It used to be in order to get your songs heard; you had
to hope that somehow radio would catch on to you (often through
payola). The whole business has changed, though, and Ingrid Michaelson
is riding the wave of the new world order of MySpace, iTunes, television
placement and national ads to a quirky and surprising bid at stardom.
And she’s doing it her way.
Though she had recorded and self-released two CDs on her
own Cabin 24 label, she was almost completely unknown just a year ago.
In fact she still lives at home (more on that later) and only months ago
gave up her low-paying day job as a drama coach for children. Still,
somehow Michaelson has become a poster child for the new DIY music world
– and she can thank Grey’s Anatomy and Old Navy for some of that
Her most recent self-released CD, Girls and Boys,
has become an almost shockingly big hit over a year
after it was first released. It has gone from selling a few copies
after gigs to spending a week as iTunes’ second most popular
download. Michaelson became
the first VH1 “Artist to Watch” who was not signed to a major label.
This turnaround started with Grey’s Anatomy. In
late 2006, the hip hospital show used Michaelson’s vulnerable ballad
“Breakable” as background music for a scene. In the year since,
Grey’s has used two other songs from Girls and Boys (“The Way
I Am” and “Corner of Your Heart”) in other episodes of the series – and
contracted her to record a new song called “Keep Breathing” for the 2007
season finale. Then, to heighten the exposure more, “The Way I Am” was
picked to be the background music to a saturation-play ad for the Old Navy
None of this was exactly expected, but all of the
exposure was welcome, making the song “The Way I Am” a surprising top 40
hit single and prompting a much
wider re-release of
Girls and Boys.
put a bunch of songs on MySpace and a licensing company found my songs,”
Michaelson recalls. “[They] contacted me about working with them and
seeing about getting myself on TV and film. That’s what happened. I
started working with them and they got to play some songs on
Because my profile had been raised and my music was in the public eye
more, somebody from Old Navy contacted me at MySpace about ‘The Way I
Am.’ They thought that would be great for their sweater campaign. So
it’s sort of building on everything else. Just keep building and
building and more things have come to us. It’s crazy.”
It may be crazy, but somehow fitting, because she has
been in certain ways working towards this plateau her entire life.
Ingrid Michaelson grew up in an artistic household – her father is
classical composer Carl Michaelson and her mother is sculptor and museum
curator Elizabeth Egbert. Even as a child, she saw herself on stage.
In fact, she got her first mention in professional press – in the New
York Times, not too shabby – way back in 1995,
when she was fifteen, as part of her father’s
performance piece “Carl Michaelson and Family,
From: Stapleton, S.I. To: Museum of Natural History.”
This nurturing background helped make the idea of a life in the arts
seem both logical and attractive.
“I definitely think that there’s a bit of [a tendency for the arts to be
passed down through generations],” Michaelson says. “If anything, it’s
more of an acceptance. They allowed me to do whatever it was that I
wanted to do. The temperament of an artist is very accepting and very
supportive. I feel like that was probably the most helpful aspect of
This supportiveness just made it easier to go into directions that she
felt drawn to anyhow.
took piano lessons as a child and I took vocal lessons. I ended up
going to college for musical theater. So singing was always in my life
– always. I just somehow made a shift from theater to music, because it
seemed like it fit me better and it was able to create things
that I wanted then. I could always be working even if I wasn’t acting.
I was always working in some way, whether or not I was just writing or
anything, so I just enjoy it more.”
2005, she recorded and released her first CD,
Slow the Rain.
It was respected and helped her get some gigs, but mostly slid under
the popular radar. Then she set to work on her breakout hit,
Girls and Boys.
Even before the
deluge hit it had
captured attention. Michaelson won a songwriting competition sponsored
by the venerable music series
From there, the buzz just kept growing.
“It’s a pretty cool experience to watch something that you never really
knew would go anywhere [succeed],” Michaelson says. “Lots and lots of people know
the songs and are buying the record. That’s kind of reaffirming,
Those songs that the people know are a sweet mixture of soft and quirky
acoustic-based melodies and clever, extremely relatable lyrics about the
little moments in life and love.
like to be really specific,” Michaelson explains. “I like to say a lot
but in a small amount of words, usually. I feel like it makes it easy
to understand – not in the talking down to people way – but in boiling
things down to its essence to whatever is left. The essential thought
of the phrase and the idea is presented. I like to be very specific and
almost cartoony – like I’m painting this picture and you can see it in
front of your face. I don’t like vague. I can’t work like that. I can
listen to songs [where] I have no idea what they are talking about, but
the melody is so great… But for my own writing, I need to be very, very
sharp. Very specific. Very visual. That’s just the way that I like
to write. I’m not doing it for the benefit of anybody else. I’m just
doing it because it’s the way I write.”
Working for the benefit of herself has seemed to allow Michaelson to
capture the imagination and adoration of a surprisingly large audience.
However, she does not fool herself that her songs are some sort of
one-size-fits-all musical wallpaper.
“I don’t really care if everybody loves my
music,” Michaelson acknowledges. “I know that is not the case. There
are going to be people that hate it and people that really are
indifferent to it. But for those that [do like it], overall I want it
to be seen as smart pop music that pushes the limits.”
Still, despite the fact that Michaelson’s career has turned down some
unusual roads, she says that the key to musical success comes down to
the basics: passion, conviction, determination and not just a little bit
of good fortune.
feel like there is not one answer to everything,” Michaelson says.
“It’s sort of like a cocktail of everything. Getting your stuff on TV
makes it easier for you then to get on radio. It’s all a big puzzle
with lots of different pieces. There’s not one thing that’s going to
break you. It’s quite an arduous task – putting all these things
together. Working really hard and touring and getting the right kind of
tour. Making the right songs and being at the right place at the right
time. It’s all luck and hard work and good songs, you know? People ask
me, ‘What’s your advice?’ It is:
Dude, just do the work. Just keep writing and by whatever means get as
many people as possible to listen to your music. There’s no golden
fact, it wasn’t until the album had really taken hold
that Michaelson finally felt ready to
give up her day job as a theatrical coach for children.
knew [I was ready to leave] after I had couple
things were picking up,” Michaelson says. “I was trying to work out
some tours. It was like; I can’t go on any tours if I’m doing this.
Then, the month that I left kids on stage, I got the
finale placement. I was like, yeah, okay, this is a sign that I’m doing
the right thing. So I left.”
One place she hasn’t yet left is her parents’ home. Michaelson and her
dog still live there – on the rare occasions that she is actually home
these days. Before
Girls and Boys
hit, the living arrangement was a financial thing. Now it is more a
matter of time management.
“I’m going to [find my own place],” Michaelson says. “I’m just not
really going to be home much [to look]. I’m pretty much booked through
like July. So, once I have more than week to be home, I’m going to
start looking at getting something.”
Besides, for a while, at least, it was kind of fun to tell people the
fact – though it seems to have run its course a bit.
“I’m not very interesting,” she acknowledges, good-naturedly.
“Everybody knows I live at home with my parents – that’s what I used to
say [when asked for quirky facts about her life]. That was the big
interesting thing to talk about.”
group of people who quickly became very interested in Michaelson was the
major labels – who came sniffing around just as
Girls and Boys
was exploding. However, despite a brief flirtation with
several companies, nothing really crystallized – a turn of events which
Michaelson admits now that she probably prefers.
“The labels were coming around a while ago, but never really put it out
there.” Michaelson says. “I think the way things are going is really
great. I like having control. I like being able to be at the head of
my ship, so to speak. If I was ever to sign, I would want some sort of
partnership. I like what Jack Johnson did. He has his own imprint
label, but it’s under Universal. So he runs it, but he has a machine
behind him. It’s definitely his label. Right now I have my own label.
I don’t know how I’m going to do my next album, but for this one, I’m
definitely going to keep it where it is.”
Which brings up a question –
Girls and Boys
well over a year old now. Has Michaelson started working on the
“Nope,” she acknowledges, good-naturedly. “I have all the songs
written, but I haven’t started recording any of them yet. I don’t
really know when I’m going to do that. I don’t have much time in the
upcoming future, at least. Hopefully by next year I’ll have something.
I don’t have a label; I don’t have anybody breathing down my back
telling me what to do. So I kind of do whatever I want,” she chuckles.
What she wants to do most, right now, is take advantage of the interest
Girls and Boys
has fostered and translate it into as many shows as she can
perform. She has
finally hit the point where she is able to headline in some fairly large
rooms and she wants to strike when the iron is hot – even though life on
the road can get to be a bit of a grind. You hear stories about
musicians blowing in to town and wreaking havoc. Michaelson’s reality
is a lot tamer.
“There really isn’t much time,” Michaelson says. “You get into a city.
You pick up, you have to eat breakfast, take a shower, do whatever.
Then we’re pulling up to the venue, so we have to load all our stuff
in. Then we have sound check. Then you eat dinner. Then you have the
show. Maybe you have time to like… if you like to go out and drink or
whatever you can do that. Or if you want to watch a movie – last night
I watched a movie on the tour bus and then I fell asleep. It’s just
reading, the internet, and hanging out with your friends. There really
isn’t any long stretches of down time, you know?”
course, headlining a show when you only have one album that most people
have heard is also a bit of a time stretch. While she will do some
songs from her lesser known debut, the entertainer in Michaelson also
relies on clever banter with the audience and some performances of songs
by other artists. In a recent show at World Café Live in Philadelphia,
for example, she did a whole slate of quirky covers, everything from
Radiohead’s “Creep” to Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to
Will Smith’s theme song for
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
far as her banter with the audience, she does not see her fun and
personable audience chats as an extension of her theatrical background.
feel like it’s kind of the opposite with theater. In theater, you’re
being a completely different person for the sake of entertainment,” she
says. “Basically, how I am onstage is sort of how I am offstage. I
like talking with people and making people laugh and making people feel
something. Just being the catalyst for some kind of emotion inside,
whether it’s laughter or sadness or whatever. I open up and I’m being
who I am onstage.
“If anybody saw me perform I think they’d know what I’m
about. I don’t care what people say otherwise about me,” Michaelson
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