“Every time I go to Chicago, I always go to her house and we hang out, so I’m super excited about that,” she said by phone from New York last month ahead of a months-long tour to promote her latest album, “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats.”
It’s not difficult to see that Spektor, 32, doesn’t much resemble the vast majority of female solo artists hitting the airwaves--though her songs have been featured on TV shows like “90210” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and in movies like “(500) Days of Summer” and “Friends with Kids.” She began her classical piano training at age 6 and emigrated with her family from the Soviet Union at 9 to escape religious discrimination, she told NPR in August. Her European roots are apparent on this album—she sings in English, Russian and French—and Spektor returned to Russia to perform this summer, her first visit in 23 years.
This year also saw Spektor opening for Tom Petty during his U.S. tour. The two artists spent time discussing the face of the musical world, with Petty lamenting the sense of division in radio and mainstream music.
“It’s hard to know where you fit into the landscape when you don’t even know what the landscape is,” Spektor said.
She cited Fiona Apple, Tom Waits and Beck as artists who are taking their own paths and marveled at people who can tick off the names of tiny bands she’s never even heard of.
“In one way it’s like I participate in whatever popular culture, in a way, where occasionally I’ll have my music in a show or a film,” she said, “And then other times, I feel like, when I sort of see kind of the ‘mainstream music world’ that is popular culture, it almost feels like a different planet to me.”
When the average listener thinks about the way an album is composed, they probably see an artist sitting down with an instrument and a notebook, pounding out song after song. “Cheap Seats” didn’t happen that way. “I don’t really ... ‘write’ a new album,” she said. “When it’s time to make a record, I usually just kind of start somewhere, and then [compose] through sheer power of memory associations and sounds triggering certain ideas. ... I guess everybody works in their own way, and I happen to work in a more...haphazardous if [you’re describing it as] negative, and spontaneous if it’s a positive way.”
The sounds Spektor refers to trickle down into the core construction of many of her songs. They come in trills, booms, frog-gulps, chirps, whoops, gasps and just about every other odd noise you can imagine. But she says they’re not improvisations—everything from the lyrics to the arrangements to the production is written before she hits the studio. It’s just that sometimes creative magic happens.
On “The Party,” Spektor says she used her voice to hold the place for a trumpet in the final section of the song and assumed it would be replaced with an instrument during final production. “Then Mike Elizondo, who co-produced [the album], he was just like, ‘No, no, we should keep it,’” she said. Spektor’s mouth-trumpeting remains, and it’s easy to imagine how much less cool the piece would sound without her unique take.
“That’s the whole fun of the studio because I could take any of my songs and literally produce them endless amounts of ways, and they will have inherent properties that are their actual property from their DNA, and then they’ll have all these other things that are just kind of like their outfits,” she said.
While Spektor enjoys the process, she also likened the emotions involved to the way women are able to forget the pain of childbirth.
“I think I definitely dealt [with] a certain amount of euphoria in order to be able to sit in a studio for 20 hours working on the same two measures, moving the kick drum a tiny bit to the left and talking about all these crazy filters and just being a nerd,” she said. “I love working in that kind of crazy, super absorbed, micromanaged way.”
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With Only Son
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