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Regina Spektor’s anti-folk music stirs emotions

The Russian-born artist, who began as an archetypal anti-folk singer, has just released her eighth studio album

Regina Spektor performing in Napa, California, last month. 
Regina Spektor performing in Napa, California, last month.  (Getty Images)

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Much like punk rock emerged in the mid-1970s as a rebellious movement against mainstream rock and pop, a genre labelled anti-folk emerged in New York City in the 1980s.

Anti-folk musicians initially sought to counter the somewhat conservative nature of the established folk music scene. Early artists of the genre were often musicians who couldn’t get gigs at the more established venues and played at the smaller, more informal venues that had started emerging. Anti-folk later evolved into a sort of folk and punk combination, with musicians eschewing technique in favour of literate lyrics and minimal musical arrangements.

Regina Spektor, the Russian-born singer-songwriter who migrated to New York in her pre-teens, began her musical journey in the late 1990s as an archetypal anti-folk singer, playing at any place that had a piano and carrying a backpack of her self-released CDs to sell to small audiences.

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Soon, she gained wider recognition. Her piano playing style (a result of training in classical music) and her vocal abilities (she can sing in high falsetto and switch seemingly effortlessly to a low, almost growling tone) helped.

By the early 2000s, Spektor was opening for bands such as The Strokes and the Kings of Leon and was signed on by mainstream labels. Her musical range broadened too as she began using less minimal arrangements or bands with more musicians. In late June, Spektor, now 42, released her eighth studio album, Home, Before And After.

She lost her father earlier this year, and that grief tinges the album in a delicate, tender way. She muses about the passage of time, reflects on mysticism and uses allegorical lyrics to refer to issues relating to love, loss and frustration. Spektor has always had a way of resurrecting memories of the past and infusing her own personal experiences into songs that resonate with a listener’s own reflections. The latest album is no exception.

In a way, Home, Before And After’s opening song, Becoming All Alone, sets the theme for the album. In it, she describes an encounter with God while walking down New York streets. He suggests they grab a beer (for which they don’t have to pay because he’s, well, God!) and she asks him, “Why doesn’t it get better with time?” Here’s the opening verse from that song: I went walking home alone/ Past all the bars and corner delis/ When I heard God call out my name/ And he said ‘Hey, Let’s grab a beer/ It’s awful late/ We both right here’/ And we didn’t even have to pay/ ’Cause God is God/ And he’s revered.

Through much of the album, Spektor, who combines humour and sadness remarkably well, uses strings and brass instruments to accompany her piano. The result is exquisite but also melancholic. Home, Before And After is all about longing, loss and love. But while pathos is a dominant theme, there is also a yearning and hope that things will become better.

In Loveology and Raindrops, she appears heartbroken, missing a former lover or partner. Yet there are songs such as Up The Mountain, in which Spektor mixes funky hip hop with catchy pop.

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Her music has been evolving. In 2004, she released Soviet Kitsch, an album with angry, abrasive songs, delivered to the accompaniment of a minimalistic piano. That album’s opener, Ode To Divorce, is ironic because odes are usually themed on love or praise. But in it, Spektor sang: The food that I’m eating/ Is suddenly tasteless/ I know I’m alone now/ I know what it tastes like/ So break me to small parts/ Let go in small doses/ But spare some for spare parts/ There might be some good ones!

In later albums, Spektor broadened her oeuvre to include more accessible mainstream-ish songs. On 2012’s What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, there were ballads, simple yet teeming with her often unexpected lyrics. Like Firewood, where she sings delicately: The piano is not firewood yet/ They try to remember but still they forget/ That the heart beats in threes/ Just like a waltz/ And nothing can stop you from dancing.

One of the finest contemporary singer-songwriters, Spektor has been experimenting continuously, either with the musical instruments she deploys (such as the strings and orchestra on Home, Before And After) or the themes. And each time, quite remarkably, she is able to reach and touch her listeners with her emotions.

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