Baring herself in song

When Ingrid Michaelson met the perfect man, her well of lovelorn songs dried up. She tells Ed Power about a peculiar case of writer’s block

INGRID MICHAELSON was happy miserable. A loser in love, her romantic ups and downs (mostly downs) were perfect material for her songs. Then, she met Mr Right, got engaged and had her worst writer’s block.

“It was a real problem,” the cult singer-songwriter says. “For a while there, I didn’t have anything to draw off. My material was always about having my heart broken. Then, you meet the right person and that impetus sort of goes away. Who wants to hear a song in which you tell everyone you are happy?”

Michaelson’s creative impasse was poorly timed. After years of struggle, she was on the verge of making it big. “My music had started to be licensed a lot. It featured on commercials, and on TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy. I was beginning to win an audience. People had heard about me, or at least about my songs, and were coming to the concerts,” she says.

In a funk, she met Paul McCartney/Lana Del Rey producer, David Kahne in New York. He was open to working with her. He sat her down for a heart-to-heart chat. “He’d gone to my shows and had been really impressed with the way I sang,” she says. “He wondered why I didn’t sing that way on any of my records. His take was that I was always holding back a little. He wanted me to go for it.”

It was a convincing pitch and she was eager to collaborate. There were complicating factors. She was due to get married a few weeks later at her parent’s holiday home in Maine. It was the worst moment to begin a record.

“So, basically, I had these two huge things in my life happening at the same time,” she says. “It was pretty stressful.”

So the album, Human Again, was made in idiosyncratic circumstances. She and Kahne did not set targets. She went into the studio every morning and wrote. If they had a song at the end, great; if not, at least they’d learned a few things.

“His take was ‘If you keep writing, I’ll keep recording’. I’d commute every day to Avat Studios, on West 53rd Street, and we’d just get into it,” she says.

Going into the sessions, Michaelson had one goal. She wanted to stop being the ‘jingle’ girl. On hits such as Be OK she has, she says, a tendency to “wax cutesy”. She wanted Human Again to show a different side of her.

“The world looks at you and all it sees is that part of the iceberg peeking out of the water. For me, the bit that is above the water is Be OK. Everyone looks on it as a sweet little ditty. This time, I thought, ‘You know what, I don’t want to do sweet little ditties’. While I appreciate what my music has done for me, I have a love-hate relationship with a lot of my stuff,” she says.

When a track becomes famous through a commercial, the writer can start to feel disconnected from it, she says.

“There is an element of losing where the track comes from,” she says. “Be OK has been used so many times, in so many countries, that it feels like it isn’t mine any more. On my current tour, I play it without my band, on the ukelele. It’s actually a very sad song and I want to reconnect with that sensibility. Nobody ever listens to the lyrics. The idea is to go back to the spirit of the song, which is quite mournful. ”

Not that she is nostalgic for the days of playing to the proverbial two men and a dog. “It’s funny. I remember my mother saying to me, ‘There’s this new show called Grey’s Anatomy, your music would totally work on it’. I was like ‘Yeah mom … and I could take a rocket to the moon, too’. I never imagined something like that would happen. When you have five people coming to your show and all you’ve got is a Myspace page, you don’t think anyone is going to pay attention. When my music finally made it onto Grey’s Anatomy, the biggest thrill wasn’t the exposure. It is that it made my mom really proud,” she says.

That said, not every commercial placement is a passport to the big time. “Sometimes, people don’t even notice. If your composition is buried in the background or isn’t a good fit with the commercial, it may not do anything for you,” she says. “So, it isn’t as if every single placement is going to make you a star. People pay attention to, maybe, one out of 100. Otherwise, it’s just a white noise.”

Michaelson’s songs can be hokey. On her recent single, ‘Blood Brothers’, she wonders why people can’t get along better. It is the sort of sentiment you might stumble upon on a kids’ TV show. She is OK with this.

“That’s a criticism I get. You know, people are always criticising you, no matter what. If I didn’t wear my heart on my sleeve, well, then, what else am I bringing? I’m not singing about anything thousands of others haven’t sung about already.

“I can’t control it if the public thinks I’m melodramatic. You have to go with what feels right for you,” she says.

A curious footnote in Michaelson’s story is that she co-authored one of Cheryl Cole’s biggest hits, ‘Parachute’. That was happenstance and she says she has no ambitions to become a pop writer for hire. Michaelson was asked to submit a tune to a publishing house. So she gave them an eerie little song she’d been working on. At the time, she hadn’t heard of Cole. Then, she went on tour to the UK and couldn’t escape ‘Parachute’.

“She was in the tabloids a lot, at the time, because of her personal life,” Michaelson says. “That was a strange experience for me.” If Michaelson’s upwards trajectory continues, she could soon find her own life being the subject of more media interest.

* Ingrid Michaelson plays Academy Dublin tonight and the Pavilion Cork tomorrow.

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