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Q&A: Regina Spektor talks songwriting, Broadway

Regina Spektor performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on Sunday, June 13, 2010 in Manchester, Tenn. Regina Spektor performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on Sunday, June 13, 2010 in Manchester, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
By Jake Coyle
AP Entertainment Writer / June 14, 2010

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MANCHESTER, Tenn.—Relaxing backstage at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Regina Spektor is startled when a cold glass of carrot juice is suddenly placed before her.

"This is nice," she exclaims. "This is a nice life."

For the last year, Spektor has been touring her fifth album, "far," which followed her 2006 breakthrough, "Begin to Hope." That album sold more than a million copies worldwide, and "far" debuted no. 3 on Billboard.

The 30-year-old, classically trained pianist, whose family emigrated from Russia to New York when she was 9 years old, recently performed at the White House for Jewish Heritage Month -- an experience she's still glowing about.

She's also writing the music for a musical inspired by "Sleeping Beauty" planned for the 2011-2012 Broadway season. It could be a fitting pairing for Spektor, who, since emerging from New York's "anti-folk" singer-songwriter scene, has shown a penchant for songcraft, particularly songs with fully fleshed characters.

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AP: Has this tour been different from previous tours for you?

SPEKTOR: This has been my funnest year of touring ever. Nothing to do with people -- the people who come to my shows have always been amazing. It's not, "People finally got nice!" It's more that I've kind of learned how to have enough energy and stamina to do it. ... You stop being super scared. I used to be like, "Oh, my god, I'll lose my voice!" Then you get to a point where you're like, "If I lose my voice, then I'll play these songs and I won't play these songs that I won't be able to hit." I guess it's like parents with kids. At first they're like, "I'm going to break this child!" Then on their fourth kid, they're slinging him over their shoulder.

AP: How do you think living in New York affects your music?

SPEKTOR: If you're interested in characters and stories and people's lives and communication and connections and how people interact with themselves and each other and the world -- it's the ultimate place to be. Granted, you're missing out on other things, like sky and peace and quietude -- things that maybe allow you to be more in touch with yourself. But if you're really interested in being an observer, it's the ultimate place to be.

AP: You write songs about characters almost exclusively.

SPEKTOR: I've always really loved fairy tales and stories. They were always read to me and told to me. I get stuck on story, basically -- the combination of plot and emotional details. It's all very personal in the way that you get to experience them through yourself. It's filtering and processing through your mind, through your chemistry, through your everything. ... I like that. I like that idea that it doesn't feel completely like (in deep voice) I BUILT THIS THING. It's a combination, but it's also not completely cold and cerebral.

AP: How is the musical coming?

SPEKTOR: It's a lot of work. I have a lot to write. Who knew that writing musicals is not that easy?

AP: Do you see yourself continuing in theater after this?

SPEKTOR: I haven't gone through the entire process. From what I understand, it can be really brutal. I've already drawn nightmare scenarios for myself where I'm crying and they're like, "Cut this song! And write another song in two hours!" I've never worked in a for-hire world, I've just kind of (laughs) floated my way around. In situations where I have done that, like when I was a receptionist in a doctor's office and I wasn't floating around, I got screamed at a lot. But I think it's going to be OK.

AP: It's a very different way to work.

SPEKTOR: The thing that separates any kind of stuff that's out there and anything else is follow-through. I don't have the most awesome follow-through. I'm the person who has sat down to write a book like five times. Like, "I'll write a script!" And then your three cups of coffee are gone and your four pages of inspiration are gone. People who can really sit there and do (work) until it's done -- I'm very impressed by that. I can do three-minute songs, but I don't know how people do novels or operas. This is my attempt to try myself in a more disciplined thing and do it, because I only write songs when I write them.

AP: Do you do anything to put yourself in position to have a song come to you?

SPEKTOR: I've heard interviews with Bob Dylan saying that he knows now how to create that mood for himself where he can. But I think it's one of those thing that just takes a lot of discipline. Probably necessity is the mother of that invention. If it got to the point where I really, really want to write a song and I really, really haven't, I'll figure out how to do it, just like Bob Dylan. Unless, what, I change professions? I guess I could do it -- people do it all the time. But I really love music.