When listening to her song “Christmas Lights,” you might think Ingrid Michaelson is describing the sadness of missing a loved one during the holidays; however, she’s actually narrating the thoughts of Joyce Byers, the mother of a missing boy in another dimension from the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” “You’re not here, but you’re here / I can still hear you call / Like a faraway bird trapped inside of the wall” Michaelson croons, recounting the scenes when Byers is able to communicate with her son via the Christmas lights hanging around her house.
While she’s built her career on her honesty and vulnerability, Michaelson took a new approach on her latest album Stranger Songs, dedicating the entirety of the album to the characters of “Stranger Things.” I had the opportunity to talk with Michaelson on Wednesday before watching her perform live at Folk Festival to discuss her new album and her upcoming show.
“Basically all the songs on the record are from the point of view of a few of the characters,” Michaelson said. “It’s essentially an assignment. There’s this song, you have to tell this story. For me, the structure of it is really different and just getting into a groove of writing about what you’re thinking or writing what you’re feeling or writing about what you went through, it sort of feels like you have homework.
But within that structure I find great comfort for whatever reason, maybe because I’ve never really written like that before. It allows me to somehow be more creative because I have this structure, if that makes any sense. I’ve been really loving it and enjoying it. Applying it to pop writing has just been really cool and fun and rewarding.”
In her bio for Stranger Songs, Michaelson describes how she felt as though she was writing too much from the “brain and mind and soul of Ingrid Michaelson,” so Stranger Songs was a way for her to plug her own experiences into a pre-existing story.
“Even though you’re taking inspiration from something else, there are still songs on the record that are very personal to me because the ideas are universal,” Michaelson said. “We all suffer heartbreak, we all suffer loss, we all have love in our life in some capacity, so even though they are pre-existing stories, my own voice is definitely there. My own vulnerability and my own part are definitely in the songs in Stranger Songs.”
The album pairs well with her other big project as the composer for the musical adaptation of “The Notebook.”
“In a musical you’re writing music that’s from the point of view of other characters of another story, so you get to tell a story through songs, which is really amazing,” Michaelson noted. “And then that’s where, although I didn’t realize this until after the fact, Stranger Songs came from because I was doing a very similar thing only in the realm of pop music where I’m taking pre-existing stories and characters and I’m funneling them through my lense.”
As a teaser to the opening of “The Notebook,” Michaelson performed an unreleased song from the show at the festival and encouraged audience members to see it live at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in September.
Michaelson was one of six acts performing at the first night of the 43rd Annual Folk Festival, a two-day event that raises money for The Ark, a local non-profit concert venue in Ann Arbor. Sporting black jeans and a t-shirt, Michaelson walked on stage with her long-time bandmate Allie Moss.
“It’s going to be very acoustic, just how I started touring years ago,” Michaelson said before the show. “It was just Allie and me in a minivan. So we’re going to do everything acoustic, stripped down. She’s one of my favorite people to sing with. Harmonizing with her is [great]. She’s so amazingly good and she blends so well. I think we’re just gonna lean into that, more of an acoustic feeling.”
As she tuned her ukulele, Michaelson shared her frustrations with traveling with an instrument, jumping into an anecdote about her experiences with middle-aged men trying to talk about instrument craft when they see her with her ukulele case at the airport. After she had given the audience a few laughs with her impersonations of the men she was describing, she and Allie opened with a song off Michaelson's 2014 album Lights Out, performing with just a ukulele and guitar paired with their flawless harmonies.
Having seen her perform twice on her prior tours, I’ve experienced the magic Michaelson possesses over an audience, keeping them completely engaged from start to finish. In fact, I witnessed a packed standing-room-only theater in Chicago shush each other as she started playing the intro to her rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The entire concert hall fell silent as she performed the tune at the piano.
“I’ve always played the songs people love, maybe that’s why I feel connected,” Michaelson said before the festival began. “And the connection isn’t just in the music, it’s in the way the music is delivered and in the energy between the audience and the performer and the stories that are being told. I always feel a really genuine connection with my audience. It doesn’t really matter what I play, to be honest.”
Michaelson maintained this genuine connection with her audience at Hill Auditorium, dedicating much of her time on stage to cracking jokes and telling stories about her past shows in Ann Arbor. When playing “Miss America,” Michaelson had to restart the song twice, forgetting the lyrics to the first verse and asking an audience member to look up the lyrics for her. During a crowd favorite, “Be OK,” Michaelson stopped the song and kindly asked the audience to stop clapping along, since the echoes of their faulty rhythm throw off her own rhythm. “You can squeeze your butt cheeks or do kegels instead,” she offered before bursting into a fit of laughter, struggling to suppress another outburst while she performed the song.
Michaelson is no stranger to Ann Arbor and even had some stories to share about her past performances at the Ark. About halfway through the set, she broke into another eruption of giggles while cupping her breast, retelling the story of a woman in the front row who attempted to catch a feather falling through the air, looking like she was holding her cleavage in the process.
“It’s always nice to go back and sort of remember where you came from and how you started. I do a lot of trio touring so I still get to have that feeling at times, but it’s just different because it’s magical, especially being in Ann Arbor,” she recalled. “It’s like one of the best places we’ve played when I was up and coming. Allie and I have a lot of memories, and you know, we have to go to Zingerman’s. We have some family friends there too, so it’s gonna be really nice. Like a little homecoming.”
Despite having a new album under her belt, Michaelson chose to perform music from her older albums for her 45 minute set, asking audience members in the front row to set a timer for her so she was off the stage in time to abide by “union rules.”
“Whenever I play, I never play one record. I play everything because I know that’s how I am. I love a song from many years ago and I want to hear that song, and I know that’s what people want. They want a little bit of everything,” Michaelson said. “I definitely feel like the true, hard-core people who have been with me from the beginning are so awesome and so flexible and open to change, open to new things and it’s been a really joyful experience to see people evolving with me. But at the same time, I’m never gonna turn my back on where I started and what people loved about me in the beginning.”
Michaelson shared the stage with other impressive acts, including the folk trio The Lone Bellows and Mississippi blues guitarist Cedric Burnside. The Canadian trio Elliot Brood also performed, sharing hilarious political jokes, and the female trio Rainbow Girls sang beautiful harmonies. The night wrapped up with a collaboration between Calexico and Iron and Wine with brief performances in between acts from emcee Willy Porter.
A common theme throughout the night was the breaking of norms in the folk tradition. After intermission, one of the directors at the Ark spoke on the ways folk music is unlike any other genre of music because it has the capacity to follow old traditions while also forming new ones. In a world where music and its listeners are rapidly changing and opting for quick production and consumption, it’s hard to find records that are well thought out and carry with them the sounds of the artists that came before them.
“I think music is a little devalued as of the past few years,” Michaelson said. “I want to make full records and I want to use orchestras and I want to be thoughtful about what I do and it’s challenging because the world isn’t the same as when I started. I feel a little disheartened about the way it’s consumed and the way it’s sort of disposable. But I’m just going to keep going, doing what I love. It’s all I can really do. Those that are with me will stay with me and that’s all I need.”
Despite the challenges of the music industry, artists like Michaelson give us hope that there are still composers toiling to create music that adds to the narrative of the folk tradition.