Even if you don’t follow pop music, you may have heard pianist and songwriter Regina Spektor singing the catchy “Orange Is the New Black” theme song, “You’ve Got Time,” covering The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in the animated feature “Kubo and the Two Strings,” or in numerous other films and TV shows that have featured her music.
But you might never have heard the Russian Jewish immigrant at all had the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society not helped her family settle in New York. At age 9, Spektor entered the United States as a refugee when her parents fled Soviet persecution in 1989. The family settled in the Kingsbridge neighborhood in the Bronx and was absorbed into the Jewish community there, receiving donations of clothes, furniture and other necessities. Experiencing religious freedom for the first time, Spektor remembers realizing how constrained and stilted the Judaism they had practiced in Russia had been.
Part of a musical family, Spektor was already a serious piano student when she left Russia. The family had to leave their piano behind, and Spektor was reduced to practicing on tabletops until she found a piano to play in her synagogue’s basement. Through an acquaintance of her father’s, Spektor met a piano teacher with whom she studied, free of charge, until age 17. By that time, she was writing her own songs.
Raised on classical music and contraband Beatles and Rolling Stones records, in America Spektor was exposed to punk, hip-hop, and, most important, female songwriters like Joni Mitchell. After graduating from the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, she began recording her own CDs and performing in local venues in New York. She attracted the attention of the popular band The Strokes, who brought her on tour and gave her national exposure. She was signed by Sire records in 2004 and has since released five major-label albums to public and critical acclaim. In 2010, she performed at the White House for President Barack Obama for Jewish Heritage Month, and in 2012, she performed a benefit concert for HIAS.
Spektor — who will kick off a special solo U.S. tour in Tucson with a concert at the Rialto Theater on Oct. 20 — remains fluent in Russian and reads Hebrew. Her history informs much of her music. Although her relationship with religion is complicated, she describes herself as someone to whom faith comes naturally and who is drawn to traditions. The title of her latest album, “Remember Us to Life,” is English for the High Holy Days refrain “Zochreinu L’Chaim.” Spektor’s outlook was shaped by her early environment, a culture in which violence and oppression were commonplace and the history of World War II and the Stalin years was an ever-looming shadow.
Touring in Berlin earlier this month, Spektor spoke out on social media about the Aug 12 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that ended with a counterprotestor being killed in a car ramming attack.
“I am in Berlin where after a dark history, it is illegal to be a Nazi or say hate speech,” she said in a Facebook post. “As a refugee, I have promised to protect and fight for my country when I was sworn in as a citizen. I was a teenager then. As I held up my right hand, I never dreamed of the hate speeches and the normalizing of institutionalized prejudice that would be falling over the land in such a short time. The haters coming out of the shadows, and being empowered.”
Spektor’s lyrics reflect a deep sense of how vulnerable humans can be in a complex, often hostile world. What makes Spektor’s songs unique is the balance between her feel for the fragility of people and her robust sense of just how fun music — and life itself — can be.
Tickets for Regina Spektor’s Oct. 20 concert at the Rialto begin at $67.50. Visit RialtoTheatre.com or call 740-1000.
John Cafiero is a freelance writer in Tucson.