Rock Lit is where Hive discusses the intersection of literature and music.
New York singer/pianist Regina Spektor has always infused her catalog of songs with nods to literary icons like Ezra Pound, Williams Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. She reimagined Oedipus The King on 2002′s Songs in “Oedipus,” name-dropped Margaret Atwood in non-album demo “Paris,” and referenced The Little Prince in “Baobabs,” a bonus cut from Begin to Hope. Spektor, who was born in Moscow, has also brought a slew of Eastern European and Russian literature to the table in her musical work.
With the release of her sixth album, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, it seems like a good time to discuss her rich literary connections. But it turns out most of those references aren’t intentional. Instead, Spektor explains, what she reads lingers in her mind and mysteriously makes its way into her songwriting process. So if you’re hoping to discover the backstory behind her pensively raw piano ballad “Pound of Flesh,” you’ll have to be satisfied with the notion that inspiration often is the result of writing transmuting inside her brain.
Spektor spoke with Hive about her long history with literature, her songwriting intent and why reading a book over and over can be the best way to experience it.
What was your entry point into reading?
I think the main one was my parents just always reading to me before bed and always taking their time and reading me really cool stories … I don’t remember having those kids books, like Everybody Poops kind of books. It was more like fairy tales. Definitely a lot of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen [and] we had this amazing book of Greek mythology. I loved myths so much and my parents would read me tons of them and everything about it fascinated me. Like the names of all the gods and the people and all this magical stuff that happened. A lot of them definitely had these very unresolved, not black-and-white situations where they wouldn’t be happily ever after. Like: “And then the woman turned into an echo and now she’s forever echoing through the mountains.”
It seems like a lot of the literary references you make tend to be about classic books. At what point were you introduced to that sort of literature?
I think also early on because a lot of the stuff that they read to me was also classics.
When you have a specific literary reference, like in “Pound of Flesh,” how conscious are you of putting that in there?
Actually it’s not coming from a crafty place! When I’m writing it’s not very “Ah-ha!” It’s coming from an instinct. I write without time or thought. Or maybe there is thought, but it’s in its own world. It’s like nothing else I’ve experienced, when I write songs. And afterwards I’m like, “Oh wow, look at that!”
So you never read a piece of literature and said, “I gotta put this in a song?”
No, but I think I definitely read things and I’m just like “Wow.” Things get stored away. It’s almost as if my mind was a scanner of information then there’s certain things that are constantly getting bookmarked or highlighted. I guess those things have a higher chance of influencing an idea or something when I do write.
Has reading books inspired you on a songwriting level to create your own narratives?
Oh yeah. For sure. I love that. Also I think plays because I love characters so much and where I grew up. There’s this amazing Russian bard named Vladimir Vysotsky. He was an actor and was basically a national hero. He wrote literally probably a thousand songs and died very young in his early 40s, but he had all these songs that were all from point of view of different people and they were very literary. A lot of them were beautiful poems and you almost couldn’t believe that they were songs. Having grown up with that it was to me so strange that people would just write songs about their life. It was almost like that was the weirdest thing. Songs were better as a place to become other people and [tell stories] from their perspectives.
If you were to tell suggest a book to your fans what would it be?
Well, definitely Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. That’s one of my favorites. I always re-read it. I would read the short stories of Gogol, Tennessee Williams, Chekhov and definitely read a lot of Kafka and The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. There’s so much. Oh and [F. Scott] Fitzgerald. I love Fitzgerald.
Do you re-read a lot?
Yes I do. It’s just my personality where I really listen a lot to records, I re-read a lot. I started reading Master and Margarita when I was 13 and then I would read it every few years throughout my life and every time it would almost be like a pilgrimage. You get to a new place and there’s something, just a fascinating interaction. You interact with the things you remember and the things that you don’t or how you remember things or what they mean to you now as you’re changing. To me, it’s a really beautiful experience to read something the first time, and then read it again.
Regina Spektor’s What We Saw From The Cheap Seats is out now via Sire Records.