(photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
It may not be the reason it has become a TV sensation, but it certainly hasn’t hurt the hit Netflix drama series Orange Is the New Black (on HOT) by having Regina Spektor perform its edgy theme song “You’ve Got Time.” It isn’t the first time that the 33-year-old Spektor has branched out into TV. She performed the theme song “Little Boxes” for the popular show Weeds.
It has helped propel the quirky Spektor into millions of homes and cemented her status as America’s favorite indie folk/pop star.
Not bad for a Soviet-born Jew who moved with her family to the US in the late 1980s when she was eight. Over the course of six albums, including last year’s What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, Spektor’s heritage has crept to the surface on numerous occasions, and she has held interviews in Russian, quotes writers like Boris Pasternak and even named her 2004 album Soviet Kitsch.
“You couldn’t go to synagogue, but we did have little relics of religion passed down here and there,” Spektor told National Public Radio last year, describing her family’s restricted life before leaving the Soviet Union.
“I think people forget very easily the kind of crazy human sacrifice that kind of system [involved].
Everybody was just trapped. There wasn’t any place for any kind of growth. It’s easy to romanticize it on a social level. There were positives that came out of it.
Someone could grow up in absolute poverty and be very close to their family and they’d be very good people, but you can’t romanticize it. It’s not fair to romanticize it.”
Spektor’s father, Ilya, an amateur violinist, and her mother, Bella, a music professor, provided her with a love of music. She grew up playing piano and listening to everything from famous Russian bards like Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava to smuggled-in Western rock ’n’ roll like the Beatles and Queen.
Almost deciding to remain in the Soviet Union so Spektor wouldn’t have to leave her piano behind, the family eventually left and, with the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, they settled in the New York in the Bronx. As a teen, she attended a seminary in Paramus, New Jersey, before transferring to a public school in nearby Fair Lawn.
She kept to her classical studies in the US, practicing piano in the basement of her New York synagogue. But she was also exposed to the New York City pastiche of hip hop, punk and rock.
Spektor didn’t try her hand at songwriting, though, until a summer trip to Israel with the Nesiya Institute found her making up songs on long hikes. Bonding with the works of like-minded female singersongwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco resulted in her finding the courage to perform. After completing a studio composition program at the Conservatory of Music at Purchas College, she began gaining notoriety in New York’s antifolk scene. A contract with Sire Records soon followed, and Spektor was a well-kept secret no more.
She first appeared in Israel in 2007 for two performances at the Barby Club, but next week she’ll be returning to headline at the 2,000-seat Caesarea Amphitheater as part of a summer European tour and a testament to her increased popularity.
Spektor’s connection to Israel and her Jewish roots remain strong and are expressed publicly. In 2008, she performed at the National Mall in Washington, as part of celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Israel. Two years later, she was back in the US capital performing at a White House reception before the Obamas to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month. She has blown a shofar onstage and performed Hannah Szenes’s “Eli, Eli” in Hebrew. On the cover of her Begin to Hope CD, she is wearing a Star of David pendant.
In 2009, in the midst of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, launched in response to Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, Spektor penned a post on her MySpace page defending the Jewish state and criticizing what she regarded as unfair media coverage of its actions.
“Israel has been shelled,” she wrote. “It has been hit with rockets for years… There is no government in the world that would not protect its citizens from attack. That’s unlawful. And it’s not sticks and stones, as many of my friends and relatives who live in Israel know. It’s rockets.”
For Spektor, orange may be the new black, but the good old blue and white has never gone out of style.