Last year, singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson released her seventh studio album It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense. Containing ruminations about the death of her mother and demise of her marriage, it was a follow-up to the mainstream success of 2014’s Lights Out (which spawned the hit single “Girls Chase Boys”) and served as an intensely personal look into the artist at a turning point.
While it seems Michaelson may have been on a break since then, the Staten Island-born singer has actually been busy with a host of projects. First up is a concept EP dropping this Friday dubbed Alter Egos, which features reinterpretations of tracks from It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense and finds Michaelson teaming up with a range of genre-spanning collaborators, including Tegan and Sara, AJR, Sara Bareilles, Lucius, and The Civil Wars‘ John Paul White.
Michaelson chatted with Billboard how Alter Egos came to be, revealing details about a pilot based on her life for Hulu and an upcoming animated musical, and touching on her creative friendship with Sara Bareilles.
The idea behind Alter Egos is really interesting. What’s the origin of it?
When I’m writing a song sometimes I can hear all of these different interpretations of it, but you eventually have to choose one. Specifically, there’s a song on It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense called “Drink You Gone,” and when I wrote it I had the chorus kicking around in my brain for awhile — it felt like a country song. I brought it to a writer named busbee and he and I finished it together, and it eventually became this kind of piano ballad. It’s beautiful and I love it, but I always thought it had this country feel and I wondered if that would be like if it was kind of dipped in the country syrup.
So (for Alter Egos) brought it to John Paul (from The Civil Wars) and he crafted this beautiful country song. I love that music is so flexible; you can change and move things around and while it’s essentially the same song, it can bring different emotions out of you.I wasn’t prepared to do a new record, so I’ve been pursuing a lot of other things. I wanted to do something music related and while I’m not creating anything new (with Alter Egos), I kind of am in the same way.
There are a lot of artists from different backgrounds on the EP. How did you decide on this specific group?
Well, Sara Bareilles and I did a song together years ago called “Winter Song,” which is one of my favorite songs ever and everybody loves it. So I knew that my fans, which are her fans, would go completely bonkers if we did something new together. We’ve been meaning to get together again for a long time, so I reached out to her.
AJR, I loved touring with them; they were so much fun and felt like a logical choice. Lucius, I remembered because I wanted a really beautiful three-part harmony and their voices are so great, so I went straight to them.
Tegan and Sara are artists I’ve admired for years now; I love how they tow the line between pop and coolness. Their pop is so smart. I’m just a huge fan of theirs, and when they said yes, I was kind of blown away. I couldn’t believe it. Pretty much the first people we asked said yes. It was a lot easier than I thought. It’s such an eclectic EP; there’s definitely lots of different moods going on, but I love that. There’s no real rhyme or reason. Of course they’re all tracks from It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense, and I feel like this EP is a thru-line from that ideology.
How did the recording process work? Did you get in a room with these artists and collaborate together or would they send their cuts to you?
It was different for every person. John Paul and I met up in Nashville. We did a session and then he brought it back with him and did his real vocals and put some guitars over it and produced the track. AJR’s track “Celebrate” is kind of a remix considering it’s the only one that uses tracks from the original song. They used maybe 50 percent of what we had, and then added so many cool sounds and vocals. They worked on their own and then I came in and did vocals. For Lucius and I, we did it live all three of us in the studio with a mic. It was intense, but I think you can hear that realness in the room. There’s no overdubbing, it was just us singing. For Tegan and Sara, it was the same thing. We didn’t do it in the same room, but recorded it on the same day in the same studio.
One thing that always struck me about you is that you seem to have fun with your career and you’re always thinking of unique new things to do. I’m wondering what gives you that drive to keep on thinking of fresh projects and new ideas?
I can certainly testify, especially right now, that I don’t want to become stagnant. Right now I’m working on a holiday record that’s coming out next year and an animated film where I’m working on the music where the characters are singing. I can’t divulge too much information about it, but it’s very exciting for me. When you’re writing songs for yourself it’s always about your love or life. But when you’re writing for an animated film or musical, it’s about climbing to the top of a mountain to free the dragon that’s been living there for a thousand years. You’re singing these these words that are so specific to who’s telling these stories. That’s been really fun.
What’s the status of your pilot with Hulu?
I’m working with this amazing writer, Liz Tigelaar, who’s one of the executive producers and the showrunner for a Hulu show called Casual. She and I got set up by our agent to work on a pitch of our TV show about my life and we went to a bunch of different networks and got a bunch of people interested and we ended up going with Hulu. I say “we,” but it’s mostly her because she’s the amazing writer, but it’s definitely an 80/20 percent situation. She really gets into my brain… I feel like she knows my brain better than I know my brain at this point!
If that gets picked up, then it’d be incredible. Music is going to be involved in the show too; I’m not going to break out into song, but I’m a heightened version of myself in the show. Music is always going to be my first love, but writing a musical or animated film or this TV show, music is still involved. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I feel like I needed to shake things up. The world has just been offering these amazing opportunities outside of the pop music world. I’m riding that wave for awhile. That’s the reason why I wanted this EP to come out is that I wanted people to know that I’m still making music and I’ll always make music, but I’m definitely stretching my wings a bit a little bit and trying new things, which I think everybody has to do… or else you’ll just go crazy doing the same thing over and over again.
Now that you’re writing this animated musical, I’m wondering if you asked your friend Sara Bareilles (on Broadway now with her show Waitress) for any tips?
Well, I went to school for musical theater and I always wanted to be on stage. The writing a musical thing came across my plate maybe four years ago now, just somebody asking if I ever wanted to do it. It’s been a long time ruminating in my head, but things are getting more fine tuned with a few different people.
I’ve talked to Sara about it and she told me, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, yet also the most rewarding thing.” I saw her in Waitress a few weeks ago and she was amazing. It’s definitely inspiring to see one of your peers doing something so amazing. It gives me the old jolt of, “Maybe I can do this!” It’s something I’ve definitely been interested in for a long time. It’s very scary and brand new territory and it takes a lot of guts and bravery, so hopefully I’m working towards that.