Ingrid Michaelson on Finding Songwriting Inspiration While Bingeing Stranger Things

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August 26, 2019
The eleven tracks on her latest album, Stranger Songs, are a fan letter to Netflix's retro smash.

Ingrid Michaelson's latest album is designed to accompany Stranger Things binge-watching—although even if you're not familiar with the Netflix sensation, the music on Stranger Songs, which came out in June, is still captivating. Pairing high-gloss production with lyrics that could come from the show's character bibles, the album is part love letter, part imagined universe-building, as well as a display of Michaelson's songwriting acumen.

Stranger Songs grew out of the show's intersection with another common Michaelson muse: the holidays, which were the focal point of her 2018 album, Ingrid Michaelson's Songs for the Season. In the first season of Stranger Things, Joyce Byers, played by Winona Ryder, buys copious amounts of Christmas lights in an attempt to contact her missing son Will, who she believes is communicating with her through them. "I love that imagery of Joyce talking to her son," says Michaelson. "I'm naturally drawn to everything Christmas. It was a little gateway to the whole record. I wrote this little poem about it, and I thought, 'You know what? This could be really cool if it was a song.' Then I thought, 'I wonder if I could write a whole record like this. If someone didn't know the show, could they still enjoy it?'"

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Michaelson decided to send the poem to her boyfriend without telling him about its inspiration. "I said, 'What do you think this is about?' He thought it was about my parents," she recalled. "I said, 'No, not my parents. It's about Joyce [from Stranger Things].' And I thought, he knows the show very well, and if he didn't make that connection, that's cool because I don't want to alienate people that don't know the show."

That poem became "Christmas Lights," a shimmery synth-pop track that could be a melancholic holiday-themed song for a faraway lover. It's one of the standout tracks on Stranger Songs, an eleven-track collection of music that harks back to the New Wave era that overlaps with Stranger Things' timeline, yet also sounds very contemporary.

"I listened to a lot of songs from the '80s, just to get into that mindset," Michaelson says. "Did you ever see the Black Mirror episode 'San Junipero'? The whole soundscape of that show was like the '80s, but it was also like now. I watched that episode a few times, and I was like, we have to pull on pieces of that. That's what [Stranger Things] does so well, too."

The hyper-realized version of '80s music—heavy synths, a starlit guitar solo on the anthemic "Hey Kid," spit-shined production—that Michaelson delivers on Stranger Songs helps the album feel like a musical spinoff of the show. Michaelson's background in writing musicals (she's currently at work on an adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' tearjerker The Notebook) helped ground the lyrics in characters, too.

"For the past almost-three years, I've been working on Notebook, which involves writing from another person's point of view," she says. "That's been in my mindset for so long now, because building a musical takes a long, long, long, long, long time. So it makes sense that I would then say, 'Oh, let's do an album where everything is from somebody's point of view.' The difference is, though, that with Notebook I had a specific storyline to push through, whereas with Stranger Songs I can be a lot more flexible and a lot more personal and marry my own stories with the characters'."

Channeling the energy of Eleven

One character who especially helped guide the album is Eleven, the enigmatic young woman played by Millie Bobby Brown. Michaelson was adamant that Stranger Songs be eleven tracks; Eleven is also the inspiration for "Pretty," a somewhat ghostly, somewhat torchy song inspired by a scene where she's made over, wearing a dress and a blonde wig in an effort to make her more traditionally "girly." "I wrote it with Sarah Aarons and Alex Hope, two ladies out in Los Angeles, and Alex also produced it," Michaelson says. "It's an all-woman-composed and -produced piece.

"I went to the Women's March in L.A. and performed, and I had a writing session with them the same day," she continues. "And I came back and I was like, 'We've got to write something that's so empowering.' I was just so lifted up. And we wrote ‘Pretty.’ I thought, 'Let's dissect the idea of what society says makes somebody pretty, and juxtapose what actually makes somebody beautiful.' It was really, really, really satisfying to write, and very satisfying to sing."

In addition to diving into Stranger Things’ character backstories to fuel the writing process, Michaelson dug deep into her own knowledge of the human condition. "I didn't really have a set plan, except I knew I wanted to write songs from points of view of some of the characters," she says. In a session I would say, ‘OK, who hasn't gotten a song yet? OK, Barb. So what do I want to say about Barb?' 'Best Friend' is a song that was written about Barb being in love with Nancy—it's a fan theory, and it's something I always thought. I thought we didn't get enough of her story, so I wanted to give her more."

That deep knowledge also allowed Michaelson’s process to stem from specific and broader ideas. "Sometimes," she says, "I would go into a session and I'd say, 'I want to write a song about Eleven knocking Max off a skateboard,' and I'd have a lyric [in the song 'Jealous']—'I do bad things when I'm jealous'—and then we would write from that. Conversely, sometimes we would just sit around and start writing something and I'd say, 'Let me see whose storyline this theme fits,' and then we would carve out more specific things in the songwriting process.

"It definitely was an unfolding, evolving, unplanned thing," Michaelson says. "It drove itself."

—Maura Johnston

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August 26, 2019
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