Don't let Ingrid Michaelson's résumé fool you.
Yes, she's had several songs featured in the blockbuster ABC medical
drama Grey's Anatomy. Yes, one of those songs - the concise
pop gem "The Way I Am" - was recently spotlighted in an
ad for Old Navy sweaters. Yes, she recently performed "The Way
I Am" on Last Call With Carson Daly. And yes, she has
built a sizeable following through television exposure, persistent
touring, and tremendous interest in her music through MySpace - all
without the benefit of a record label. But Michaelson, amidst the
fireworks of her recent achievements, remains humble, gracious, and
Michaelson, a 27-year-old Staten Island native, took up the piano
at the age of four and has a background in musical theater. She has
only recently left a job as a children's theater director to pursue
music full time. Everything changed, of course, when Grey's Anatomy
offered her the kind of exposure independent artists rarely find.
Michaelson had self-released her current record, Girls And Boys,
just months before the show's music supervisor asked to feature one
of her best songs, the delicate and lyrically-inventive "Breakable,"
on a TV show that has sparked innumerable water-cooler conversations
over the past several years.
But before you ask if success has spoiled her, or if she could be
branded a "sell-out" for her willingness to expose her music
through mainstream media (a claim that's hard to pin on an artist
who has no plans to allow a record label - or anyone else - to compromise
her artistic freedom), let me stop your speculation: it hasn't, and
she is anything but. I saw Michaelson perform at a local bookstore
on Cape Cod this summer, and I saw anything but a careerist or an
entrepreneur. What I saw was a humble performer perfectly content
to play a three-song acoustic set - which included poignant versions
of "The Way I Am" and "Far Away," two of the quietest
and best songs from Girls And Boys - for a small crowd of appreciative
So, when Michaelson agreed to talk to me by phone in early October,
a few days before she left to open for Matt Nathanson on his
U.S. tour, I expected to talk to the performer I saw on Cape Cod -
courteous and likeable, with none of the smugness or pretense you
might expect from an artist whose profile has risen so dramatically.
And that, thankfully, is exactly what I got. Michaelson's brushes
with stardom, if anything, seem to have made her more appreciative
of her good fortune. And, especially, of the listeners who have embraced
her songs. "That's really what's the root of a successful musician:
your fans," she told me. "Without fans, you don't really
have anything at all. So that's the cool thing. But, again, the main
thing for me is that you have to smack yourself and say, 'Look what's
happening right now. Enjoy it.' Because it could easily just fly by
you." Hardly the words of a primadonna.
But what about the music? What's so unique about Michaelson's songs
that attracted the attention of network television and advertising
bigwigs? The answer is as simple as you might imagine: Michaelson
is simply a skillful songwriter, an engaging vocalist, and an undeniably
likeable musical personality. Her voice and her persona recall the
also-affable Lisa Loeb, and it's easy to discern why she cites
the inimitable Regina Spektor as a key influence. But there's
nothing contrived or borrowed on the idiosyncratic and inspired Girls
And Boys. It's also easy to see why her distinctive songs have
found success on network television: she is the kind of artist who
can appeal to a mainstream audience, but her rich, inventive music
holds the same appeal for those who steer clear of radio and mainstream
Girls And Boys is actually Michaelson's second record, but
she spoke somewhat dismissively of her lesser-known debut, Slow
The Rain (despite the many inspired moments I've found listening
to the record). "I hadn't been writing for that long in the grand
scheme of things," she told me. "It was kind of like getting
my feet wet and learning the basics." She adds that key musical
influences helped her grow as an artist in the time between Slow
The Rain and Girls And Boys.
"I started listening to Death Cab For Cutie about three
years ago, and I started to really shift my writing after that. And
then The Magnetic Fields and Regina Spektor, just really interesting
lyricists, turned my head," she said. "You don't always
have to write about 'love from above.'"
The highlights on Girls And Boys range from minimalist tracks
like "The Way I Am" and the whimsical folk of "Far
Away," to tracks - particularly the musically complex and emotionally
charged "Die Alone" and the bittersweet, six-minute mini-epic
"December Baby" - that prove she is similarly gifted with
intricate, layered pop-rock. And it's not only Michaelson who impresses:
her adept backing musicians were vital to making the record so fully
"Some of the songs I wanted to be really full, [but] there's
something to be said for just a voice and a guitar," Michaelson
said of the record's balance of simplicity and complexity.
Like Regina Spektor, Michaelson has the gift of shifting the melody
of a song suddenly, and fusing seemingly incompatible melodies as
if she were improvising. She said that her writing process is as organic
as it sounds. "[My writing] is definitely organic," she
told me. "It's just whatever comes out of my mouth. If I like
I'll work around that."
I asked her if she feels a particular connection to any individual
songs. She singled out "Die Alone" and "Breakable,"
but said she feels close to all of them. "I think you have to
[feel that connection]," she said. "I'm not necessarily
singing about myself, but I'm singing about something that's coming
from inside of me."
Michaelson also proves countless times that she has the poetic gifts
to match her songwriting. Perhaps the strongest example is "Breakable."
The delicate music is the ideal backdrop for her whimsical musings
on human frailty: "Have you ever thought about what protects
our hearts? / Just a cage of rib bones and other various parts / So
it's fairly simple to cut right through the mess / And to stop the
muscle that makes us confess / And we are so fragile / And our cracking
bones make noise / And we are just breakable, breakable, breakable
girls and boys."
Often her lyrics, though they may look ordinary on paper, succeed
because of their universality. The sentiments of "Die Alone"
should be familiar to almost anyone: "I never thought I could
love anyone but myself / Now I know I can't love anyone but you /
You make me think that maybe I won't die alone."
Elsewhere, Michaelson charms on the lighthearted - though hardly
universal - "Far Away": "I will live my life as a lobsterman's
wife / On an island in the blue bay / He will take care of me / He
will smell like the sea / And close to my heart he'll always stay."
Michaelson writes songs that deftly avoid sounding overly sentimental,
despite their personal subject matter. "I'm careful about the
lyrics that I choose," she said. "It can be very easy to
sound contrived and cheesy. There's definitely deliberation behind
my lyrical writing. I write about things that everybody feels, but
I just try to do it in an interesting way."
As you might expect, Michaelson told me that hearing her music on
national television has been "surreal," but she pointed
out that - especially given how resolutely she's kept control of her
own music - it has been invaluable to her career. "It's such
a great way of getting your music heard by people that would never
hear it," she said. That exposure has made it much easier for
Michaelson to flourish as an independent artist, but she is keeping
a realist's perspective on her recent success and what lies ahead.
"So far, I've completely controlled the creative aspect of my
music, and I plan on doing that forever," she told me. "With
the commercial and Grey's Anatomy, it's been pretty easy to
get people to hear it - luckily for me. So now I just have to build
on that, be really proactive and tour, and follow up on the explosions
of exposure, because they don't last."
I asked Michaelson if the strong public response surprised her, and
she answered with typical humility.
"Part of me was [surprised]," she said. "Part of me
was like, 'Of course they're going to love it.' But then the other
part of me was like, 'They're going to hate it. No one's going to
care.' There's always been a split in me - being both really confident
and being totally vulnerable and unsure of myself."
And, thankfully, the interview didn't pass without a chance to glean
some details about Michaelson's next record - which, according to
her, has already been written. "It's a little bit more off-center,"
she said of the new songs. "[Girls And Boys] is closer
to pop, and my next album will be a little farther away."
"I have nothing against straightforward pop music," she
added later. "I just want to do something that's a little bit
different, a little off-center."
Outside of the promise of a new Ingrid Michaelson album, there are
plenty of opportunities to see her live in the coming months. She
has dates planned into 2008, and plans to sneak in studio time between
shows. "I'm doing a bunch of holiday concerts, and there are
already plans for tours [early next year]," she said. "But
I am going to be trying to work on the record in between."
The time I spent speaking to Michaelson, as well as the short three-song
set I saw last summer in a Cape Cod bookstore, made it clear that
this is not an artist who will squander or abuse her recent success.
Michaelson also seems dedicated to evolving creatively, so there's
a good chance her next record will improve on the remarkable Girls
For now, Michaelson is content to live her dream.
"I lead a fun life," she said. "It's not all fun and
games, but it's definitely rewarding."
As for her fans, it looks like we'll be seeing and hearing plenty
of Ingrid Michaelson in coming years - and that, I can assure you,
is a good thing.
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