AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Singer Regina Spektor came to the US in 1989. Her family, Russian Jews from Moscow, left the former Soviet Union when Spektor was a kid. The family settled in the Bronx where her dad, despite their financial struggles, managed to secure his daughter a piano teacher so she could continue her lessons.
Twenty seven years and seven albums later, she's still playing. You might have heard her theme song to the Netflix prison drama "Orange Is The New Black."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT TIME")
REGINA SPEKTOR: (Singing) The animals, the animals - trap; trap; trap till the cage is full. The cage is full. Stay awake in the dark. Count mistakes.
CORNISH: While her songs have always been playful, on this and her new album, "Remember Us To Life," there's a strain of something a little bit darker about the tougher side of life. So I started by asking Regina Spektor about her childhood in the Bronx just after they moved from Russia.
SPEKTOR: For me it was amazing because I was a kid, and I was very excited to experience this whole new world. And everything was fun, everything from, oh, wow, we get bananas - I'd only seen them in picture books, you know - to, like, the diversity of the neighborhood and to explore Judaism for the first time. It was really hushed in the Soviet Union. And I knew I was Jewish, but we didn't get to celebrate any of the holidays really or know anything about our culture.
But I saw certain things that I think maybe other kids are protected from. Like, I saw my parents struggling. I knew that we were cutting out coupons and buying dented cans because they were cheaper. And all our furniture was from the garbage. It was just - and to me because I was a kid, all that stuff was really exciting. But I definitely also...
CORNISH: You can feel it, right?
SPEKTOR: Oh, you feel it.
CORNISH: You can feel it in a household.
SPEKTOR: Absolutely. And you also - it's painful to watch your parents not be in control of things. You know, even as we were leaving the Soviet Union, just watching how they were treated at customs as we were leaving, all our suitcases shaken out. The passports were taken from us and were cut in half in a very dramatic way. I watched them be scared, you know? And that was - that really shook the earth for me in a lot of ways.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORNADOLAND")
SPEKTOR: (Singing) It's so much easier than you think. You try so hard, and every time you get it wrong, you get it right. You get it wrong, but you get it right. You get it right.
CORNISH: So when you, like, write songs of people going through not that same story but that same kind of emotion, it's coming from someplace.
SPEKTOR: It's coming from a place where people want to feel good about themselves because they can afford certain things for their family. And they think that it's some kind of a yardstick for getting it right, you know? They think they're getting things right in life. And I think that so many people don't understand how easy it is to be broke, how easy it is to find yourself in a situation where you're in an absolutely foreign place.
And I think that being an immigrant - I don't know. When I walk through the city, I just think that I see my family. I see us in everybody, you know? I see us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORNADOLAND")
SPEKTOR: (Singing) And all the monsters in your mind just want to be nice. They want to be kind. They want to play nice. They want to be softer than the storms around. You feel them through the windows and the doors.
CORNISH: I wondered if you ever think that - how do I say this? I think when you grow up struggling economically with your family - and I have experiences as well - you never quite shake that.
SPEKTOR: That's true.
CORNISH: And you seek it in your work as an adult. Are we hearing some of that here? You know, (laughter) do you find yourself, like, not being able to inhabit that space quite frequently because you can't quite shake it?
SPEKTOR: Maybe the good thing to know is that you don't need to shake it. It's one of those things where it becomes a gift, you know, to get to see things from a different perspective. And I think that I'm always going to think that it's silly to value certain things that no matter how many people find it really valuable, it's always just going to seem a little silly to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL BILL$")
SPEKTOR: (Singing) His destiny was just too big to spend, so he broke it into smaller bills and change. By the time he tried to buy the things he needed, he has spent it all on loosies and weed. And he had spent it all on chips and Coca-Cola. He had spent it all on chocolate and vanilla. He had spent it all and didn't even feel it. He had spent it all and didn't even feel it.
CORNISH: You know, one other thing that's happened to you since your last album is that you had a child. So I'll say congratulations.
SPEKTOR: Thank you. Thanks so much - yeah.
CORNISH: And I remember you singing in this song in 2009 "Folding Chairs." It's from the album "Far." And you're, like, imagining with a lover what it might be like to have a kid (laughter) - like, how much fun you would have. Or the characters are imagining that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLDING CHAIR")
SPEKTOR: (Singing) Let's get a silver bullet trailer and have a baby boy. I'll safety pin his clothes all cool, and you'll graffiti all his toys.
CORNISH: So you had the baby boy.
SPEKTOR: (Laughter) Yeah.
CORNISH: Did it come out as cool and as fun as it was described in this song?
SPEKTOR: Yeah, actually. I mean I want to - like, the superstitious person in me just wants to knock on all this - all the wood in this studio. I remember...
CORNISH: It probably really makes you embrace uncertainty (laughter).
SPEKTOR: Oh, yeah, that's the part that's very, very hard. Like, as soon as I had him, I was, like - first of all, it hit me that my parents loved me so much. And it just kind of hit me on this physical level, and I was just like, you love me this much. I am screwed. Like, this is just too much - like...
SPEKTOR: ...You know? And then, like - and then I had a lot of anxiety because I was just thinking, God, our world is so complicated. And so I was really worried about everything. And then my mom said, well, when I think about you and your brother being little, I just think about how fun it is to be a parent.
And once she said that, some kind of a weight lifted, and I was thinking, yeah, you know, there is this uncertainty, and I can have anxiety about it. Or I could just try and have a lot of fun and laugh and just enjoy the fact that we're just these silly little people that are a little family now, you know?
CORNISH: Well, Regina Spektor, I have to say best of luck to you and your silly little family.
SPEKTOR: Thank you. Thanks, Audie.
CORNISH: We're rooting for you. Thank you so much for talking with us.
SPEKTOR: Thank you.
CORNISH: Regina Spektor - her latest album is called "Remember Us To Life."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLEEDING HEART")
SPEKTOR: (Singing) Never, never mind bleeding heart, bleeding heart. Never, never mind your bleeding heart. Never, never mind bleeding heart.
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