It’s only October, but singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson is in full holiday swing. When EW spoke with her ahead of the release of her new Christmas album, Ingrid Michaelson’s Songs For The Season, she was mid-gift prep. “I’m literally wrapping presents as we speak,” she says, adding that the holidays are “a time when we’re allowed to be…a big gooey mess of joy.”
For the new record, Michaelson let her Christmas obsession take over. Drawing inspiration from Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and Brenda Lee, the Staten Island-bred singer aimed to create something that will stand the test of time and convey authenticity, warmth, and nostalgia. “It’s not the kind of album I’ve always made,” she says. Instead, it’s a compilation of classics — along with one original track, “Happy Happy Christmas,” which sheds light on the recent deaths of her parents. Some of the songs stay true to their original versions, while others are arranged more uniquely, showing off Michaelson’s expansive vocal range and playful songwriting.
Ahead, Michaelson chats about putting a new spin on old classics, her childhood Christmas memories, and holiday traditions as an adult.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like arranging classic Christmas songs and making them your own?
INGRID MICHAELSON: I love Christmas, I love Christmastime. I wanted to do something that was an instant, nostalgic classic, basically. And I hired my two friends, who are both amazing writers and producers, Dan Romer and Saul Simon-MacWilliams, and they and I formulated this sound using a microphone [from] the 1950s and recording all the strings together instead of double-tracking one guy playing violin five times…. I just wanted to make something that would honor that and celebrate that and something that I would want to listen to year after year after year after year. It wouldn’t go sour, or go bad, or be dated.
I love what you did with “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” It’s almost a ballad, and very different from Mariah Carey’s version.
Yeah, it’s not done a lot. I don’t know why. I went online and looked. I thought, somebody must have done this before, the slow style. If you listen to the lyrics, they’re so beautiful. They’re so sad. [But] I couldn’t find anything. I thought, I’m going to do it.
We actually shot a video for that a couple of days ago. It is so gorgeous. I’ll give you a hint: there’s dancers involved. When they first showed me the movement, I was just weeping in the dance studio.
What made you decide to make that song the one that’s most different from its original take?
[On Christmas covers] you want something that is familiar that reminds you of past Christmases and holidays, and so I didn’t really want to reinvent the wheel. But with all of them Christmas, this one we can [reinvent] because it’s the most modern of all these songs, except for the one that I wrote myself. Also to make it fit the rest of the record, I didn’t want to jazz it up. I thought that would cheapen it somehow.
I’d love to hear a little more about “Happy, Happy Christmas” the one original song on the album. There’s some sadness to it, but also a lot of optimism. Was it inspired by anyone in particular?
It’s about my mom. I lost my mother four years ago now. It’s been a long time — well, not a long time, but every year that goes by, it’s another year. So we’re at four now. I wrote that last year for the holidays. While it was initially about her, it’s kind of morphed into being about both [my mom and dad], and just the idea that not everybody is happy at Christmas time.
If you’re really sad and you don’t want to hear it, you can skip past it. And if you want to indulge in your sadness, you can listen to it. But there’s enough joyful stuff on the record and enough contemplative stuff that I think it’s got a really good wash of everything.
“Mele Kalikimaka” — is that how you pronounce it? — is one of the more uplifting tracks. Was that part of the balance you were going for?
Yeah, I’ve been singing that song for years, because I always played the ukulele. It always made sense to sing that song and it’s so much fun. It’s a three-part harmony with my family that we’ve been singing for years. So it’s the perfect choice.
Let’s talk Christmas traditions. Are there any childhood memories that inspired the music on this album? Or any new traditions you are creating now?
Every Christmas Eve my family would have a huge party — like 70 to 80 people would go to my house — and we had my grandma [living] with us. She would cook all these Swedish Christmas dishes and people would bring a big potluck. My father would be playing the piano and he wrote a lot of Christmas carols. We’d sing his carols and would be drinking, eating. I would be so tired because of running around and eating sugar the whole night, not eating any real food. We actually still had the party last year without my mother and father, still at my parents’ house. Everybody would say, “We’re so glad because it’s a tradition for us….We know it’s difficult with your parents being gone.” The fact that we’re still doing this, it was bittersweet, but it was really special.
And then we would always open presents up at my parents’ house Christmas morning, so last year was the first year I didn’t sleep at my childhood house. I did it at my apartment with my boyfriend and his two daughters. And then I had a lot of my family members over at my apartment here in Brooklyn and we did the same thing that we did at Staten Island, at my parents house, except that I hosted. It was like we sort of transferred the tradition to my apartment. It’s really comforting to know that the tradition doesn’t have to die. It can work, and can grow and it can change.
Is there a favorite present you remember opening as a kid?
Yeah, I do. I remember, I don’t know why — it was too big to wrap is why I probably remember it. I saw it under the tree. It was one of those Fisher-Price kitchens.
Those were the best.
With the stove, the little fridge. For a child, it was huge. I remember it was just sitting there and just [being] like, What?! I can’t believe that. My own kitchen! It’s so heteronormative to give your little girl a kitchen, but I wanted it. I wanted to pretend like I was baking things. Of course, who knew I would turn out to love to bake?
Is there anything in particular you hope listeners take away from this record?
Like A Charlie Brown Christmas—that’s the one I always go to — I want my record to be that for some people. I want people to have my record be there while they’re baking, or cooking, or getting ready for their holiday, or just sitting around with friends drinking. I don’t need people to be like lingering and focused on lyrics. It’s not that kind of record. I just want it to become part of the lexicon of people’s go-to holiday records.