This New York indie singer/songwriter is set to embark on her debut Australian tour.
You may not recognise her name, or even her face, but you've almost certainly heard her songs. With her music appearing on TV shows Grey's Anatomy, One Tree Hill and Brothers And Sisters, she's playing to sold out shows across the US and has featured in Rolling Stone, People and The New York Times.
Here for her debut Australian tour of her album Everybody, which reached the #1 most downloaded album spot on iTunes on its release, Anna Tsekouras talks to Ingrid about Grey's Anatomy, maintaining creative control and what she finds romantic.
You've been classically trained in music since you were four years old. But one day you posted your songs on MySpace and you've become an international star. It's pretty incredible. How does that feel?
I put up songs on MySpace four years ago now and I was found by a licensing company. I started working with them and did all these TV shows and commercials. Then, suddenly, all these record labels approached me, saying: "Sign up with us and we will help you do this and achieve that," but we were kind of already doing that on our own. So I just created my own label. Everything comes and goes through me and my management. I can barely process the success that the songs have had. If you really think about it for too long, it's so bizarre, that it makes your brain hurt! Just hearing myself on the radio is still weird. It's such an overwhelming, strange feeling. I'm definitely thankful and happy, but the overriding emotion is just kind of feeling weirded out! (laughs).
These days, musicians are more likely to be discovered on blogs than in local pubs. Do you have to defend the fact that you've been doing this a really long time and that you weren't just another internet overnight sensation?
I think that everyone has their own story of how they got to where they are. Of course, there are always going to be people who say, "Oh, she came out of nowhere," and other people who say, "I've been going to the coffee house where she's been playing for four years when no-one knew who she was." So I don't really defend myself against anything. I used to a couple of years ago, but now I just know that every person is going to put me in whatever box they feel comfortable labelling me in. As long as my core fans are still supporting me and as long as I get to go to places like Australia (laughs) then it doesn't matter. I look at ticket sales and it's kind of amazing. As long as I keep growing my fan base, so it's a loyal good fan base, then I don't really need to defend myself against anything.
You have said that you don't want to label yourself and you try to steer clear of describing what your music sounds like. What's it like to have the freedom to call the shots, creatively, on your album?
Yeah, I have a bit of a control problem with my life in general (laughs). But it kind of works to my advantage in this way – I get to choose how I present myself to the world. Which I think is really important. I wouldn't want anybody telling me what to do. I'm not opposed to a stylist or someone coming in and saying, "That makes you look fat or that makes you look good." But I would never have anyone say, "Wear this and do this dance and sell yourself this way" – that doesn't work for me. I kind of get anxious when I feel like people are telling me what to do, even if it's constructive criticism. My initial reaction is always, "Don't tell me what to do. I'm going to do it this way – the way I want to do it!" Upon reflection, I usually realise the criticism was good and that I can learn from it and grow from it. But I admit I do have an immediate "I know what's best for me, get out of my way" feeling (laughs).
Your songs are beautifully simple and quite introspective. Some people keep diaries as a way of dealing with their emotions, is that what songwriting does for you?
Yes, I think so. When I play shows I definitely feel like it's a diary, but I open it up so it's like everyone's in the diary entry. I never purposefully sit down and think, "I’m going to write a song about this today." I write, and the words just come out. After I've finished I look back and think, "What's this about?" Most of the time it is about something that has happened to me – there is some catalyst or something inside of me that has sparked the lyrics. But other times, they're stories that pop out of nowhere. I don't sit down and think, "I'm going to divulge myself to the audience tonight with this song!" I try to shy away from that because it becomes less of an experience for the audience. I don't want them to have to just listen to me whine and cry about something. I want them to relate to it personally – and give me back what I am giving them. That's what makes the best shows – when I can feel the audience simultaneously experiencing the same emotions.
How have the changes in your personal life impacted on your sound over the years?
I started to write music when I was 23. But a lot of my peers have been writing music since they were in high school and their early teens, so I think I had some time to make up. I think my first songs were very, um, I don't know... bad? I felt like I had to grow really quickly and get through my adolescent stage as a musician. Just getting older, and experiencing life and seeing people around you growing up – it has to change you in some way. Unless, of course, you want to play it safe, which isn't something I can do. My skin just gets itchy and then I have to do something like change my wallpaper, my bed spread and with my music everything has to change.
So you just keep experimenting?
Yes, I feel it's important to fail if you have to. Just learn from your mistakes and create something new. Music has definitely for me gone in a positive direction. I feel like every new album, and every new song I feel like is a little more sonically interesting. On my next album, I really want to go for more textures so I'm not just resting on the laurels of my songwriting. I know I'm a good singer/songwriter. I've done that into the ground, so I want to try to couple that with something else. I don't know what that is exactly, but I feel like there's more for me to achieve.
One recent experience you've had is falling in love. You're engaged to singer/songwriter Greg Laswell. Does that change the kinds of things you write about?
There's definitely a difference between being in love and wanting to be in love. Feeling sad, lonely and a desire to be loved, does spark a certain sort of song, and it definitely allows for a lot of depressing, sad music to flow! For me that was all I wrote about: a lack of love, or wanting love, or losing love. Love, love, love, love, love! And now I have that, which is wonderful and I'm very thankful – but it kind of opens your eyes to the other things there are to write about. It's an interesting position to be in, and I welcome it and what it brings.
Is there one song on the album that you especially love?
"The Chain". I love it. I love the lyrics, I love the melody and I love performing it! But I also love that it's a round – for three voices. I grew up with musical theatre, with A cappella groups and I watched all old theatre productions growing up so I'm melody driven. I love a beautiful melody-and if it can be sung in a round, then I'm sold. I have two women that sing "The Chain" with me and it breaks it down to this simple, beautiful round at the end. I love singing it, each and every time. Sometimes, I'll invite a member from the audience to sing it with me.
People are saying you're the next Regina Spektor or Norah Jones. Are you tired of the comparisons?
I know I'm not doing anything that hasn't been done before. My voice is unique to some degree, but I'm a woman, I'm a singer/songwriter – I'm not doing anything too crazy, so I can't claim that I'm the most unique sound in the world. You can't stop people's opinions, or comparisons, you can only trust yourself, and respect yourself and know what you're doing is valid and has meaning. I'm not doubting or "dissing" myself (laughs). Sure, I think I'm original and that I have something special to offer, but inherently I'm a girl. I have boobs, but there many variations of a theme and I think I'm a pretty good variation on a theme – hopefully anyway!
Not only are you a singer/songwriter, but you've got several other talents. I hear that during your performances you've been known to break into tap dancing and that you have a degree in theatre as well? Which skill, writing or performance is your first love, the one that makes you feel most like yourself?
That's tough to answer. Writing a song and then performing it are two totally different animals. Writing is very private. I don't like anyone being around me, it's kind of embarrassing for me actually. I don't like to really reveal a song unless it's finished. But when I'm on stage I'm a complete ham. I just love making people laugh. I feel like that's a big part of my live show – I really do just like being a bit of a clown (laughs). I don't know which one I'm better at. That's not really for me to say that's for somebody else to choose. I can't choose between writing and singing.
I've read that you are totally obsessed with Grey's Anatomy. If you could choose to play any character from Grey's, who would it be?
Christina. She's damaged and closed off but she is also a strong female. She doesn't just cry about things, she is just so powerful and I think that I kind of gravitate towards that kind of person in my life. Almost all of my friends are like that. I have a group with a strong female presence. My mother rules the house. My dad is strong too, but he's daintier. My mum will roll up her sleeves and pull up all the weeds up and my dad is more like to be plucking out a dandelion one at a time (laughs).
You're drawn to strong female characters?
I guess I'm what some people would consider a feminist. Because of my mother and my upbringing, I grew up thinking that I was an equal to everyone else. I realise that the music industry is a male-dominated field, even down to the sound guys and the lighting men at venues. So I think women like Christina provide a great role model for women to emulate.
Best album on my iPod?
For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver.
Best simple pleasure?
Chocolate chip cookies.
Best time of the day?
Dusk. The time when the sun goes down and it paints everything in that glowy light.
Best romantic moment?
I don't find the typical romantic things romantic. I just like staying home in pyjamas, making dinner together and watching a movie. I like it when everything else is stripped away and it's just the two of you.
Best lesson I learnt the hard way?
To trust your instincts.
Best item in my wardrobe?
A pair of blue, stretchy, waffle-knit pants. I wear them all the time because they are so comfortable and a friend makes fun of me because I have three pairs of them (laughs).
Best piece of advice I’ve been given:
Don't let the vultures change you.
Best thing someone has said about me?
Someone compared me to a mixture between Norah Jones and Tina Fey – and that really tickled me (laughs). I'll take that!
Ingrid Michaelson is on tour in November 2010. Visit www.ingridmichaelson.com or www.redanttouring.com for tour dates and venues.