INGRID MICHAELSON IN NEW YORK, OCTOBER 2015. SPECIAL THANKS: THE IMPOSSIBLE PROJECT.
Within the past decade, Ingrid Michaelson has become a household name. The indie pop singer/songwriter, who grew up in Staten Island and now lives in Brooklyn, independently released her debut Slow the Rain in 2005 and follow-up Girls and Boys in 2006. Songs from the latter, which was discovered on MySpace by an ABC music producer, made their way to the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack and the rest of Micahelson’s quick ascent is history. Last year, she released her sixth album Lights Out via Cabin 24 and Mom + Pop, however, the album marked a stark turn in direction. The 35-year-old had never before co-written music, but for this release she worked with more than 10 other writers.
“I never loved the idea of co-writing,” the musician says when we meet her at the Aloft Hotel in downtown Manhattan. “I was too much of a control freak about my music and didn’t want to give up that control.”
While Lights Out forced Michaelson out of her comfort zone and introduces more upbeat and perhaps happier songs than in the past, it’s a direction the multi-instrumentalist (guitar, piano, ukulele) continues to follow. She is currently writing for her next album and says more than 20 songs are completed, most of which are co-writes. Aside from writing her own music, Michaelson previously taught children’s theater for four years (she graduated from Binghamton University with a degree in theater) and also works with VH1 Save the Music, providing instruments to schools in need.
Before she performed a special showcase as part of the 2015 Project: Aloft Star, we spoke with Michaelson about writing, femininity, and the exhibition “The Mummy Chamber” at the Brooklyn Museum. Her set went on to include old favorites like “Be Okay,” as well as newer hits, such as “Girls Chase Boys,” a song that subverts stereotypical gender roles through the idea that in the end, we are all the same.
EMILY MCDERMOTT: Lights Out came out about a year and a half ago, but working with so many producers and writers was an entirely new process for you…
INGRID MICHAELSON: Every other record I had done, I had written all the songs myself and worked with one producer. Lights Out was 11 writers and six producers and I was traveling around from New York to Nashville to L.A. I was at a point in my writing where I felt really stagnant and bored. I dipped my toe in the water [with co-writing], so to speak, with a friend of mine who I knew was a great writer, in Nashville, and we had such a great experience that it made me braver to try with other people. So that’s what I did; I kept writing and trying. Some experiences were not so great, and some were amazing. When you’re writing with someone else it helps you think of things you never would’ve thought of.
For example, “Girls Chase Boys,” I wrote with Trent Dabbs and Barry Dean in Nashville. We were playing with the beat and then Barry started playing that piano octave leap. Trent was being silly and beat boxing, just going [breaks into beatbox harmony]. They were just messing around, but I was like, “I feel like we can actually make this into something.” So it came from two people doing things I wasn’t and probably wouldn’t have done. We honed it into a song, and in an hour and a half, we finished. Being in a room with other people’s energy yields such a different result. I love writing by myself still, but there’s something amazing about sharing that experience with someone else.
MCDERMOTT: What have you learned about yourself through working with other people?
MICHAELSON: It’s such an easy, obvious lesson, but sometimes to move forward you have to let go. I figured that out through opening myself up, allowing people into my creative process. It allowed me to write songs that surprised me, and in fact, inspired me. I remember after one day we were [collaboratively] writing, I went back to my friend’s house in Nashville where I was staying, and I wrote this song entirely by myself because I was so inspired by the day, and that was on the record, too. So I think just letting go is a really good thing to do in many areas of your life, songwriting included.
MCDERMOTT: Can you tell me about some things that you’ve recently had to let go?
MICHAELSON: In a nutshell, last year my mother passed away, my marriage ended, and I moved. Those are some pretty big things to let go of. But I find that if you hold on to something too tightly, you strangle it and yourself. If you don’t let go, and let things go through you, it’s toxic—physically. I have gone through physical periods of feeling really sick and stomach problems. I know so much of it is because of my need to control and hold on and define things. But I’m at my best when I’m letting things flow through me and not holding on so tightly, kind of resigning to the fact that you don’t know what’s coming and that’s okay.
MCDERMOTT: Letting things go is one of the most difficult things to do. What helps you do it? Writing music is obviously one of them.
MICHAELSON: Yes, writing music. I also love being outside. That sounds really simplistic, but if I’m in an enclosed space, or my apartment, and I live very close to a park—there’s something about being outside and being near things that are green. I live in Brooklyn. It’s pretty concrete there, but there’s a lot of beautiful things, too.
And going to museums, feeding your soul and brain, experiencing things that make you realize you are not the center of the universe. I went to the Brooklyn Museum the other week and there’s the mummy exhibit [“The Mummy Chamber”]. There’s The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago. But the mummies and the embalming techniques, and looking at the pyramids and the sphinx and these amazing cities that existed or were underneath rubble… We think we’re so great, but when you realize how insignificant, not in a negative way, or small we are in the grand scheme of things, it’s really liberating. There’s so much before me and there’s going to be so much after that. Things like that, when you can harness that, are really awesome experiences and thoughts to hold on to.
MCDERMOTT: Mentioning The Dinner Party, that is basically a triangle of feminist history, and you’ve previously said you were born a feminist.
MICHAELSON: Growing up, not to diminish my father—he’s an amazing man and writes beautiful music—but my mother was definitely the stronger of the two. If they were in the garden, my mom would be on her hands and knees yanking out weeds; my dad would be using little grippers picking up little pieces of trash. He was much more dainty than she. She was always such a strong force in our community and as an artist. She got very involved in the museum world; she ran a museum for the last 12 years of her life and helped take the Staten Island museum from this tiny little place to this beautiful big restored building.
She was always such a strong woman, but I didn’t know any better; she was just my mother. I didn’t know everybody’s moms didn’t let them draw all over the kitchen floors and then wipe it up with soap. I didn’t know other people’s mothers didn’t build huge sculptures in their backyards. It was just like that’s what my mommy did. As I got older, I realized, “This is not normal. She is pretty awesome and pretty cool.” So when I said I was born a feminist, I was born thinking woman are equal to men, if not stronger than men. That’s the way I always was.
MCDERMOTT: What about your experiences within the music industry?
MICHAELSON: Being a woman in the music industry is interesting. When you first start out, you’ll be at a bar doing sound check and the local sound guy will go, “Oh, sweetheart, you know where to plug things in?” You’re like, “I know how to plug in my fucking guitar.” But you don’t say that. You’re like, “Yeah, I know what I’m doing.” The best thing is after a show, someone will be like, “Hey, you’re actually really funny!” Like women can’t be funny. So you experience things, but I’ve never been one to get up on a soapbox and preach. I just live my life the way I live my life.
The older I get, the more I realize I’m becoming people’s role models and that’s freaky to me. That’s not what you intend to do when you set out to be a musician, to be a little 14-year-old’s role model. Not to say I’m perfect, but all of these people are looking up to me and I have some responsibilities. How do I want to image myself? It’s easy to just throw on a pair of hot pants—there’s nothing wrong with that, [but] no one wants to see this ass in hot pants. [laughs] You have to figure out what makes you happy, what makes you feel sexy, what makes you feel strong, and what I think would be a good image to portray to young women.
MCDERMOTT: What has it felt like having to actively think more and more about your appearance?
MICHAELSON: I didn’t grow up in a naked household, but nudity was not a taboo thing. My mother was an artist and there were naked sculptures and paintings all over the place. So the female and male body aren’t like “Ooh!” to me, but I couldn’t walk around with pasties on and a G-string. I don’t think my audience would appreciate that and I don’t think I would even feel comfortable in that. It’s weird when all of a sudden people started saying things like “I want to be you when I grow up.”
MCDERMOTT: How have you seen the control and proliferation of image change? Your career has kind of escalated in synch with the presence of social media.
MICHAELSON: Twitter started in about 2008 and I have been doing this successfully for about nine or 10 years. It’s difficult. With Twitter and Instagram and all of these vehicles where fans can directly interact with you and get your attention, there’s a little bit of an entitlement. Like, “Why won’t you follow me or write me back?” Well, if I write you back, then I have to write everyone back. Every once in a while I’ll do some sort of Q&A and answer questions.
But if I was a kid and could reach out to Luke Perry or Leonardo DiCaprio or whoever I had a crush on, I’m sure I would every minute of every day. It’s just built into our culture now, where that wall is gone. It’s an interesting balance, because you want to invite people into your life—at least I do, I want people to have a connection to me.
MCDERMOTT: Right, but then it’s like aren’t you doing that through tweeting and posting photos to Instagram to begin with?
MICHAELSON: Exactly, but it’s never enough. I’ll put a record out and then someone’s like, “When’s your next record coming out?!” Everything is so [snaps fingers]. Everything is 15 seconds, or five-second Vines. People are becoming stars off of Vine. I would hate to be a teenager growing up with social media. Kids can be cruel enough as it is, but cyber bullying or you’re on Instagram and see your friends are all somewhere and you’re not there. Then it’s like, “Why am I not there?” Girls are using apps to change the way their faces look so the look quote-unquote perfect and beautiful. I feel like kids these days, it’s gotta be just a big ball of anxiety.
MCDERMOTT: And they don’t even know how to deal with it, because they’re growing up with it.
MICHAELSON: Yeah, it’s been built into their lives, been built into them. I try to keeps things pretty light, try to make people laugh. I find it difficult to keep trying to promote myself. I know that’s the whole point of it, to promote my music, but I like to use it to be funny and silly. The game has changed, for sure. I’m very intrigued as to what’s going to happen in the next 10 years.
MCDERMOTT: If you had to give some of those kids one piece of advice, what would it be?
MICHAELSON: What you see online isn’t real. How many likes you get on Instagram doesn’t have any bearing on how good of a person you are, how good your heart is. It’s all for fun; it shouldn’t affect you so deeply. I know that’s very difficult to say to a 16 year old, but I speak from experience. I know some kids who are going through a lot of hard times because of social media. It hurts my heart, because I know if I was a kid, I would be right there with them. It should be like a driver’s license—no one can have an Instagram until they’re 18. It’s the wild, wild west, the internet.
MCDERMOTT: As one last question, how would you define your philosophy or approach toward music?
MICHAELSON: Music to me is something that I didn’t choose; it was a necessity. I grew up with music, my father is a musician. It makes me happy; it makes people happy. For as long as we can trace back human life, there’s always been some sort of music—ceremonies, rituals. It’s part of the human makeup. I also think kids who have music in their lives are more focused. They have better attention spans. They excel more in their studies. They have a better sense of self-esteem and self-worth. There’s something about having an artistic outlet that is so important to the human mind and development. It’s as important as any other subject in school. I think it should be mandatory. It’s part of our genetic makeup.