EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: INGRID MICHAELSON TALKS CARNEGIE HALL, “THE NOTEBOOK,” AND MORE!

After performing her sold-out Holiday Hop last weekend, an annual concert that combines holiday classics and solo material from her catalog of eight albums and various EPs/singles, Ingrid Michaelson is ready to bring her unique Christmas stylings to the Carnegie Hall stage.

Ingrid Michaelson

On December 16 and 17, the brilliant singer/songwriter will headline two nights at the landmark New York venue backed by the New York Pops. The first night will be “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” an evening full of classic holiday songs. The second night, “Winter Song,” will blend festive music with Michaelson’s original compositions.

Playing one of the most famous music halls in the world caps off a year that has seen Michaelson branching out into many new territories. Most notably, she wrote the music and lyrics for The Notebook, a musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ bestselling novel that inspired the beloved film by the same name. After debuting in Chicago this fall, the critically revered show has its sights next set on Broadway.

I caught up with Michaelson about her various holiday concerts, The Notebook, her next solo record, and much more.

You have been doing your annual Holiday Hop for 16 consecutive years now. How do you think the show has evolved and how do you think it has remained true to its roots over time?

Ingrid MichaelsonI think it’s remained true to its roots more than it’s evolved, honestly! We really try to play a lot of the same songs that we only play at this time of year. Because to me, that’s what Christmas is. It’s watching movies that you only watch at this time of year. It’s playing and hearing music that you only hear at this time of year. There are a lot of songs where the holidays are the only time that we’ll perform them. I really like to keep it as intimate feeling, warm, and fun as I can. In that way, I don’t really feel like we’ve evolved very much. We’ve pretty much stuck to the original formula. Even when it comes down to the gag of opening up for ourselves as [Staten Island’s pop parody band] Edith, Edna, and Ethel. We’ve been doing that for 12 out of the 16 years. It’s fun to keep those traditions alive!

What are the first things that come to mind when I ask what your favorite and least favorite Holiday Hop memories are, and why?

I love doing the Edith, Edna, and Ethel opening act. I love the silliness of that. We probably have more fun writing and performing that each year than the people watching us, but it’s so much fun for us. That’s always the highlight for me.

As for least favorite? I remember at one show, three of us forgot to bring sneakers for the opening act. My manager had to go out and get sneakers from the audience members. It wasn’t really a bad memory, but it was a little bit of a frantic memory. I feel like the Holiday Hops are always frantic because there’s so much to do – but I don’t know if I have a bad memory!

I will say that this show is always anxiety inducing for me. Until I hit the stage, I’m in a ball of anxiousness. There are two sound checks. There are costume changes. There are always technical difficulties because, most of the time, we’re not coming off of a tour where everything is running smoothly. It’s typically a one-off show, and when you’re doing a one-off, you’re coming at it from just nothing. Therefore, there’s a lot of room for error. I think there’s always a little bit of that in the air, too.

I’m sure recently adding the livestream component doesn’t help with that!

Well actually, we have nothing to do with the livestreaming. The livestream company is so great. They come to set up the cameras and they do all of it. I didn’t know what it was going to look like until it was done. We’ve worked with them before, so I trust them. I know their work. So the livestream aspect is actually very fun. It’s one thing I don’t have to worry about.

Next weekend (on December 16 and 17), you will be playing two nights in a row of holiday concerts at Carnegie Hall. I know you’re a massive Judy Garland fan (and tend to close out your Holiday Hops with “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”), so I must ask, what does it feel like to be headlining your own shows at this iconic venue she so famously performed at?

It’s pretty crazy! It’s funny, because sometimes, I don’t realize exactly what’s happening to me until somebody else is like, “That’s really amazing.” I posted about it on Instagram the other day because the 16th is almost sold out. There are 50 tickets left or something like that. And then the 17th has maybe 300 tickets left or something. They’re both pretty much close to being sold out. So I was posting about it, and my friend, who I haven’t talked to in a little bit, wrote to me, and she goes, “Holy shit. That’s amazing!” And I was like, oh yeah… I guess that is really amazing!

Granted, it’s the New York Pops. It’s not just me, by myself, sitting up there. I was a little nervous when Steven Reineke, who’s the conductor of the Pops, was like, “We should do two nights.” Originally, I was like, “Let’s just stick to one night, because Carnegie Hall’s an expensive ticket.” But the New York Pops has their traditional holiday concert every year with a different singer. And he was like, “Well, the first night we’ll do the traditional stuff, but then the next day, it can be a mix of traditional stuff and your music.” And I was like, “Okay… If you think so!”

It’s selling really well, and it’s really happening! I’m more surprised than anybody. Those are always hard questions for me to answer, “how do you feel about something?” It’s an unquantifiable feeling. I’m like, “Oh, it’s just another show.” And then it’s like, “Oh, shit, no, it’s Carnegie Hall. This is a really big, huge deal that 17-year-old you would be freaking out about!”

It must also be a fun juxtaposition to go from playing such an intimate venue like City Wintery to then having the New York Pops behind you at a massive venue like Carnegie Hall, all within the same month.

I know! Normally, we do the Holiday Hop at larger venue, but we didn’t want to take anything away from Carnegie. We didn’t want to take away from those shows, but I have to have the Holiday Hop. That’s why we did it at such a small venue, because I was like, “The tradition has to stay alive!” I even was like, “Maybe there’s a way to have it be at Carnegie Hall…” But it became so complicated. Edith, Edna, and Ethel, we need them to be there. So I managed to make it work.

Carnegie is going to be a little different. My two bandmates, Hannah Winkler and Allie Moss, we did do the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra with Steven last year, and so I have a feeling of what it’s going to feel like. We’re using some of those arrangements. I think I have a good grasp of what it’s going to feel like, but it’s Carnegie Hall and it’s New York City! You know what I mean? There’s definitely a little bit of hometown pride and excitement that I have, for sure.

It's Almost ChristmasYour album Songs for the Season has quickly become a contemporary staple for this time of year for so many people around the world, myself included. This year, you released a new holiday single “It’s Almost Christmas” with A Great Big World. What was the inspiration behind that song and what was the collaborative process of working on it like?

We wrote that song over FaceTime! It started out that we wanted to write a song for somebody else, but we ended up liking the song so much that we were like, “Oh, we want to keep this one.” Then it ended up that the person we were writing it for didn’t want it. And we were like, “Great, we’ll take it!”

A lot of times when you write a song for one person, you shop it around to see if somebody else wants it. But we thought, how about we do it? Because this song is really beautiful, and we really love it. And so we put it out ourselves. That’s how it happened.

One of my favorite holiday stories of yours is the one about your introduction to “Mele Kalikimaka.” Would you mind please sharing this story with our readers?

The first time I ever heard that song was when I was in sixth grade. It was the day before Christmas break, the teachers don’t want to teach, and the kids don’t want to learn. So we were in the auditorium, watching this big green pull-down version of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It had been definitely edited for TV/children, but there was this one scene where Chevy Chase is imagining what he’s going to do with his Christmas bonus. He’s looking out the back, and it’s all cold and wintry in his backyard. All of a sudden, it morphs into this indoor pool, and his whole family’s there, and everyone’s having a great time. Then one by one, they all disappear. And then the beautiful woman that he had met earlier in the movie, the shop girl from the lingerie counter, is there in her sexy, little, red bathing suit. And she throws her bathing suit off. We obviously didn’t see that part, but we saw her emerging from the water, very slowly. I was 12 or 13-years-old, and with like 1,000 kids in this auditorium, we were all just like, “Oh my gosh. We’re going to see her boobs! We’re going to see her boobs!” But obviously, it cut out before you see that part of her body, and there was a collective groan throughout the whole audience of kids. That song “Mele Kalikimaka” was playing underneath that whole sequence. I just remember being struck by the song, and also by the beautiful woman emerging from the water and how curious I was to see the whole picture. So as a kid, whenever I heard that song, I couldn’t help but think about the sexy lady in the story.

You’ve also taken your holiday concerts on the road in recent years. Should Mariah Carey be threatened that you’re coming after her Queen of Christmas crown?

Oh my god, no! Her fate has been sealed in cement. I can be the Princess of Christmas.

What do Christmas Eve and Christmas Day look like in your household? Do you have any annual traditions?

I definitely like to decorate as early as possible. This year, we decorated on November 1st. We put up our tree and all of our decorations. I have decorations that are from my mom and dad. I have ones that I’ve had since I was a kid. I collected Hallmark decorations as a kid, so I’ve got tons of those. I’m staring at them right now, actually. I watch lots and lots of holiday movies. Growing up, we used to have this big Christmas Eve party at my house in Staten Island. Of course, we don’t do that anymore because my parents aren’t here anymore. But I generally like to try to get together with family of some sort. Usually, my cousins come by. There’s always a lot of eating, singing at the piano together, and those kinds of things.

The regional premiere of The Notebook got rave critical reviews, heavily driven by the strength of your music and lyrics. Is Broadway the show’s next stop, and if so, what can you tease about a timeline?

Well, I don’t have any definitive news, but we are hopeful that we are coming to New York. But that’s all I can tell for now … that’s really all I know.

What are some of the biggest takeaways you had from the Chicago run?

The NotebookWhy didn’t I start writing musicals sooner in my life?! Maybe it’s because I’m older now, but I really feel like that’s what I was meant to do. When I was younger and I was writing music and touring, I definitely felt that’s what I was meant to do. But touring is not as attractive to me anymore, at least not long-term touring. I really like writing music and having other people perform it.

I really loved being part of such a huge project. It’s pretty amazing that I’m an important cog in a giant machine that is a musical. It’s such a collaborative effort – the lighting, costumes, scenery, the PR people, the directors, choreographer, book writer, you name it. Everyone is coming together for this common goal, and that common goal is based around my musical. I love that collaborative aspect of it. I love theater so much, and I especially love musical theater. I always have. I went to school for musical theater and it’s really my first love. So in many ways, it feels like I’m returning home.

In terms of reviews, when it comes to my own music and pop records, there are always going to be people that like it and people that don’t like it. I’ve gotten pretty used to having a somewhat thick skin. But with The Notebook, I was like, “If they hate it, I’m going to just crumble into 100 pieces!” Not because they didn’t like my music. It’s just such a bigger thing. It’s not just the music. It’s everything. It’s this whole, huge, beautiful amalgamation of things that we’re trying to squish into a theater piece to elicit feelings from an audience. And if the reviews were bad, it would mean they didn’t get it and that they didn’t get the whole big mishmash of things. That weighed on me. So when we did get good reviews, It made me feel like they got it. That was really lovely. Hopefully, the past and future audiences also get it, and understand what we’re trying to do, and what we’re trying to say.

Before Waitress opened on Broadway, your friend Sara Bareilles released an album of her own takes on all the songs from the show. What are the odds that fans can expect a similar The Notebook concept album from you?

Truthfully, the producers and I have to talk about what we want in terms of that concept. I think it’s up in the air! I personally don’t want to give away the music, at least not all of it. But I think there’s a world in which maybe one or two songs could be teased out. This is me just saying what I think. I would want people to hear the cast first. But I could maybe put out one song or something.

Well, I love the music video from the show you released, “If This Is Love.” That’s such a gorgeous song.

Thank you! Exactly, I could put out a version of that since it’s already out in the world. But again, these are conversations that we haven’t had yet as a team. Which is weird for me to be like, “I have to consult with a team of people.” Because usually, I decide what I want to do! But I really want to do what’s best for the show. If what’s best for the show is me not putting anything out, then I’ll do that. If what’s best for the show is me putting something out, I will. Right now, we’re just focusing on what our next steps are. Once we know what that is, then we can form a whole plan. But at some point, will I be putting out some of the music from The Notebook? Yes. I just don’t know when.

Earlier this year, you released a beautiful new single “The Sky and Me.” Is this the first taste of more original new music coming soon?

That song was written with someone named Juan Ariza. He’s an artist and a producer. He and I have been working on my next record. “The Sky and Me” was for his project more so than mine, but he is somebody that I have been collaborating with. I really love working with him. He is producing my next record, but I don’t know when that’s coming out yet.

In the past few years, you’ve also been writing original music for television shows such as Helpsters, Girls5Eva, Central Park, and Slumberkins. What type of different creative itch does working on projects like this scratch in comparison to writing your own solo material?

It’s somewhere in between writing my solo material and working on a musical. With these, I’m not writing an entire piece. When writing for The Notebook, everything hinges on a song. And while Slumberkins and the other things that you were talking about are not one-offs, they can live in their own little pieces of space. Obviously, with Slumberkins, there’s a cohesive thread in terms of a sound, and there’s an assignment portion of it. Like “this has to be about this,” which is similar to writing The Notebook. But it steers more into being a little bit creatively independent like my own solo writing. So I feel like it’s somewhere in between the two. If we’re talking about my own solo writing is on one side, and writing for The Notebook is on the other side, these projects live in the middle.

A few months ago, it was announced that you and Laurence O’Keefe will be working together on original songs for Penelope, a new Disney film based on the classic fairytale The Princess and the Pea. What can you tease about this project?

That’s in the very, very early days. We did a pitch last year to a bunch of different networks, and Disney picked it up. It’s a modern take on The Princess and the Pea. We wrote a couple songs for the purpose of the pitch, and then Disney got the rights to develop it. So I’m just waiting around to be told when to start developing, but it’s exciting! I’m learning that movies take a really long time, especially musical movies, from inception to release. It could be years and years – but it’s a really cool story, and I hope that it happens.

What are some of your hopes and goals for 2023?

My first hope is always the same, which is good health for myself and my family because I suffer with some health issues, and I’ve seen a lot of loss in my life. That’s my first and foremost wish. And then I think if I were to say what my second one is, it’s that The Notebook goes to Broadway in New York, and does extremely well, and everybody loves it!

Well I’m super excited for it and from what I’ve heard, I can’t imagine it won’t be a huge hit! Thank you so much, Ingrid! It’s always such an honor to speak with you. Happy Holidays and break a leg at Carnegie Hall next week!

Thank you so much! Happy Holidays to you, too!

About ALEX KELLEHER-NAGORSKI 171 Articles
Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.