A conversation with Ingrid Michaelson

Before her concert, Ingrid Michaelson sits down with students to answer a variety of questions such as what books she's reading, how she feels about her songs and performances, and how she manages to stay grounded.

Ken Heffner [director, Student Activities Office]: I think with pop culture, you want to know about it, care about it and unpack it—treat it like you would treat any other kind of art. If you’re studying a brief piece of literature and you want to know more about it, you would find out what critics had to say about it, and you would find out what other things they’ve written, etc. So part of that process is … to have a conversation with the artist themselves. But what we want to do differently with this setup is avoid one of the things that probably hurts us. When talking with a celebrity, you can become kind of obsessed with the people, not because they’re good artists, but because they’re famous. So we want to stay away from those questions. In fact, I’ll probably veto it if you ask one of those questions. Because what we want to do is talk about art, and what shapes Ingrid’s work, and what is behind that work. I’ve read and seen interviews she’s done before, and she’s quite good at talking about this.

Also, we are particularly privileged today to have Lynn Grossman with [Ingrid]. Lynn is her manager, and Lynn has a pretty big reputation of working with artists on the business side of art, which is a good side. So, those of you who would like to ask those kinds of questions, we will address those as well. Ready? 

Here’s a lead-off question. What are you reading? I mean, anything from novels to nonfiction, from comic books to shopping magazines.

Ingrid Michaelson: I’m reading The Hunger Games, the second book. I read the first one in two days and this one is taking me a little longer. But it definitely reads like a kid, somebody who was 18—wait, sorry. [Smiles at audience of students] Well, it feels like a younger person, maybe 16 or older, would read it. But it’s very intriguing and I like how it is totally playing off the ‘reality television to the nth degree’ kind of thing. So that’s what I’m reading right now.

Lynn Grossman: Alright, so this is way intellectual, you’ve probably never heard of this, but it’s called Entertainment Weekly, and I’m reading that right now because the business that I have is studying artists, music and television. And mostly the issues are all programs that are coming out so I need to start doing research to see what kind of music fits.

Ken Heffner: [to the crowd] Okay, questions you have.

Student: Mine is related to that in a way. I just saw the first episode of the new season of Grey’s Anatomy, and your new single is on that. So how did you go about getting that song on that show?

Ingrid: Well, I wrote that song and it was initially supposed to be on the record, and I really loved it. Then I had another song. I tend to be repetitive sometimes with my lyrics, and I kind of copy off of myself, so the first song on my record goes ‘Do you, do you, do you, do you, do you.’ And then I wrote the song called ‘Into You.’ And it’s different, so I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t put both of these on the record.’ So one, ‘Into You,’ got scrapped on the CD. But I thought it was so pretty and I just knew it would find somewhere to go. So right away we sent it to them—she’s a really good producer, the music supervisor over there [at Grey’s Anatomy], and they loved it and they held onto it for, like, half a year. They were looking to do all original songs in a specific episode—meaning [the songs] haven’t been found on another record. So we sent them that song and it was going to be on the season finale of last season, but they couldn’t find an appropriate place for the tone of the song, so they waited until [character] died. [Laughter] I don’t really watch that show, but it’s so sad!

Ken: Can you talk more about how television is becoming more like the radio, and how you hear music on television like the radio’s not working the way it used to, and how that works on the business side?

Lynn: I hear people say that all the time.

Ingrid: Radio still works!

Lynn: I feel like TV was the new radio maybe, like, four or five years ago. But I think there’s good news, and that is that there are so many more TV shows than there ever were before. And so many cable channels and all of these different places that need music. So there’s the opportunity to spread music everywhere. But because of that, it sort of gets watered down a little bit. Ingrid in 2007 had her song, ‘Keep Breathing,’ in the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy, and her life changed on that day. The Wall Street Journal wrote a cover story about her. Good Morning America wanted to have her as the first on-site artist on their TV show. And this was from the season finale on Grey’s Anatomy. And now, years later, it doesn’t really have that impact anymore. I’d say commercials sometimes have that impact, but truthfully, it’s about repetition. We all know that music, that first time you hear it, it doesn’t register, but when you hear it over and over again, eventually you’re like, ‘Oh, I love that song.’ So just having a song in the background of a TV show may or may not have impact. Especially when there are so many of them now. I think radio is still, really, the way to get your music to the next level.

Ingrid: I think I’m going backwards, from where I came from. But then there’s like that band, fun., who had that song in Chevy commercials or during the Olympics or whatever it was, and it was such a great song, and there was no voiceover talking over it, so the song was really showcased. And now they’re, you know, playing some huge places like here [laughter], but I had never heard them before the Chevy commercial. So I feel like you could get lost in the sea of other placements, but if you have a song and if a commercial, or whatever it is, fits perfectly with that song, it could be the best thing ever. But it’s getting harder and harder and harder to have that moment.

Ken: Other questions? 

Student: Your first album [Girls and Boys] was very much an independent, sort of do-it-yourself thing, and [recent album] Human Again was not. How has that changed the way that you go about doing this? Do you still feel like it’s as much your own as the older ones are?

Ingrid: Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, to expect anybody, not just an artist, but anyone to make the same thing over and over again is impossible for me. I feel like I can’t keep just doing the same thing. So there was an evolution, I think, throughout my records, leading from Girls and Boys, which was basically the first time I learned how to play the guitar. I wrote the songs on that record. And then you get to, you know, last year when I worked with [producer] David [Kahne] and I just told him, ‘I want strings on everything!’ And he was like, ‘Me too!’ And I had to calm down, because you can’t put strings on everything. And so I really feel like, with every record I have to write something new. So I think on this last one I just wanted to be bigger and sing louder and harder and honestly, like, that’s how it started. David told me that he had seen me perform live and thought that nobody had captured, on record, the way I sing live. And that made me think, ‘Have I been playing it really safe, vocally?’ … I literally started out with the idea that I’m just going to sing, like, way out of my range, or what I thought was my range. And I ended up writing a few songs that opened up vocally, which then opened me up lyrically, and I just got really brave with writing. And I think everything just followed suit in terms of, like, the ‘bigness’ of the record, as opposed to the kind of ‘indie-ness’ of the first one.

Lynn: She went into the studio with ten songs and I think one of them made it to the record, because David brought so much to her singing voice that she just kept writing after that.

Ingrid: And I think Girls and Boys was, that was really like my first real effort, you know? … I think it sounded the way it sounded because it was just, you know, three of my friends producing it together and on Sundays we would go to the studio for free. So it had a very—it’s a time capsule. I think it sounded the way it sounded because of the way it was made.

Ken: Follow up question to that—do producers see something in you that you’d never seen before and kind of squeeze it out? Are they a pain in the butt? Does it matter? Does one producer over the other make a difference?

Ingrid: Yes. I think a good producer pulls things from you that you didn’t know that you could do. And I think good producers are a pain in the butt too. I’m very opinionated and I think I’m always right, so when they tell me that I’m not right, you know, it makes me angry. My initial response to someone who is like, ‘You might want to do it like this,’ is like, I want to cut off their head and light it on fire and run out of the room. [Laughter] And then after awhile, I’m like, ‘Okay, maybe I’ll reconsider this one part of the thing that you said,’ and usually it makes for a better end result. But I find that even though I don’t like being prodded, it’s probably all for the best. For the most part.

Lynn: Just tell her to do the opposite. It’s awesome.

Ingrid: No! [Laughter]

Student: If you go on YouTube you can find tons of covers of your songs from fans, and things like that. If we look at art as kind of the discourse between the authorship and the audience, does seeing those influence the way that you look at your music? Or also, I know that you’ve done covers of songs—does doing your version of other people’s songs make you think any differently about your music?

Ingrid: I think listening to music in general kind of makes me think about things differently. But I feel like there are so many covers now. I used to go online and watch them in the very beginning because there were like one a day, but now there’s so many. Every once in awhile though…So I watched one the other day of this father/daughter, I think they were on America’s Got Talent. He plays guitar and she sings, and she doesn’t have a great voice, in my opinion, but she hits all the notes, and she’s so, like, sincere. You have to go and watch this. And they did ‘Blood Brothers’ and it gets really high, vocally, because I think at the beginning the dad is singing it in his key and he’s forcing [the daughter] to sing it, like really high. But she gets all the notes and she’s just, like, screaming—her little eyebrows are going up and … her mouth is like, ‘Ah!’ and she’s just sitting on her little chair. She’s probably seven years old and she’s just, like, singing her heart out. Those moments, they don’t really redefine my music to me, but they just make me feel, I don’t know, connected to people in a way that I don’t often consider myself. Like the fact that you’re all here right now, wanting to hear what I have to say, does not make any sense. People want my autograph and I don’t—I get it, I understand it logically, but I don’t see myself that way, I guess? I have a song in a Meryl Streep movie, and I went to the premiere and she was sitting, like, far enough away but she was there. And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh! She’s here!’ And when that’s how some people feel about you, it’s like, yeah, but I’m not Meryl Streep, so that’s just ridiculous. [Laughter] I can see why somebody would want to meet somebody and be excited and be interested, but being excited for me, I don’t understand it. … So it doesn’t really make me change the way I think about my music, per se. Does that make sense? When I sing other people’s music, I feel like, how could I not do that? I think it would be doing a disservice to have a platform to perform music and to not do other people’s music. I mean there’s all these, like, five other good songs besides mine. JK! [Laughter]

Student: Here’s a follow up to that question; how do you pick the covers that you do, or that you put on your albums?

Ingrid: Well I’ve only actually... 

Student: ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love.’

Ingrid: That one, yeah. That’s on ‘Be OK,’ which is just another glorified EP. And ‘Over the Rainbow’ is on there too. I love it. I just think that, you know, if it’s a great song…for me, a great song is the kind of thing that you can take everything else away, and just the melody and the words kind of stand on their own. That, to me, is the thing that I hold on to. So I feel like ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ is, like, the perfect song in that, to me it’s pretty—even though radio changes it; they’re just like, ‘Play the song.’ And ‘Over the Rainbow’ I love, and I have, like, ten songs that I kind of rotate around, but I just love a really good melody and a good sentiment draws me in.

Student: How do you stay so grounded? You seem very down-to-earth. Do you have a lot of mentors in your life?

Ingrid: Do I? I think that, well, in terms of being a woman in this world, which can be difficult for women, my mother was always very strong. If my parents were out gardening or in the front yard, my mom would be, like, yanking up all the weeds and digging, and my dad would be, like, daintily carrying off a tree. My father is not sportsmanly; he doesn’t wear short-sleeved shirts or shorts. He always is in, like, a button-up shirt and slacks, and he’s very dainty. And my mom is, like, an in-the-dirt kind of woman. She’s an artist, she’s a sculptor, and now she runs a museum, and she never changed her last name. I never thought women changed their names until I got to like middle school and everyone was like, ‘Why don’t you have the same name?’ And I realized, ‘Oh, that’s what most people do.’ Not to diss my dad—I think my dad is awesome and he is also very musical, and he’s a writer and a composer. I basically grew up in, like, an old Victorian house with two hippie parents. I never had coloring books ‘cause, you know, my mom wanted me to create my own lines, that kind of thing. And I never grew up with pop music—my father hates pop music, ironically. He likes mine. [Laughter] And my mom sort of just went with my dad. She didn’t really care that much. I feel like my parents were really, I had a very wonderful childhood growing up, and they were very supportive. And I went to school for—I was going to go to school for theatre at NYU, and it was very expensive, and I remember my mother saying to me, ‘Well, we’ll turn the heat off for a month.’ I remember her saying that and just thinking, like, as a 17 year old, I couldn’t bear the burden of that on my parents—spending too much money. So I ended up going to a State University of New York school, and I had a great time there, but it was, you know, less than half the price. But I remember hearing her say that and it just stuck with me forever and ever, and she just is so supportive of me. So I think that having a really strong family foundation definitely helped.

Also, after a show, the last thing I want to do is go out and like have like 18,000 pictures of me snapped. I could definitely be kind of, you know, snotty if someone is like, ‘Wait, come here! Don’t you want to come here?’ And I’m like, ‘I want to go on the bus right now!’ Like, I can have my moments, believe me. But that should not be misunderstood with the fact that I don’t understand how anybody could ever think themselves better than anyone else. So I think that’s where it stems from. I mean, maybe that is from my mom and dad, but yeah, I just think kindness [is important]…and, you know, we all are going to go through the exact same thing in our lives, from birth to death. Like, we are all going to experience things, and nobody is better than anybody else. And I feel like, as soon as you think that, you’re down a path of loneliness.

Student: I know that people who like your songs tend to be female. There are a few guys in this room I think, but it’s, like, 95% female. So I guess I was just wondering, do you think your music is generally aimed at, or generally more suited for females? And if so, if you think that’s true at all, do you think that’s a bad thing?

Ingrid: In my experience, I think that female musicians—singer/songwriters—for the most part, if they have female followers, I think a lot of men might not even want to go there to see if they would be interested in it. So, kudos to you. I’ve definitely seen more and more men in the last year. I think that the last record I put out was a bit more aggressive, and I think that kind of calls to men. But go see, you know, what’s like a manly band, Rage Against the Machine and see how many 17 year old girls [are there]. I feel like people just go to where they think they’re supposed to go, and I think it’s a comfortable thing for women to gravitate towards a woman who is saying the things that she feels the same way about. But yeah, I think that’s just kind of the way it goes. I think the more aggressive [singers], maybe like Metric, have a lot of male followers because, well first of all, she’s not going by Emily [Haines]. She’s going by Metric. So I think right away, when you say Ingrid Michaelson, you think ‘Oh, she’s a woman. I know what she’s about; I don’t care about that.’ If I was like, you know, my name was, like, Scarlet and the Tree Climbers, then like ‘Oh, it’s an indie band. Cool, right?’ But I think it’s human nature to go where you think you’re supposed to go.

Ken: I want to be sensitive to your time, because I know you need to go do sound checks, so here’s a final question. It’s rather obvious if you’re working backstage, you can see all the preparation that it takes to make this show work. I can tell you’ve been working on it for weeks, and you as an artist, and the rest of your band, have to be on your game. You have to do better than just hit the notes. In other words, we understand that there is something you bring to this to make it work well. But typically the audiences get a free pass. All we have to do is bring a ticket. And we think that there’s something we need to bring tonight. If we bring something, it helps you do your job, and the whole thing kind of goes up. You watch that happen night after night. What is that thing?

Ingrid: For me, the best shows are when I feel like there’s a sort of symbiotic situation happening, where I feel connected and engaged with an audience. And I think people, especially in seated theaters, tend to feel like I can’t see you. Or maybe I can’t see you specifically, but I know that you’re there … The thing is the personalities, though. I love when people are actively invested in what we’re doing. Whether that means they laugh—you know, it’s okay to laugh. Like, I’m funny. I say funny things. Just allow yourself to be the one that laughs the loudest and not be embarrassed. Or the one that claps the longest. But just, like, don’t be intimidated and afraid. And I know that’s hard because people are very shy, and that’s okay if you are. But I think that when an audience sort of, as a whole, kind of lets go together, and just relaxes, it makes for such a fun show. And there have been shows where I have to, like, draw it out of audiences, but by the end I generally get them. But it’s much easier when you start [responding] right off the bat. 

Lynn: I feel like it’s interesting how you give your shows a rating: A+, B-, the worst ever… And it’s not because you’re like, ‘I sang beautifully today; it was awesome.’ It’s always about the audience. Every single time. So that’s always a main thing. It’s really important.

Ken: [to audience] So that tells you something. A lot of it is up to you.

Ingrid: I mean, I can go up there and sing perfectly or, you know—I’m a good performer. That’s not anything that I can say very easily. But just performing well for me isn’t enough for me to enjoy [a show]. I’ll just go sing in my living room for myself. The reason why I do this is because of the idea of … 2,000 people in one room, all having this experience together. It’s not like a movie or a play. Like, I’m here and I’m not the kind of performer that puts up a fourth wall. There’s something really magical when everybody is together, losing themselves in this moment, whether you’re listening or you’re performing.

This bothers me [points to student taping the conversation with a phone]. I see her face lit up. If you love it so much, why are you filming it? You’re filming the reminder that you made a secret video? It’s okay once and awhile but I feel like sometimes, I’m just like, why? You’re never going to watch this again. That’s the ironic thing. It’s going to go on your computer, or maybe you’ll upload it to YouTube, but … I want to tell people, maybe you should just remember it. Remember when we used to remember things? Now maybe you guys don’t know, or don’t remember phone numbers. But it’s lots of fun! Like, we can remember them! We can remember things; it’s possible! And sometimes it’s nice to not have a crappy video of your favorite song. You can actually enjoy it and be in that moment and remember that moment, you know, when it’s happening. So yeah—or turn your screens off so I can’t see anything, even though I know it’s happening.

Ken: [to audience] So you heard that from an artist, okay? Your assumption might be, ‘Oh, they love it when you’re doing that.’ But if you were on the other end of it, watching it… 

Ingrid: It’s kind of a bummer. Well also, because half the time, you know, I feel like these are not good recordings, people. You don’t have great equipment in your iPhone. And I can hear you singing. So maybe, and I’m not saying to not ever film it again, but maybe do it only half the time. And if you’re going to [sing along] on five songs, do it on six songs. And enjoy the moment that you’re in…

Ken: And remember it.

Ingrid: Yeah.

Ken: Alright, so as a courtesy to these two, we’re going to let them very graciously leave the room and get back to the stage.

Ingrid: Who is coming tonight?


Ingrid: Awesome. All right guys, thank you!

VERGE: winter 2012

First-Year Experience