— by Alyssa Rashbaum, with reporting by James Montgomery
Russian-born singer Regina Spektor learned quickly that to make it in New York, you have to be persistent, and sometimes, you have to bend the truth a bit to get what you want.
Hoping to play her very first show, an open-mic night at Manhattan's Sidewalk Cafe, Spektor patiently stood in line with her number, 732, in hand. After hours of waiting and being no closer to an audition, Spektor relied on the presumed disorganization of such a venue, and decided that instead of asking if she could play there, she would tell them.
"I was like, 'Screw this, I'm gonna call them and just pretend that I had a show booked,' " Spektor said.
She convinced the venue organizers that it was their error and ended up securing her very first gig. That brash and brazen attitude has largely defined Spektor's career to date, securing her spots touring with the Strokes and Kings of Leon, as well as a long-awaited record deal.
When she started out, though, the singer/pianist didn't even have an instrument to play.
"When we were leaving Moscow," she said, "we sold the piano and we just knew we were coming here and we were going to be with nothing."
So when her family moved to the Bronx, New York, when Spektor was 9 years old, she practiced on every available space, including window sills, tabletops and an out-of-tune piano in the basement of her synagogue until her family finally got their own piano through a generous donation.
After spending the better part of her childhood and adolescence experimenting with songwriting and singing, and soon finding out that people really liked the style she was cultivating, Spektor started playing shows all over New York, in any venue that would have her. At the shows, she would sell her first collection of songs, 11:11.
"There was like two years where I didn't say no to a show," she said. "I played comedy clubs, parties, basements, downtown, midtown, Brooklyn. Anywhere."
Word of Spektor's unique sound bubbled up from the underground, and the singer's name circulated around New York's anti-folk scene. After recording another disc, Songs, Spektor connected with Strokes producer Gordon Raphael, who decided to produce her album.
The resulting effort is the sprawling Soviet Kitsch, which hits stores on March 1, full of slow, soaring piano-driven tracks and lively, sweet, up-tempo songs, all highlighted by peculiar lyrics like those in the opening track, "Ode to Divorce": "You've eaten something minty and you're making that face that I like ... I need your money, it'll help me / I need your car and I need your love / So won't you help a brother out?"
"[I realized] I could sing how I talk, with my own voice," Spektor said, adding that she eventually developed "this attitude of well, you could write whatever the hell you want and if they listen, they listen and if, ya know, they don't, [they] go have a drink at the bar.
"I would never not write something because I think that someone might not like it," she added.
The second track on Soviet Kitsch — and the first track recorded for the album — recalls Spektor's childhood when she had to make music on makeshift instruments. "Poor Little Rich Boy" finds her playing piano with her left hand and hitting a chair with a drumstick in her right.
Spektor's innovative style sparked the interest of the Strokes' Julian Casablancas, who not only took the singer on tour with his band, but also invited her into the studio to record the B-side to the Room on Fire track "Reptilia," "Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men," with the group.
While her audience is growing, Spektor has no intention of changing her style for anyone, instead reveling in the eyebrow-raising sound and image that won over audiences at her first show.
"I was just really out there," she recalled. "I would get off the stage and everyone would clap and then there would sort of be these looks of 'What do we make of her?' And I was just like, 'Yes!' "
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