Ingrid Michaelson on her Stranger Things-inspired album and turning The Notebook into a musical
Ingrid Michaelson is letting her nostalgia take over again, this time with new music influenced by her TV obsession, Stranger Things. “Watching the show just makes me feel those feelings so intensely,” the singer-songwriter says. “I’ve created a very personal connection with it.”
Entertainment Weekly sat down with Michaelson ahead of the release of her first single, “Missing You,” from her soon-to-be-released album Stranger Songs, to learn more about what motivated this era of nostalgia. Channeling sounds from Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, and primarily Yazoo, Michaelson strikes a balance on the new album between ’80s inspiration and 2019 execution, all the while exploring a new way of songwriting — from the perspective of a character rather than herself. “There’s so many different varying degrees of what a human can feel. And I think that’s what I write about, that’s what I sing about and that’s what the show does really beautifully.”
This isn’t the only project Michaelson is working on recently that makes her explore writing through this new kind of lens. She’s also working on a stage musical adaptation of The Notebook. “I think this [album] is a natural extension of that,” she explains.
Ahead, Michaelson talks about writing songs inspired by characters while still making music just as emotionally captivating her pop classics.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Obviously your inspiration on this project is completely your own, but were the Stranger Things creators aware of your project and did you send them the music or have to get any special permissions?
INGRID MICHAELSON: We reached out to Netflix for legal reasons because we didn’t want to do anything that was copyright infringement. That being said, I’m not using their names in the song and the songs stand alone. If you didn’t know the show you would never know [it was about it]. When we reached out to them [Netflix], they were very cool and even let me use their font for my name on the album artwork. So [it was a] very positive response.
In terms of them using the songs, [Netflix] is very legit and only has score and actual songs from the 80’s, which is what makes the show so great. It’s one of the reasons I love the show. It makes you feel like you’re back in time watching E.T. or The Goonies.
What resonated with you about the show?
I’ve lost both of my parents and I’ve always had a very strong nostalgia streak. I’ve always longed to re-live childhood memories. There’s no word in the English language to describe what it is that I’m feeling. But it goes deeper than nostalgia — this desire to quite literally be able to go back in time and re-live those moments again because the memories are so wonderful and wrap you up with a warm feeling.
Your music is so emotional and so personal. How do you get the same intimacy from a song about a character as you would about yourself?
It’s about intention. I don’t think it necessarily has to be something that you’ve experienced. I think as a storyteller you tell a story. But we all feel the same things in one form or another and in varying degrees of intensity. So all these songs are just about the human condition in one way or the other. And because I’m not being extremely specific, it allows for your own experiences to mimic and shadow and to sort of echo along in those songs.
Does the time period have an impact on the music, and does it sound like the pop music of the 80’s would you say? And if so, are there specific artists who you used for inspiration on this album?
There were a few. I didn’t want to go full 80’s …it didn’t seem like the right vibe. A lot of artists are using sounds from the 80’s and the 90’s, kind of recycling that which is nothing new. But I’ve never really done it, so I thought this is a fun way to enter that world. There’s definitely some 80’s synth work and certain drum fills and electric guitar solos, and even certain harmony arrangements.
There’s this one song by the group Yazoo, called “Only You.” It [has] such a vibe and it makes you feel so many things and the melody is so beautiful. That was another kind of tonal reference that I used a lot. I definitely listened to a lot of 80’s music but the Yazoo song was kind of like a mascot for a lot of the sonics of the record.
Let’s talk about “Missing You.” Can you tell me more about the characters that inspired that song and what it’s about?
It’s funny because I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t watched [Stranger Things]. But I can say that it’s from Nancy’s point of view and she’s in a bit of a love triangle situation. I think I can say that much without giving anything away.
Who are the characters in Stranger Things that resonated with you the most?
Well, Eleven obviously. The fact that a girl of small stature is the strongest, most powerful character on the show. I think that is pretty great. It was hard to not write every song about her or from her point of view. I had to be like, okay, I’ve done enough Eleven songs! I don’t necessarily know if I resonate with her but she’s the most inspiring for sure.
I wrote a song about Eleven and it’s the first time I’ve been in a room with just women and where a woman produced it. So a few of my other tracks, I wrote with Cason Cooley and Katie Herzig and they co-produced it. But this is the first … [and] only song I’ve written with women, only women, and produced by a woman. And it’s about being a strong woman.
What do you hope fans who don’t watch the show get from this music?
What I always want is for people to connect and see their own experiences mirrored in the songs. There’s a song called “Mother” that is about Will missing his mother and also about Eleven searching for her mother. But when I listen to it back, now that I’m removed from it — because we wrote it about a year ago — I see my own mother. And if I wrote it and can separate it and make it about me, that’s something. I just want people to listen and to make the songs about them. I want the Stranger Things fans to really dig and find all the Easter eggs, but eventually make the song fit their life and help them. That’s what I think music should do. It should mold to the listener.
Switching gears, I would love to talk about the stage musical adaptation of The Notebook. How did you get involved with that project?
One of the producers asked me if I would be interested and I said yes, and that was basically it. Believe me though, I’ve been searching for something for years. It wasn’t just like this just fell out of the sky. I positioned myself in a place where people knew that I wanted to work on something. So I think that’s why it came to me, because I put it out into the world.
You did theater growing up. What was one of your favorite roles that you played in high school or college?
I was in a production of Sunday in the Park with George, which is a Stephen Sondheim musical and I played the lead of Dot. I wasn’t cast as the lead originally, I was a secondary character. And the person who was cast as the male lead, the love interest, was this person that I had a huge crush on. I was a freshman in college, he was a junior and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be on the same stage with him.” Then the lead had to back out. She got into another show on a different production, and they bumped me up to the lead. I thought, “Oh my God, I get to be the lead with this guy,” who I ended up dating for three years. It was an amazing role. It was a hard, challenging role and I was a little baby when I did it. But I think that might be where I peaked.
How does the pop songwriting experience compare to writing a Broadway show tune?
It’s different but it’s not. The lyrics are different because you have to tell more of a story and push a plot forward, whereas you don’t necessarily have to do that in pop writing. Pop writing is more about a localized moment. Not to say that theater isn’t a localized moment, but you have more of an agenda. There’s a little bit more pressure on you to push forward the movement of the whole piece. Pop writing can be very formulaic but with a musical you have a lot more freedom to kind of meander and explore different things. So it’s been really fun, but it’s also challenging.
What did you love about the movie?
I actually read the book first. It has a lot more information than the movie. But [I love] the story, just the story. First of all, I’m just a sucker for love stories and in my opinion, it’s one of the great love stories of our generation. And also, again being that I have seen people pass and I know what that is like, I think there’s something about loss and death and life and living your life as best as you can and loving as best as you can. And it just resonates with me on a much deeper level now than when I first touched it years ago. And the idea of loving someone so much through everything, it’s just such a great story. Who doesn’t love The Notebook? You have to have a heart of stone.
Does the stage story differ much from the film?
We have the major plot points there, but we are adding some things, taking some things away, and it’s going to be much more theatrical obviously, because it can be. That’s the beautiful thing about theater, once you establish the world, however you want that world to be, then you have so much freedom. It’s going to be magical, and so theatrical and just incredibly moving and beautiful. And I just keep saying the word excited, but I’m just so excited!