Well-Read Star

13 December 2012 | 7:00 am | Izzy Tolhurst

"I definitely feel tremendously inspired by fiction. I love reading stories and I guess I love writing stories. I’ve always loved mythology and fairytales."

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ew York-based singer-songwriter Regina Spektor is, as Homer Simpson's father Abe would put it, cute as a bug's ear. Straight up, she apologises profusely for almost inaudible chews and crunches down the line, as she admits softly on the final evening of her American tour that, “this is my chance to have dinner before the show; so I gotta take the chance”. We joke about unbearably lame waiting music, and even then she's forgiving and kind, saying, “I've actually had some good waiting music sometimes, to the point where you find yourself hoping that people won't come on the other side. They're playing like a good old R&B song or Al Green or something… but that MIDI saxophone and reverb are key!”

This buoyant, dulcet-voiced artist, however, is the same one who's been quoted as saying, “I'm definitely in the club of people who have experienced great tragedy in their life”. Questioned on the moments that gained her entry into such a guild, Spektor is reluctant to speak on the issue, saying simply and politely, “To tell you the truth, I'm not prepared to talk about that right now… thank you.”

But without question things have been difficult. Written into almost every article about Spektor is the fact that she's “Russian-born” and emigrated at age nine due to the ethnic, political and religious persecution Jews faced in Moscow. She arrived in New York's Bronx speaking no English, having already journeyed through Austria and Italy, her family finally admitted to the US as refugees by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

While there was a considerable amount Spektor was happy to farewell in Russia, a rich list of Soviet and Eastern European influences and texts have stuck with her, perpetually feeding into the music she writes.

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“It's hard to know specific examples because I believe that everything I've ever read or seen goes into this big pot, this colander or whatever, and somewhere in there it comes through, in all kinds of different ways,” she explains. “But I definitely feel tremendously inspired by fiction. I love reading stories and I guess I love writing stories. I've always loved mythology and fairytales; I love short story writers like Kafka or Tennessee Williams, but then I also love a lot of plays and Shakespeare. But then there's [American science fiction writer] Kurt Vonnegut. I really love science fiction in that way, I really connect with it. I guess it's just the flip side of fairytales.

“I love Salinger a lot, I love books that have strong parts written for children and he really does that. There's an amazing Polish writer too who was killed in World War II and he's not very well known for some reason. His name is Janusz Korczak, you could Wikipedia his life story – it's absolutely incredible and heartbreaking but he helped reform orphanages, and he really cared about children's education and how these institutions should be run to make their lives better. He wrote amazing literature that I really feel inspired by. I think that I love novels, but I'm really drawn to the short form in a lot of ways, which makes sense of why I write three-minute songs.”

Barely pausing for breath, Spektor adds, “Oh! And if you're looking for a really amazing book to read that's Russian, you should read [Mikhail] Bulgako, The Master And Margarita. That book is gonna blow your mind! It's one of my favourite books ever. But you should get the translation that's done by two women [Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor].”

So it seems fitting that in 2010, 21 years after her arrival in the US, she performed at the White House as part of Jewish American Heritage Month. Sitting front row were Michelle and Barack Obama, and now, two years after receiving a standing ovation led by Michelle and a nonchalant thumbs-up from arguably the most powerful man on the planet, Spektor says she is “very, very glad,” that the same man won a second presidential term.

“I was relieved for his stance on equal rights and the way he campaigns about the middle class, that he cares about a lot of issues I care about – women's rights, gay rights and equality, education, health care,” she says. “I get really pissed off at the super-right-wing conservative people really go crazy about making him out to be a communist, and they're quick to call him that, which is always so funny to me because I do come from a communist country. And it's anything but! So I think making sure that children are educated and making sure that people can afford their health care is anything but communism. It's not what it's about at all.”

Spektor's sixth album, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, was released in May this year, featuring the songs such as All The Rowboats and Don't Leave Me, the latter a remake of Ne Me Quitte Pas, which originally featured on her 2002 album Songs. Spektor recorded with Mike Elizondo, a producer whose diverse career achievements span from co-writing Eminem's The Real Slim Shady, to producing a Fiona Apple record, to working with Alanis Morissette on a track that landed itself in The Chronicles Of Narnia soundtrack.

It is this album, along with her previous five (featuring such familiar tracks as Samson, Fidelity, Blue and Real Love, the latter a cover of John Lennon's late-'70s track), that Spektor has been taking on the road, and will share with Australians this week. She will be joined by her husband Jack Dishel, touring as solo project Only Son. Dishel was formerly the lead guitarist for The Moldy Peaches, known best in recent years for their contributions to the Juno soundtrack, including puppy-love duet Anyone Else But You.

One therefore reasonably wonders whether the two will perform together, particularly given they have already written and covered several tracks together, the most popular of which can be found on Only Son's second album, Searchlight.

“We're definitely going to do the duet we wrote together, which is Call Them Brothers,” she says. “It's really exciting. We love going there. I love getting to go to Australia. The atmosphere there is so fun and I can't believe that so many people are coming to our shows. Sydney Opera House is one of the coolest venues in all of planet Earth, so it's very exciting.”

Regina Spektor will be playing the following dates:

Friday 14 December - The Plenary, Melbourne VIC
Sunday 16 December - Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide SA
Wednesday 19 December - Belvoir Ampitheatre, Perth WA