 20 single, helped to push the album to No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart. Released in June 2006, Begin to Hope is a slightly more conventional extension of Spektor's last album, 2004's Soviet Kitsch, reissued by Sire the next year. Cuts from that CD, charmingly theatrical tunes such as "Ghost of Corporate Future" and "Us," generated mainstream critical buzz. Time, Blender, Vanity Fair and Spin all wrote glowing reviews of Soviet Kitsch. About that time, Spektor started touring with the Strokes.

After she entered the major leagues with Sire about two years ago, the artist still wanted her music to retain the same sense of whimsy and eclecticism it always had - going back to when she was a studio composition student singing in a coffee shop on the campus of the State University of New York at Purchase.

But years before, Spektor's Tori Amos-meets-Bjork approach had been informed by an array of styles. At age 9, she and her family had moved from their native Moscow to the Bronx. Spektor, who could barely speak English, had been studying piano for three years.

"All I knew was classical music from this very particular world," says the artist, 27. "I had some Beatles records and some Russian folk records. When I got to the Bronx, there were radios in the streets, blasting hip-hop. I heard a lot of Top 40 and Latin music."

When Spektor started writing songs in her teens, she mixed the styles, developing her freewheeling approach. In college, her sound was further influenced by jazz and blues.

"At SUNY, it was very, very artsy," Spektor says. "It was good for me. It was this period of exploring the music and learning so much."

Finely balancing pop conventions with her musical idiosyncrasies, the singer-musician wants her latest album to inspire a fresher outlook on the oddities of everyday life.

"The title felt like the right moment to convey the hope I was feeling," Spektor says. "A lot of change starts with hope. ... It doesn't hurt that you have a big record company posting that title everywhere."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Regina Spektor on Wednesday night at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $26.50-$29.50. For more information, go to ramsheadlive.com or call 410-244-1131.

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