When she walks into a store in her Brooklyn neighborhood, Ingrid Michaelson is rarely recognized. But once she hands over her credit card to pay, the clerk often pauses, brightens up, and enthusiastically offers a bit of trivia: “Did you know that there’s a singer named Ingrid Michaelson?”
Image has never been her priority, but Michaelson has earned enviable name-recognition thanks to her knack for crafting beautiful, idiosyncratic songs such as “The Way I Am,” “Maybe,” and “Keep Breathing.” (Her new album, Human Again, drops January 24 on Cabin 24 Records/ Mom+Pop Music.) And let the record show that her librarian-chic style has nonetheless received a shout-out in The New York Times.
Michaelson’s grassroots sensibility has worked like gangbusters: Her music, often about love and relationships, has wafted out of your television in handfuls of Grey’s Anatomy episodes (not to mention countless other series since such as American Idol, Parenthood, and So You Think You Can Dance), in an affecting Google Chrome ad, and on VH1 as an artist You Outta Know. The New York Times marveled that she was “singing her way from obscurity to fame.” Billboard trumpeted her as the face of the new music business. NPR declared, “Ingrid Michaelson is everywhere.” As an independent artist she has sold over 750,000 albums and 3 million singles.
With Human Again, produced by David Kahne (Regina Spektor, Paul McCartney) Michaelson throws a wrench in her reputation as the Crafter of Dainty Love Songs. “The album is called Human Again, because it’s taken me a very long time to be happy,” she says. “I am writing about a really dark time in my life even though I’m not there.” One of her most gutting compositions is Human’s first single, “Ghost,” a hushed reflection on lost romance that unfurls ruefully from its opening line, “Do remember when the walls fell?” From there, Michaelson plumbs the breadth of human emotion. The feisty “Blood Brothers,” in contrast, is a buoyant pop tune that actually “came from a place of annoyance,” she says. “Like you’re walking down the street, and someone shoulder-checks you while they’re rushing by. Wouldn’t it be nice if we treated each other like companions? Come on, everybody—stop being assholes!”
Human Again is also a triumph in aural range. The music veers from orchestral (Kahne’s specialty) to percussive, while her accompanying voice swells from contralto to soprano. “I think I was really singing out, physically, on this album,” she says. “Usually that’s set aside for divas, and the rest of us kind of have to whisper and be precious. I figured, ‘Why don’t I just put that out on at least one record in my career—let it all hang out?’” No track better captures the alternating thoughtfulness and unrest of Human Again than “Fire,” a string-laden anthem in which she sings about an emotional slash-and-burn, “I will grow from the ground after you burn me down.” Notes Michaelson, “That is kind of a thread that runs throughout the record.”
Such artistic ambition has always percolated in the blood of this singer-songwriter—who’s also co-written and starred in a semi-autobiographical, comedic pilot that she and improv-actress Rebekka Johnson are shopping around to TV networks. (The show is still untitled.) The Staten Island-raised daughter of classical-music composer Carl Michaelson, she took piano lessons from the age of five and starred in plays during her grade-school years. Michaelson went on to study musical theater at Binghamton University in upstate New York, where she sang in an a cappella group. After graduating, she cultivated her interest in music by performing at a coffee house where she worked as a barista. She was teaching theater to kids when she got a fateful call in 2006 from a music manager named Lynn Grossman whose company Secret Road discovered Michaelson’s homegrown tunes on her MySpace page.
Within a few months, Michaelson’s music could be found sound-tracking the romantic-surgical debauchery Grey’s Anatomy with songs such as the cascading “Breakable” and the melancholic lullaby “Keep Breathing.” A music supervisor for Old Navy just happened to catch the episode featuring the latter and snapped up the cooing, calypso-inflected “The Way I Am” for one of the company’s commercials. (The song ultimately went platinum.) Radio play followed, just in time for the release of her 2007 full-length debut, Girls and Boys (out on Cabin 24 Records, her own imprint). This all happened in about a year. “We really had a lot of luck, and then we worked really hard to be in the position we’re in nowadays,” says Michaelson, who’s since released an EP, 2008’s Be OK, and a follow-up album, Everybody (both via the Cabin 24 label) — each proving fertile resources for music licensors.
Human Again expands on her melodic roots. And it’s an ambitious move for Michaelson, one that’s even surprised her parents. “My father said, ‘Where are all the ditties?’” she recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘Well, I think I’m past the ditties, Dad.’ I’m done with that part of my life. I’m ready to think a little bolder.”