By Tom Lynch
Ingrid Michaelson’s work is easy to enjoy. The pleasant aural concoction of melancholic pop melody, a sequence of verse-chorus-verse structuring and pretty, if limited, vocals spouting textbook lovelorn reflection have always worked. The equation isn’t rocket science, and that’s part of the charm, of course—sometimes we just don’t want to think too hard. Call it laziness on my part, fine, but sometimes all I want to hear is Phil Collins, and Michaelson has a similar effect.
The 26-year-old New York-based songwriter takes cues from crooners like Lisa Loeb, crafting a blend of both sweet balladry and giddy alt-pop, radio-destined fare, all like a dose of candy—short, saccharine, heavenly and then gone. She self-released her debut record “Slow the Rain” in 2005, and then her follow-up “Girls and Boys” in 2006, again without a label. Through MySpace she reached a, well, much more expansive audience, and eventually found herself in a meeting that was to land some of her songs on “Grey’s Anatomy,” the nighttime hospital soap opera that has filled the music-introduction-to-the-masses-through-TV void left by “The O.C.”
Things change pretty quickly when a million people hear your song over a decidedly emotional moment on television, and after her song “Keep Breathing” was played over the final scene of the show’s season finale, the name Ingrid Michaelson was the most searched item on Google in the United States for the evening. Recently, her song “The Way I Am,” from “Girls and Boys,” was in an Old Navy commercial, which eventually made “Girls and Boys” break the Billboard 200 list. (The song has since sold more than 200,000 times on iTunes.) Michaelson appeared on “Last Call with Carson Daly” in September, performing her stand-up-bass-driven hit, and since then it’s been off to the races—her show at Martyrs’ sold out quickly enough to warrant a second, late-show addition. She’s still unsigned.
“Things are going a little bit differently than I’m used to,” she says. “I think the people working with me are doing a good job of holding the reins, slowing it down, though. I never really liked the idea of being shot out of a cannon—we always wanted to go at a generally slow pace. Right now it seems like we’re not, but within the realm of possibilities [we have right now], we’re definitely holding back. Still, I don’t feel too overwhelmed most of the time.”
But wouldn’t the assistance, or support system of a record label, however motivated, be helpful in the day-to-day? “A lot of times,” Michaelson says, “labels will hype artists, get their face everywhere, talk them up, but then there’s not as much of a foundation as there should be. Sometimes it works—but sometimes it doesn’t. I just feel it would be better to work up organically and realistically, sort of build up a strong foundation of fans. That’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
Perhaps the most impressive piece of “Girls and Boys” is the consistency, the overall strength of the entire album—it’s not a collection of singles punctuated with sloppy, hollow filler. The album—which was re-released in September by Cabin 24—consists of both piano- and acoustic-guitar-based songs, to be sure, but the elegant mixture of both ultimately puts it ahead of comparable records, with the piano work on songs like “Breakable” and “Overboard” being the best moments. “Breakable,” a lovely, delicate song with a crushing melody and nice vocal harmonies, is basically an instructional manual on how to write a pulsing, three-minute-long pop ballad that, while some might be turned off by its accessibility, is also one of those songs that will, quite simply, never let you down. “The Way I Am,” the hit, is even more concise, clocking in at just over two minutes, and it works much like Regina Spektor’s minimalist “Fidelity” works—with emphasis on voice and, in a way, vulnerable swagger, it endlessly charms.
But, with time, songs change—for the listener, sure, but more emphatically for the songwriter. “Girls and Boys” and everything therein is an aged record, having brewed with Michaelson for years now. The songs, their sentiments and meanings, have certainly shifted for her. “There are moments…when I first wrote the songs, when they were closer to me, I knew where I was coming from,” she says. “But the further you get from it, [after] different things happen in your life, the songs start to be about whatever is happening now. Songs take on a journey and their own life, they morph with you. Sometimes they remain stagnant, and that sucks. But that happens, too. [Then] you have to pull out the big guns and remember why you wrote it.”
Michaelson says she doesn’t try to consider her recent ascension too much. “If I think about it, my brain hurts,” she says. “It’s astounding—it’s cool that it’s happened, I’m very excited. But I can’t think about those things too much, or my brain will just explode.”
Ingrid Michaelson performs December 11 at Martyrs’, 3855 North Lincoln, (773)404-9494, at 8pm & 10:30pm.