Regina Spektor

Born in Russia, bred in the Bronx, Regina Spektor emerged in the New York anti-folk scene five years ago, hypnotizing cafe crowds with her prodigious piano chops and pitch-perfect vocal quirks. Over t

Regina Spektor sings in many voices, but she doesn't sound like anyone else.

Born in Russia, bred in the Bronx, Spektor emerged in the New York anti-folk scene five years ago, hypnotizing cafe crowds with her prodigious piano chops and pitch-perfect vocal quirks. Over the years, she has built a cult following that includes They Might Be Giants and the Strokes, and her smart, bittersweet piano-pop continues to attract a wider audience.

Last week, "Begin to Hope" (Sire), Spektor's major label debut, entered the Top Heatseekers chart at No. 1, and debuted on The Billboard 200 at No. 135.

After recording three albums and releasing them by herself, the enigmatically named singer/songwriter took a different approach for her new album. Teaming up with producer David Kahne (Paul McCartney, the Bangles, k.d. Lang), she scheduled a two-week session in a Manhattan studio, a massive amount of time by Spektor's standards. One of her earlier releases, "Songs" (2001), was recorded in one day; "Soviet Kitsch" (2003), her calling card, took 10 days to wrap.

"To work like this had been a dream of mine," she says in her official bio. "But I thought it would be years before it happened. I definitely tried to put every aspect of myself into it. We played with wires and sounds, set the lab on fire a bunch of times, laughed, and started again."

This time, Spektor, a multi-instrumentalist, was able to explore richer soundscapes and play with more expansive arrangements, but she was also careful not to eclipse the essence of her musical ideas as she moved toward a widescreen sound.

"Before I even started I knew I was going to experiment with things I've only thought about, like beats and drums," she says. "I really wanted to play with electronic instruments and bigger arrangements. Still, on this record, there are some songs where it's really sparse. You don't want to arrange just for the sake of arranging."

While Spektor's first albums had sparse, cabaret intimacy, "Begin to Hope" gives her quirky piano tales a bigger, pop-friendly production. "Fidelity," the catchy lead single, is driven by elegant beats and plucked staccato strings, while "Better" features loud rock guitars, courtesy of the Strokes' Nick Valensi. But longtime fans will be relieved to find Spektor's vocal eccentricities intact. Her crystal-clear, classically trained voice still hiccups and beatboxes, bends and breaks syllables, raps, yelps and coos -- whenever she feels like it.

Born in Moscow during the Cold War, Spektor left Russia in 1989, when she was nine years old, first traveling to Italy and Austria before settling in with her family in the Bronx, New York. She started studying classical piano at age six and listened to Western pop music on tapes, which her dad, a photographer, brought back from trips outside the Soviet Union. Growing up, she treasured the Beatles and Radiohead as much as Chopin and Tchaikovsky. A true renaissance woman, she studied music at SUNY Purchase, immersing herself in jazz and blues, and ended up touring with rock acts the Strokes and Kings of Leon.

Spektor is not an autobiographical songwriter; she's an astute observer and compelling actress. Soaking up a million voices and impressions, she muses about the Guns 'N Roses song "November Rain" and funeral processions, then mixes biblical imagery with a slice of Wonder Bread. Next thing you know, she sounds just like Billie Holliday and shows off her Russian.

"Maybe I'm becoming less of a narrator and more of a character these days," she says. "I was always used to observing and writing third-person narrative stories about things I was seeing. Then, as time went on, I started placing myself in these scenes, more like an actor."

Spektor is touring Europe in June and July, performing concerts in the U.K, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Spain.