If contrast didn’t matter in music, then music wouldn’t ever get beyond a single voice singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” But instead, we have Regina Spektor singing “All the Rowboats,” the first single off her fourth major-label studio album, “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats,” scheduled for release on May 29. As in so many Regina Spektor songs, the drama derives in part from the contrast between her shifts in tone and the song’s simple underlying structure. No matter where Spektor goes, the music remains catchy, even daring the kitschy in its brazen appeal.
In general, the principle holds whatever style the classically trained pianist favors. The 11 numbers on “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats” are as disparate sounding as any in her decade-long career, ranging from the not-quite-straight power ballad “How,” to the gentle singer-songwriter musing “Small Town Moon,” to the grotesque Broadway-style melodrama “Open.” Some numbers go so far into the whimsical or theatrical, it’s no wonder that Entertainment Weekly music critic Melissa Maerz calls Spektor “the Queen of Quirk.” But the queen reigns supreme because, consciously or not, her wild straying somehow remains grounded in pop.
“There’s not really a lot of judgment or thought,” Spektor says, speaking about her songwriting process by phone on the eve of her worldwide tour. “Like I don’t ever think, ‘Oh, have I gone too far?’ Because that’s a thought. And I think inspiration happens in the moments when you’re not really thinking, and you’re sort of just like ‘in it,’ you know?”
On the phone, Spektor sounds exactly like the persona she nurtures in her songs — demure and girlish on the outside, yet insistently exploring her thoughts, often pushing them into anthropomorphized similes just to drive home a point (forcing her songs to flow together on an album, she says, “is just not fair to them. … It’s like people that go to a party together having to wear matching outfits or something”). It reflects another fundamental contrast in Spektor’s music: Her whimsy both masks and serves a levelheaded focus that has propelled her unlikely success as much as her generous musical gifts have.
Spektor’s current tour demonstrates that rare level of success. Following her Boston stop at the Orpheum Theater on Thursday, she will perform a sold-out show at Royal Albert Hall in London and then her first concert in her native Russia, from which her family emigrated when she was 9½. And the activity has hardly abated since her breakthrough 2006 album “Begin to Hope.” Through it all, her output has remained as fecund as in her days of performing in New York City’s East Village “anti-folk” scene.
“Whenever I write, I just write. And whenever I don’t, I’m doing something else, like I’m playing, or I was working for a while on this musical,” Spektor says. “Whenever a time to make a record arrives, then it’s sort of like, oh, I have so many more songs than what a record can fit.”
In her East Village youth, Spektor’s contrasting strengths — her combination of whimsy and common sense, of musical daring and simplicity — felt more evanescent because they seemed to epitomize a transitory scene built on the contrast between folk’s warmth with punk’s nonchalance. Back then, she didn’t tempt kitsch, she referenced it ironically in an album title, “Soviet Kitsch.” But listen back to that 2004 major-label debut, and its clear that even then her music was about observation more than self-expression, distinguishing Spektor from other wry and rambling New York-based pianists such as Nellie McKay and Fiona Apple (with whom Spektor shares producer Mike Elizondo).
“My songs are not confessional, autobiographical. They have some of my perspective, my own perspective in it, but they also have a lot of just possible perspective, you know?
So “All the Rowboats” criticizes museums as mausoleums, though Spektor loves museums, and “Small Town Moon” imagines a a desire to leave a small town that Spektor never could have known as a Soviet Jewish émigré transplanted to the Bronx.
If anything, it’s Spektor’s émigré background that forged her style, both in her classical training, a Russian heritage as much as any, and in a broader freedom.
“It is a very specific feeling, where you’re part of things, but then you’re also, you’re also an outsider,” Spektor says of her bicultural upbringing, her voice still traced with a tinge of accent. “It’s almost, like, if everybody has the same room, you sort of also have another room, that’s like through a secret passageway. … I think it starts you on the path of seeing what’s universal.”Franklin Soults can be reached at email@example.com.