Today (June 24), Regina Spektor releases Home, before and after, her eighth studio album and first in six years. Since the releases of 11:11 and Songs in 2001 and 2002 respectively, the New York singer/songwriter has had a highly successful career, from songs landing on movie soundtracks to writing the theme song for Orange Is the New Black. She is an artist with many peers, but none have replicated her unique ability to make listeners laugh and cry, separately or simultaneously, with little more than a piano and her voice.
Aside from her eight studio albums, Spektor is also known for her prolific songwriting. In the promotion cycle for 2012’s What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, she told NPR, “I am so lucky, because almost from the beginning, people would record the shows … I am just so thankful to them, first of all, for taking the time and putting it up online and sharing it with other listeners, but also mainly [for] myself, because there are so many songs I would not know how to play. It gives me so much relief to know that they’re somewhere.” Besides the many live recordings that are scattered throughout YouTube, many of Spektor’s unreleased songs exist as leaked demos, many of whose origins are unknown.
Sometimes these songs get brought back when she records a new album, as is the case for two songs on Home, before and after: “Raindrops” and “Loveology.” The latter, in particular, is a beloved fan favorite, and is finally given a high-quality studio recording, decking it out with a lush string section that builds a tension previously only felt by those in the room when she would perform it live. Musicians with such a wide range of music to discover are the most exciting ones to become obsessed with. Having explored the depths of YouTube over the past decade to find as many as possible, I can say it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Here are the best of Spektor’s unreleased songs. We can only hope they are never taken down, or someday get the proper embrace of an official release.
Examining religion is a common theme for Spektor, often done in thoughtful nuanced songs like 2009’s “Laughing With.” On “Baby Jesus,” we get a lot less of that nicety and much more acid wit. A deeply weird song, it tells the story of a manger figurine of Jesus that apparently comes to life, grows 30 times its size, and rings in a new age. Spektor sounds pleased as she sings lines like, “All the nonbelievers / They get to eat dirt / And the believers get to spit on their graves,” with her tongue firmly in her cheek. In addition to its narrative, “Baby Jesus” is notable for its free-wheeling and staccato delivery. Spektor sings in fits and starts, alternating between a hushed whisper and jazzy howls.
The most striking thing about “Paris” is also the most immediately obvious. Spektor is rarely without her accompanying piano, but here she performs a cappella. It’s a brief song, and while it’s unclear why Margaret Atwood or Virginia Woolf would stop her from knowing “sweet, sweet forever,” it’s enchanting all the same.
Perhaps the highest quality recording we have of a Spektor song that hasn’t been formally released, “A Cannon” exists in a swaying dream state. As she sings of bad omens and inevitable escape, there’s an operatic drama to the way the melody grows and shrinks. While the boat coming to take her away, the cannon firing and the dagger she takes up to defend herself are all just bits of vivid imagery, there’s no discernible story they all fit in. While there is no context for the fantasy Spektor is conjuring up, it is undeniably beautiful.
While functionally a song about writing music, “Making Records” is also a song about how lonely it can be to create. The chorus explores the specific freedoms we have when alone with the many thoughts we have in our heads, and how sometimes those freedoms aren’t necessarily positive. “Making Records” is one of Spektor’s more meandering unreleased tracks, but the uncut nature of it makes it special.
Spektor immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1989. This isn’t something she writes about much in her music, but on “Rockland County,” she gets personal. She first sings of her frustrations with people who, themselves immigrants, think that the U.S. should close off its borders because they’re “bad for the economy.” After the austere piano refrain flutters by once more, she talks about how, unlike many people who came through Ellis Island, she never saw the Statue of Liberty, instead flying over while watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, despite not speaking English. It’s captivating to hear her touch on this aspect of her childhood. This version on YouTube cuts off while Spektor vocalizes, but it is the only known take floating around, so it will have to do.
“School Is Out” was taken from a leaked demo tape in 1999, so it suffers from a muffled audio quality. Despite this, it’s a beautifully done jazz ballad, with Spektor’s voice taking on a deep richness she has rarely explored since 11:11’s “Braille.” Its lyrics feel more like scattered vignettes than an overarching narrative, just like how so many of our recollections of youth come back to us. In these flashes, Spektor walks the empty half of her school, thinking of all the people she met there, and all the versions of herself who lived there. While her performance is beautiful, it’s hard to imagine anyone else’s writing could so easily move you while including the lines, “And there’s such a nasty smell in the bathroom / The people float by while the toilets are flushing / And there’s all this shit written on the bathroom wall.”
“I wonder if I can do this,” says Spektor at the beginning of a 2003 live performance of “Devil Come to Bethlehem.” It’s an endearing moment. The warmth captured in it is what makes these recordings feel so special. As she begins, she introduces us to Mary and Joseph, two people just trying to save up to travel to Paris. The brief sketches Spektor gives us of them make their love feel real. The biblical allegory is laid on thick here, but it’s all worth it for what are some of Spektor’s most inspired lyrics: “Joseph and Mary are so dead / Honest, it’s been years, it’s been years, it’s been many, many years / All their descendants are long buried and gone / And their closest blood relative works in a Philadelphia Sears / Walking on water in his own bathtub / Turning that water to wine.” It’s a verse that elicits laughter from the audience, but speaks to the song’s broader message: No one ever truly dies, because the things that set us apart live on in those who come after us.
There’s a reason this video of “Raindrops” with its hand-drawn illustration has over six million views, and that’s because, regardless of how simple the song is, it’s one of the loveliest things Regina Spektor has ever made. The piano is delicate and refined, Spektor’s voice conveying the sweetness of each word she sings. It has a classic quality that makes it feel like she’s covering a lost piano standard, the kind of song a piano teacher might give to a more advanced student. “Raindrops” is one of two old songs finally being officially released on Home, before and after, and its studio version sacrifices none of its wonders, only augmenting it with some subtle strings.
For an artist whose most famous song is a retelling of Samson and Delilah, it’s perhaps surprising that there is another song in her arsenal focused on cutting hair. “I Cut Off My Hair” combines several classic Spektor lyrical conventions, like mentions of New York City landmarks and a story that’s at first simple before falling into surreality. Its fluttering piano is simple but effective in imparting a sense of magic into the song. It moves at a fast pace, but never feels rushed. There’s a sense of urgency in each note, as our narrator reels from her evening’s happenings. We’re fortunate that this track was in such a state when its demo leaked, because it has the same quality as her earlier albums 11:11 and Songs, making it endlessly listenable.
A song ostensibly about Spektor’s astrological sign, “Aquarius” is one of her most impressively written songs, despite never having escaped YouTube. As she cries out to anyone who will listen, she sings about her tendencies to make snap judgments and her inability to make herself understood, wondering if these traits are born into her. Despite Aquarius being an air sign, it is still the sign of the water carrier. Here, Spektor expresses the difficulty of holding water as she “clenches water in her fists,” only for it to escape her grasp just as quickly. It’s a song about fate, free will, and how fucking cold February is.
Eric Bennett is a music critic with bylines at Post-Trash, The Grey Estates and The Alternative. They are also a co-host of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter at @violet_by_hole.