The American dream is as complicated as New York, the adopted homeland that inspires her.

"There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." So proclaimed the omniscient narrator at the end of each episode of the classic New York crime drama Naked City.

The irony was that the story we'd just witnessed was more or less complete invention. To a writer of TV shows or songs, the number of stories in a city that never sleeps is actually closer to infinite.

Regina Spektor: ''As artists, I think were supposed to stay on the sidelines.''

Photo: Shervin Lainez

That's the way Regina Spektor likes it. "I love the high concentration of fates and destinies unfolding in front of you at all times," the Moscow-born singer-songwriter says of the city she's called home since she was nine.

"You just glimpse that and you have no idea which way anything is going. You just see these tiny, tiny vignettes. You overhear a tiny part of a conversation unfolding and you have no context for it; no idea what it means.

Regina Spektor performs in Los Angeles in May.

Photo: Jordan Strauss


"I love the energy of that. The city is just coursing with purpose and directness. And I love the diversity of that. It's everybody together and it's very comforting to me."

Remember Us To Life is Spektor's seventh album drawn from this teeming metropolis of glimpsed vignettes and overheard conversations. Set to her dancing piano and pop-dramatic orchestration, each episode is as intriguing and mystifying as any subway stranger.

The anxious wallflower growing up in Bleeding Heart, the profligate money man in Small Bill$, the dark enigma of Sellers of Flowers and the hell-bound menagerie of The Grand Hotel are in your face, while holding their secrets close.

Since her mainstream breakthrough with Begin to Hope in 2006, Spektor has made a point of distancing her work from the confessional school of singer-songwriters. More apt to cite Franz Kafka than Joni Mitchell, she's the kind of storyteller who tells no more than imagination requires.

"Talking about songs?" she says. "There is nothing more depressing to me, to listen to or to do. To me it's like, 'here's this living, breathing thing – let me break its neck and give it to you'."

In the course of her travels, she's come to know a certain desperate, furtive look in her listener's eye that she describes as "heartbreaking but also fascinating. It comes from everybody. Friends who are musicians, who write songs themselves; fans, casual listeners, journalists, whomever …

"It's this really expectant, sweet look on their face and it comes from a very pure place where they feel like they figured something out about a lyric or a song and it's like, 'Did I get it right?' It's as if the song is an algebra equation and maybe they're expecting congratulations, 'you're right, you've solved it!'

"In the big picture, we wanna get it right. We want to make the right decisions, we wanna be our best selves, get it f—ing right and [that's] the feeling of hearing a song and having an epiphany that you've figured it all out."

If only it were that easy. If Spektor's own story was all figured out like a movie, it might begin with a little girl being shamed for being Jewish on the stairs of her Moscow apartment building. And it might end happily ever after, with her performing for the Obamas in the open arms of the White House (as she did in 2010).

But as a student of human nature rather than politics, she's not rushing to tie it all up with a narrator's voiceover. "I f—ing love the Obamas," she says, "but I will not put them on a pedestal and kiss their feet because … human nature is complicated and the whole thing is a big show.

"As somebody who came to America as a refugee, just what's gone on [more recently] with immigration alone is so appalling to me that I could spend every day puking into the toilet, just from the horror of it. But I would not be very effective for my family, my community or as an artist.

"I see the whole thing as a play. The whole thing is a pageant … I think we're supposed to get swept up in it, but as artists, I think we're supposed to stay on the sidelines too, and have a perspective."

In filmic terms, she says, "there's a part of me that's forever panned out. Sometimes we see the tip and sometimes we think we see the whole thing but the iceberg is always the iceberg. And the iceberg is mysterious."

In a city such as New York, "maybe it's easier to be that panned-out because when you see so much humanity up close then you really start to see more of the things that unify people," she says.

"I mean, I came to New York as an outsider, but you're only an outsider until you start going places. Then you're an insider because you start to see the unifying qualities of people.

"To me, that's what's interesting. When I go to Australia, just the sound of the accent is like music to me and I take that in. Then when I go to Italy or Japan, I take all that in. It's very exciting to celebrate these differences but at the same time, when I meet a person on the street, I'm pretty aware that we're humans. And I think that's part of my job."

Regina Spektor plays Melbourne's Hamer Hall on July 8 and the Sydney Opera House on July 9.

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