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Feature Interview with Respublica in Moscow

Respublica carries “Everything that Matters” in its Moscow stores, and invited Gregg for a series of questions about his music and thoughts of Moscow, New York, baseball, and more… The English translation of the interview follows, and the link to the original Russian text is down below.

You speak excellent Russian and you sing in Russian. How did you manage to learn the language so well?

Every language has its challenges. For me, Russian stopped being a foreign language a long time ago. Maybe this has something to do with my Russian roots – my grandfather was born here. Or maybe it’s because I have been coming here for so long. I have a wide circle of Russian friends. To be able to speak a language, you need to be able to understand not just the words themselves, but also the culture underlying them. The more languages you know, the easier it becomes to study a new one. For me Russian is a very rich language, a soulful and beautiful language.

Do you read books in Russian?

I have, but unfortunately, I do so less than I would like to. I have a collection of Russian literature in Russian in my library. My Russian teacher was the grand-daughter of Lev Tolstoy – I met her in New York. Music is much more important to me than reading – I haven’t managed to read enough literature, but I have listened to a lot of music. Bard music especially is not just music – it is also poetry.

Your ancestors are from Odessa?

My grandfather was from Odessa. He left when he was just two or three years old. My parents were both born in New York and didn’t speak a word of Russian growing up. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t yet been to Odessa, but we are planning a trip there this summer. I have heard that the people in Odessa are really interesting and have a great sense of humor. We went to a Zhvanetsky concert (comedian from Odessa – ed.). When he performs, it’s tough to understand him, as he has a strong accent and speaks really quickly. Also, the context is important – if you’re not familiar with the context, it’s tough to get the humor. It seems to me that in the past there were more jokes told in Russia, but nowadays they seem to have dried up. Jokes reflect real life, that’s why people like them so much. Zhvanetsky, for instance, has deep ideas – it’s the same thing in music. Take Bulat Okudzhava, for example. We met in America more than 20 years ago. I play his songs to this day. It seems he is singing about simple things, but in fact, his lyrics are profoundly meaningful. This is wonderful. When I write music, I always try to find a deeper meaning.

What do you like and what don’t you like about Russian culture?

I absolutely adore Russian cuisine. I am Jewish, my grandmother was Jewish, and Russian cuisine is very similar to the Jewish dishes that she prepared for me when I was growing up. I love pelmeni (Siberian meat dumplings – ed.), blini and buckwheat kasha. Twenty years ago, when all the other foreigners were buying black caviar, I was buying buckwheat kasha. I love the Russian theatre as well. We often go to the Maly Theatre, where Yuri Solomin and other great actors perform. Many years ago, I met Vitaly Solomin. His premature passing was a great loss. Today, I am privileged to know his brother Yuri. I believe that theatre is the heart of Russian culture. I like people, and I like to talk to them. People always ask me what it’s like to be a foreigner in Russia. My answer is that I am not a typical foreigner. We have a lot of Russian friends, we even watched «Ironia Sudbi» («The Irony of Fate» a classic Russian film – ed.) at New Years! But, truth be told, we drank French champagne.

How are Americans different from Russians?

Russians don’t smile too often. Americans smile more often, but that doesn’t mean they’re always happy, it’s just part of the culture. Of course, this also depends on the city or region – for instance, the culture in New York is totally different from the culture in Florida. In Russia, it’s not as easy to make friends with someone. With Russians, you have to meet and talk a few times before you can start to grow closer. In this sense, America differs not only from Russia, but from Europe as well. In America, after talking with someone for two hours, you can say you are good friends. Here, in Russia, friends are really friends. Russians are also more accustomed to upheavals and deal more easily with stressful situations – in America, it’s just the opposite. For instance, Americans have had a really hard time dealing with the financial crisis.

Tell us about your album – where did you record it, in Russia or abroad?

We recorded it abroad, as we were living in Geneva at the time. The musicians I worked with there were excellent. We continued recording in Germany, and finished up in Moscow, where we recorded the Russian song in a studio on the Old Arbat, not far from the statue of Bulat Okudzhava. The mastering was done in New York, in a very well known studio. We were lucky to have a talented mixing engineer who works with Phil Collins. What I liked best about it was that he liked the music.

As a New Yorker, can you compare New York and Moscow?

In New York, everything is very crowded and concentrated, especially in Manhattan. The traffic jams in Moscow are huge, of course. In New York there are also traffic jams, but they are much more unpredictable in Moscow. That makes it difficult to stick to a schedule. Moscow has amazing restaurants, just like New York. There are more sports events in New York – I’m a big sports fan, especially tennis and baseball.

Are you a Yankees fan?

Usually people from the Bronx are Yankees fans, but I like the Mets. Yankees fans usually don’t like the Mets, and vice versa.

What young performers do you like? Did you watch the Grammys this year?

I didn’t manage to watch the Grammys. In terms of young artists, I really like Adele. I got to know her music through my daughters. My middle daughter is a big fan of hers, so I gave her one of Adele’s CDs as a gift, then took it and listened to it myself. Adele has a gorgeous voice. As for other young artists, like Bon Iver and Mumford & Sons, since they are independents like me, it is great to see how much they have achieved. Generally, I prefer old music – Bruce Springsteen and Kansas are two of my absolute favorites.

You sing patriotic songs about America, about soldiers. What do these songs mean to you?

I offered to play for the soldiers. And then I thought about it and realized that I needed to write a song for them, and it was really tough. First of all, because I have never served in the military. And second, I realized that they had lost many of their comrades. What could I possibly say to them? I understood that I needed to thank them. When I was writing the song for the soldiers, I drew inspiration from Russian songs about soldiers and war. When soldiers and veterans tell me that they like the song, that is what is most important to me, as I wrote it for them. Of course, being a soldier is difficult, but it is no easier for them to adapt back to life at home.

See the original Russian interview

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