In the past two years, Ingrid Michaelson — who’ll drop her fifth studio album, Lights Out (Cabin 24/Mom+Pop) on April 15 — has vaulted from overachieving indie-pop sweetheart to a bona-fide pop star. Her last release, Human Again, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard album chart (plus No.1 on iTunes).
This achievement merely crowned the considerable success Ingrid had already earned with her previous compositions: beautiful, idiosyncratic songs that have been prominently featured in popular films, television and on regular rotation in commercials. Her DIY approach to making music — composing her own songs, co-releasing albums on her Cabin 24 imprint, building an organic following through music-licensing, and back in her MySpace days (where she was discovered in 2006), promoting herself — was a slam-dunk. Now, it had evolved into a well-oiled machine, The New York Times even weighed in, declaring her songwriting “smart,” her tunes “irresistible” and her live show “seamless.”
Then, says Ingrid, “Everything just came to a screeching halt.” While helping out seriously ill relatives, her dog died. Soon after, Ingrid herself fell sick with serious stomach issues. “My whole throat was on fire for a few months. I had to stop writing,” she says, of the time between April and August 2013. “I was so ill, I couldn’t sing.” After seeing countless doctors — “like, three a day” at its worst — she got better and was able to resume writing Lights Out. For someone associated with crafting sunny tunes about escapism, a creative detour into dusk seemed almost inevitable.
Technically, Lights Out refers to the two words uttered on Ingrid’s tour bus when everyone’s ready to call it a night. But given recent developments, it’s become a metaphor for contemplating mortality and letting go — themes more thoughtful than they are dark. The album builds into intensity, but is anchored by the swelling pop-affirmation “Time Machine” and the sweetly buoyant “Girls Chase Boys,” which fits squarely into her existing catalog. “We thought of that song as the bridge for people. I’m still respecting what people want, but showing them what I can do,” she explains, adding: “Some of the songs, like ‘Over You,’ are written to sound like relationship-y songs, but they’re not.”
The ethereal “Handsome Hands” is arguably Lights Out’s most left-of-center offering. “The song is about death, but it’s also about the higher power,” she explains. “In moments of desperation, even the most non-religious people pray. When you’re pushed to your limits, you look for help from something other than yourself.” Similarly, “Wonderful Unknown” is a positive, if beguiling narrative about the fears and uncertainties of growing old with your spouse, which she delivers in a lower register. An after-effect of her illness? “I don’t think I’ve lost part of my voice,” she explains, “but my voice has somewhat changed.”
Perhaps more dauntingly, Lights Out also marks Ingrid’s entry into a brave new world of songwriting. Recorded in New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville, the album features six producers and ten co-writers, including singer-songwriters Katie Herzig, Mat Kearney, Trent Dabbs, as well as the very in-demand Busbee (Pink, Katy Perry, Lady Antebellum) and A Great Big World . “With every other record, I’ve always written all of the songs. I’ve worked with one producer. And we’ve stayed in one room,” she says. “I’ve been such a control freak about my songs! But if you can get with the right person, there are ideas you could never come up with. It totally opens doors.”
And with opportunity comes meaningful change. “It’s funny. It doesn’t even feel like I wrote ‘The Way I Am,’” Ingrid says of her platinum break-out single, recorded seven years ago. “It’s a memory.” She’ll continue to perform it live as she tours Lights Out — just stripped-down, recasting the flittering ditty into something weightier. “It feels like a little girl wrote that song. So much has happened to me since then.”