Ingrid Michaelson brings in lots of voices for bigger-sounding 'Lights Out'
May 22, 2014 12:00 AM
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
First impressions tend to last, and with Ingrid Michaelson, it's of the quirky girl with the glasses playing ukulele on her first and only Top 40 hit, "The Way I Am."
That was in 2007 when the singer from Staten Island, N.Y., broke through with the song from her second album via MySpace and an Old Navy sweater commercial
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With the past few albums, Ms. Michaelson is working with a much larger sonic landscape.
"I think all of a sudden there were so many people doing the same thing," she says, "like playing ukulele, and I just felt like I was part of a grouping of people and I didn't want to keep doing the same thing. I never intentionally went, 'I'm going to be the quirky girl with glasses and ukulele.' It was not crafted that way. It's just who I am, I guess. For my own sanity, I was like, 'I can't keep be doing the same thing.'
"People are still like 'I heard you in a commercial.' 'No, it isn't me.' 'Yeah, I think you're playing ...' I'm like, 'That isn't me.' I didn't want to do the same thing as everyone else. I didn't want to do the same thing as myself anymore. So on the last record really I went to the opposite side of the spectrum with lush orchestration and heavy melody. I think on this record I found a good middle ground in terms of there's still whimsy but I think there's a lot of gravity to it as well."
"Lights Out," the follow-up to 2012's "Human Again," was made under trying circumstances for the singer-songwriter.
"I had a lot of digestive problems and I got diagnosed with nerve damage to my throat," she says, "which was just very painful, and I couldn't sing or do anything for a few months and my mother and father are both ill and I've been taking care of them. It just was a very difficult year and a half. And I felt really despondent. Then, at the same time, I was working on this record, which I think is what gave me something to hold onto."
Rather than making a weepy little record, though, she went big with the production, recording in three cities (New York, Los Angeles and Nashville) with six producers and 10 co-writers, including Katie Herzig, Trent Dabbs, Busbee (Pink, Katy Perry, Lady Antebellum). Along with Mr. Dabbs, adding vocals to the record are her husband Greg Laswell, Mat Kearney, Storyman and A Great Big World.
"In the past, I've always written all the records myself and I've worked with one producer, and this time around, I just needed help, I needed a village," she says. "I wrote with a whole bunch of friends and some people I didn't know, which was scary, but it worked out great, and six different producers. I just felt like I needed many different people to help me up out of this hole I was in. I love the collaborative feeling and lots of gang vocals. I wanted it to feel like this family affair. I love the idea of this record being bigger than me and bigger than anything I could create on my own."
It's surprisingly upbeat, starting with the very poppy single, "Girls Chase Boys," that started as a breakup song and turned into a singalong celebration. "Warpath" is a rocker driven by handclaps and a heavy electric guitar riff; "Time Machine" is a Fiona Apple-style piano pounder with a big rock chorus; and "One Night Town" competes with Katy Perry in the dance-pop realm. Those looking for her more intimate touches can find it in a piano ballad like "Open Hands."
When she thinks about her biggest sonic palette, her thoughts go to Tori Amos.
"I listened to her all throughout high school into college -- obsessively," she says. "But I never was even going to be a songwriter. I was going to be an actress. So I guess I never looked at her as like an influence because while I was listening to her I wasn't really writing music. I think with my last record I was really impressed with Florence and the Machine who I'm sure is influenced by Tori Amos. She's very bold and serious, but her music, you can move to it, you can dance to it. That was a really interesting dichotomy, so I felt like I was referencing her production on my last record. A lot of bigger drums."
On tour, she thinks the quirkier indie-folk stuff of old blends well with the more dynamic new material.
"I think that my earlier stuff I wasn't pushing as hard vocally. It was a lot more mellow. So when I sing live I tend to push more anyway, so I feel like the older songs mix well with the new songs because singing live there's just a bigger energy. I think we've tailored the set to have good peaks and valleys, but I think, vocally, I keep a good level of energy throughout the whole thing. I try to anyway."
She recently learned that her devoted fan base includes one Taylor Swift, when the pop sensation tweeted in March "One of the only unchanging things about my life in the last 10 years is my love of Paramore, Ingrid Michaelson, Fall Out Boy & Coldplay." That connection has only grown from there.
"And then I met her at an event," Ms. Michaelson says, "and we exchanged phone numbers and I said, 'If you want to come to my show in New York...' and she's like 'Of course, I'll come.' And she's so famous and busy, you don't expect people like that to show up, but she did, she came, and then she tweeted a very sweet tweet, and then everyone and their mother was like 'Ah!' That girl's got some power. She's got like 40 million followers on Twitter, so yeah, I think I got a lot more Taylor Swift fans as fans. They're very sweet."
She counts herself as a mutual fan.
"Her latest record has got some amazing pop songs and some really beautiful singer-songwriter songs. She's experimenting with different sounds and I think we have so many years of her, it's only going to get better and better."
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