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Regina Spektor on Obama, opening night jitters

Much has been made about President Barack Obama's budding friendship with Jay-Z, but there's another, perhaps more surprising artist you'll find on his iPod: Regina Spektor, the imaginative 32-year-old singer/songwriter whose latest album, "What We Saw from the Cheap Seats," debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in June.

After Spektor played at the White House in 2010 for a celebration of Jewish-American heritage, the president hand-picked the Moscow-born singer to perform at a fundraising gala.

Given Spektor's classical piano training and penchant for writing quirky, constantly surprising songs, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise. She's been winning over fans since her first major tour in 2003, opening for the Strokes. Since then, Spektor has released four well-received albums, toured the world and married Jack Dishel, former guitarist of the Moldy Peaches.

Spektor recently spoke to us about opening-night jitters (her tour, featuring Dishel performing as Only Son, begins on Oct. 2 at the Lyric Opera House), dealing with hecklers and if she's nervous the upcoming election.

Before you take the stage, how are you, emotionally, on opening night?
Actually, I'd be hard-pressed to find a show I don't get nervous for. I don't think it's just an "opening" thing, but just shows in general. I think for most people, you get a jolt of nervousness and energy. I think opening nights have more of a "[expletive!] This is really happening" kind of thing. You're a little less sure-footed on opening night, but I always feel like every show seems nerve-racking in its own way. I don't get on the rails and just chill. [laughs]

Your career began by opening for high-profile rock bands such as the Strokes and Kings of Leon. What did you learn most from those early tours?
With the Strokes, it was my first-ever tour. I had no idea about sound checks, monitor mixes or anything. It was just me and my little backpack. There were a lot of times I got heckled and [the Strokes] really took a lot of time to teach me to navigate my way through that. I was used to playing bars where you could get heckled, or playing a place where no one was listening. But that tour was a whole new level. One of the great things they taught me was to not let it go by and pretend you didn't hear it. You can address it.

This summer, you returned to Russia to perform for the first time in 23 years. What was it like?
It was really mind-blowing. To go back to a place you last saw when you were 9-years-old was really intense. People have really intense feelings when they see their house in the suburbs they hadn’t seen in years, so it was like that, on steroids. It was very emotional. You think you remember everything. I had very clear memories of my childhood but it’s amazing when you step back into that world — the smells, the sounds of the language, the taste and just how many things instantly rush you. 

You can count Barack Obama as a fan, and the feeling is mutual. It's almost October. Are you getting nervous or feeling confident about his chances?
I have to say, I'm hoping everyone will come out and vote. I'd like to feel really confident about his chances but I know better than that. I constantly get surprised by people's abilities to vote against themselves and their own self-interests. The same way you watch people fall for the totally wrong person and don't get how they don't see it. It's like, "You can't let anyone talk to you like that, let alone love them!"

A part of me is really involved in politics and I really care and get all worked up about it, and then the other part is I come from Soviet Russia. They lived for 70 years under crazy politicians, and they're living under a crazy politician right now. Your life happens and that's all a backdrop to it. It doesn't have to be defined by that.

Great presidents do stupid things. Stupid presidents occasionally make right decisions. And this is not what life is about. Part of it is just theater, and you can tune into the show or tune out of the show. What really matters are the politics of your own family and own life and your own community. You could be living under a [terrible] president and make great changes to your own community, like helping the children around you. That could mean more than saying you voted and lived under a "good" president. I don't believe in a trickle-down effect. I think everybody has to do their own part.

If you go

Regina Spektor performs Tuesday at the Lyric Opera House, 140 Mount Royal Ave. Only Son will also perform. The show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $42. Call 410-900-1150 or go to

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