The Way She Is
by Jay S. Jacobs
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 newfound notoriety.
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 clothing chain.
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.
“I 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 Grey’s Anatomy. 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 growing up.”
This supportiveness just made it easier to go into directions that she felt drawn to anyhow.
“I 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.”
In 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 Grey’s Anatomy deluge hit it had captured attention. Michaelson won a songwriting competition sponsored by the venerable music series Mountain Stage.
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, reassuring.”
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.
“I 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.
“I 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 ticket, really.”
In 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.
“I knew [I was ready to leave] after I had couple of Grey’s placements and 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 Grey’s Anatomy 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.”
One 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 is well over a year old now. Has Michaelson started working on the follow-up?
“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 that 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?”
Of 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.
As far as her banter with the audience, she does not see her fun and personable audience chats as an extension of her theatrical background.
“I 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 laughs.
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 26, 2008.