As interview subjects, musicians tend to fall into a handful of predictable categories: the kind that offer canned answers, the sort who fall back on cliches, the ones just waiting for something to offend them, those who actually listen to each question and try to answer in a fresh way (those are the best), and so on. But precious few are like Regina Spektor, a profile subject in the May 3 edition of Westword -- inveterate chatterboxes who leap from subject to subject like Amazonian frogs on hot cement. During the interview reproduced below, she was consistently beguiling and charming, but getting her on track to talk about her latest album, Begin to Hope, or most other songwriterly questions was damn near impossible. Then again, the results are a lot more revealing than they would have been were she the type of person capable of staying on topic for more than a few seconds at a time.
Among the highlights of the following Q&A, which got rolling shortly after Spektor spotted a black cat walking in her Bronx neighborhood: the surprising height of the talent at Good Morning America; the problem with answering questions on live broadcasts; her decision to live life without a television; the kinship of TV and food; the Virginia Tech shootings (which took place two days prior to this conversation); the importance of teaching violence prevention, instead of exploiting tragedy for ratings purposes; the attributes of college audiences; and the joy that comes from searching out and celebrating the surprises all around us.
Like, for example, experiencing a conversation with Regina Spektor. Read on:
Westword (Michael Roberts): I understand that you’ve been working in the studio. Are you getting ready for your tour, and putting together new material?
Regina Spektor: Well, it’s actually some work on an older song that I just wanted to do in a new way.
WW: Which older song?
RS: “Better,” and – oooooh! I’m walking in the Bronx near my house, because I went to my grandparents’ house, and there’s a little black cat! What a cute little kitty! Oh, it got really scared of me…
WW: Are you the type of person who brings stray animals home?
RS: I probably would be, but, you know, I’m away so much that luckily my life doesn’t allow for it. Otherwise, I’d bring them in and they’d stay there alone for two months while I toured Europe.
WW: And then there’d be a sad homecoming…
WW: I wanted to ask you about your appearance on Good Morning America a few weeks back…
RS: Did you see that?
WW: I did, and when you were talking to Robin Roberts, you looked nine different kinds of terrified. Were you really that nervous?
RS: I was. It’s one thing for me to play a song on live television. That terrifies me now much less. Because I just recorded David Letterman two days ago, on Monday. It’s going to be broadcast on Friday, I guess, because on Monday, they record two shows. I was pretty terrified then, but it was okay, because I know how to play music terrified, and when you’re live on TV, it’s a good, special kind of terrified. But to be spoken to? That’s really weird for me. I don’t know if you saw it, but it was a very nice interview I had with CBS Sunday Morning. They were just so nice, and it was different. I wasn’t nervous because it wasn’t live. It’s definitely like, you know, anything you say can and will be used against you.
WW: There was another issue on Good Morning America. Standing next to you, Robin Roberts looked like a giant. She towered over you.
RS: I’m very small. Well, actually, I’m not that small. I’m five-four, and I was wearing high heels. But she’s very, very tall. Actually, everybody there is really tall. Diane Sawyer is really tall. It’s really interesting, because just to be in that situation is pretty surreal, because you see these people and you hear their names while you’re growing up, and then all of a sudden, you realize they’re real people. Like, “Wow, there’s Diane Sawyer! She just said something really nice to me! And she’s a real person!” It was just amazing.
WW: So was it a relief for you for the conversation to end and the song to begin?
RS: Oh, definitely. I think I’m all right if I’m on my own turf. Like at my own show, I’ll speak to my audience. It all depends on my mood. Sometimes I’ll feel really comfortable, and other times, I’ll feel a little more quiet. It’s just a matter of that. And I think that I’m one of those people who needs, like, to just play music on TV and not so much talk. It would be fine if I have a job to do. I know how to do it. Like I think even if I was acting or something, it would be so much easier, because I feel really comfortable with that. Sometimes I think, “I’m not going to be nervous today. I don’t feel like I’m going to be.” And then it’ll just happen, and all of a sudden, I’ll have huge stomach cramps and I don’t even know why I’m doing it, and I just want somebody to come up and say, “It’s all right. They found a replacement. You don’t have to do it today.” And then I’d catch a cab home and go back to sleep. Because it’s very early, that stuff. It’s a really amazing thing, actually. I learned a lot about that whole world, because we usually don’t think about how morning TV comes to our homes – well, those of us who have TVs. I don’t have a TV.
WW: You don’t have a TV?
RS: No, I don’t own one.
WW: Is it because you don’t like what’s on TV, or because you’re too busy to watch it?
RS: For the most part, I don’t like what’s on TV. You know, it doesn’t mean I’m against everything. I actually think it’s kind of an unhealthy thing as of right now. There’s great things on TV always, great programs on PBS and cool animation things, like Family Guy and The Simpsons, really great things like that. But for the most part, I think a lot of it is really, really unhealthy, and comes with, like, unhealthy slices of commercials that are brain-numbing and kind of propagandish. It’s really interesting. Because I don’t own a TV, I kind of have a dual relationship with TV. Actually, I have a very complicated relationship with television and the concept of it. Because I watched a lot of it after I came to America.
WW: Did that help you with the language?
RS: It did – but it also helped me waste a lot of time. It’s sort of a drug, and you can binge on it. I’ve talked to a lot of people about it, and I think people in this country have very complicated relationships with TV watching. Because it goes hand in hand with, like, the eating in this culture, which comes with a lot of unhealthy things mixed in with unhealthy things, and definitely a lot of guilt feelings attached to it.
WW: I hope you haven’t given up food…
RS: No, no, no, no! But we have problems in our culture, just with the fact that there are everyday things like food or everyday activities that are really not good for us, but we are just served them – and there’s not really an alternative. It’s not like there’s a TV that exists that has really great programming designed for really smart, emotionally advanced people. For the most part, it’s really sad whom it seems to be pandering to, and the idea that that’s the majority is a very scary concept. And I’m against that. I don’t believe that. I believe that most people are just so tired and kept so docile and so exhausted by their lives and by the type of the food they’re fed. And I love food! I’m not going off on food at all! But I think they’re kept that way by the type of food that’s in their lives and the other things that are in their lives that when they come home, all they want to do is turn off their minds, and they turn to the TV, and instead of getting any kind of uplifting, better-life-quality entertainment, they get more toxins.
WW: And if you had a TV, you fear that you might think, “Oh, I’ll just watch TV for a minute,” and you’d still be there, paralyzed, six hours later?
RS: That does happen to me, because I’m a traveler, and every hotel room comes equipped with a TV, you know? And so I do watch that. I’m just the same as every other person, so when I get super-exhausted and I don’t know how to quiet down my brain, I turn it on, and I do get stuck in it. And that’s when I think it’s good I don’t have it in my house. But it’s weird, because I’m on it a lot now, and I see the people who work on it, and they really care. They’re trying. Like, for example, the Good Morning America people. They have something like four different types of shifts of people who work there, and some people work through the night to make it possible. Everyday. People really care, and they want it to be good. But I don’t know if it’s the type of the format it is or certain things that have come to be expected of it, but it just seems so fake.
WW: For every good thing a show like that will put on the air, they’ll do an entire hour on Anna Nicole Smith.
RS: Right! It seems that a lot of the times, especially like news things… Not so much Good Morning America, because even when I had a TV, I was never really up that early to be able to watch it. And so this was kind of my first experience with it. But a lot of the other ones that I have seen, you get the feeling that they get kind of giddy when something horrible happens, because they can just talk about that and keep you on this very strong fishing line. They’ve caught you with this emotional disaster…
WW: Like this Virginia Tech situation, which the networks are running over and over again.
RS: Right! It’s absolutely horrible. Everybody knows it’s horrible, and what they really should be doing is going into schools and supporting organizations like Pax (at www.paxusa.org), which is a non-partisan organization that’s actually helped stop shootings. They have an 800 number, a 24-hour hotline, where kids from school, if they hear somebody bragging that they’re going to do something, they can call anonymously, and they have stopped shootings from going down. And they educate people about this whole “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” thing. Which is bullshit, you know? What they should be doing is looking at society and trying to prevent horrible things from happening, as opposed to milking this and secretly being happy that they don’t have to report about the war. It’s like this is a vacation from a week of retarded things that are government is going to secretly do without anybody looking over their shoulder, because they’re all busy looking at what this insane person did.
WW: This last week, I was watching the CBS Evening News, and they spent the first seven minutes of the broadcast on Don Imus, and only after that did they get around to mentioning that a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Iraqi parliament building…
RS: It’s unbelievable. We’re preaching to the choir here…
WW: And I haven’t gotten to any music-related questions at all.
RS: Well, it’s all one thing. It’s not like music is separate. It’s all one organization, you know? We process everything in different ways, but it’s all interrelated to the world we live in. And I’m sure everything I could possibly write and sing is effected by my beliefs about what’s going on. Granted, I don’t have a direct kind of agenda, and I don’t have morals in my songs where, in the end, it’ll sum everything up – like, “Don’t do this! Don’t do that!” But I definitely have strong feelings about what’s going on, and I have so much hope for what people could be doing, and what people can be. A lot of places that I play are universities, and actually, right before the shooting, I guess it happened on Monday? And I actually saw it on TV only because I was doing Letterman, and I happened to walk in for a soundcheck, and the TVs were on everywhere, and I could see it. I saw the caption underneath the screen, and that’s how I found out. Usually I find out about horrible news, like, three days later. People will be like, “Oh. You haven’t heard?” But this one I actually got to see.
WW: That must have been a weird contrast – to be there to tape this comedy show and to learn about something like Virginia Tech.
RS: Oh, it was horrible! Yeah, it was like, “So, anyway, over thirty people dead. How do you want your coffee? And what is going to be your outfit?” But right before doing that show, over the weekend, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I played at three different colleges. I went on a small college tour. It started out in Savannah, Georgia, at an art school, and then I went to Virginia, actually, and played at Longwood University, and then I went to George Washington University. So right before this happened, I just got to be on three campuses and see students, see the kind of people who basically got killed. And just to see the young people at school and how hopeful they are and how they’re trying to get this knowledge to come into the world and hopefully do great things, and then to hear this happening… This shouldn’t be happening. We should be putting more effort into protecting the young people. The day that people can’t study in a high school or in a college safely is a day that this country is looking back on its glory days. Gone. Just gone.
WW: But it sounds like your experience at these universities made you feel optimistic about the students themselves…
RS: Yeah, it’s wonderful. I’ve always loved that feeling you get on campuses. I love colleges. I love schools in general, like high school. My mom is a teacher, she’s a music teacher, and it seems like it’s the place where good things are to begin, and I think I did feel absolutely optimistic. It always makes me feel better about the state of current affairs and everything when I go to a college, because you get to see people whose job it is to be hopeful about the future and to be finding their own place in it, hopefully, after they graduate.
WW: Do you feel that people in that situation connect to your music in ways that other people might not?
RS: That’s hard to know. I definitely think they’re probably the most open when it comes to just hearing something new. They’re in the zone where it’s their fulltime occupation to be open to things and absorbing things.
WW: It’d be great if all music listeners were like that.
RS: Yeah! It’s like whatever state you’re in when you’re a traveler. Your occupation is to notice things and take note and be looking around and taking in new things. Sometimes when I come back from a tour and I’m walking along the Lower East Side, I’ll be like, “What’s that building?” My mind is still tuned into the way it was in Paris or Tel Aviv, where I look at the architecture of buildings much more than I would when I’m walking down a street I’ve been down a million times.
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WW: Just like when we started this conversation, and you noticed the black cat.
RS: Right! It’s like a muscle, you know? So it’s hard for me to say that students are better at that kind of thing, because there are a lot of adults who are like that their whole lives. They just keep that muscle active, and they walk down the street to their work and they see new things every day.
WW: Is that something you aspire to as well?
RS: Definitely! It’s such a simple way to be happier and more connected. And it’s not even difficult. There are so many things that I think can make life easier and more fun and better, and they’re absolutely free, and they’re not difficult. You don’t have to go to a class to learn how to do them. And a lot of them aren’t shown to people, for whatever reason. I’m just really lucky, because I had a really cool family and kind of teachers and people along the way that helped me see these things. And I love when I see others are like that, too. It makes me feel that there’s a lot of people like that. And when you go to a college campus, there’s a lot of people like that. So I guess in that way, it is different. But I also think just the fact… I don’t know. I just feel like I’m close to that age and close to that state of mind. I just always feel like when I play a college, it’s like a talent show, and I’m showing what I know how to do. It’s so funny!