Ingrid Michaelson's latest album It Doesn't Have to Make Sense was born, in part, from a tragedy. The singer's mother died two years ago, and she wrote the album's, "Light Me Up" a few days after her passing. Michaelson decided it would be the first song of her new album, as a way to set the tone, but she didn't want the entire record to be about her pain.
"I think the ultimate message of the record is to allow for a wide a range of human emotion that we are capable of having," Michaelson said over the phone on August 19th.
She described how, as humans, we constantly try to fit our emotions into preconceived molds, and that we often limit our true feelings. Michaelson wanted to resist that in her album, allowing both pain ("I Remember Her," "Drink You Gone") and celebration ("Hell No," "Celebrate") to coexist. The space to deliver a cunning critique on the ways people seek solace and shape their identities in a media-saturated age.
Michaelson's entire career and image has been defined by a resistance to pop writing tropes and music industry conventions. Rather than sign with a major record label when she catapulted to commercial success in 2007, Michaelson created her own label, Cabin 24 Records. Since then she's partnered with small labels, such as Mom + Pop Records. But she's remained adamant about retaining creative autonomy.
"I think everyone has a duty and a responsibility to be who they are truthfully and to let people see that," she said. By representing herself truthfully, hopefully she can encourage others to do the same.
This desire to shed illusions and break the molds individuals place on themselves appears in many forms across Michaelson's new album. It's evident in "Miss America" where the singer rejects the strict beauty standards mainstream media often espouses.
"'Miss America' came from the idea [that] I'm not this quote un-quote picture perfect woman, and I'll never be that," Michaelson said. "And that's fine with me. Let's celebrate that."
"l'll never be Miss America," the refrain goes. "It's not the way I was born to be/ Don't need a crown to make me a queen."'
The song also references Michaelson's mother, nodding to a piece of advice she gave the artist before her passing: "Girl, there's so many ways to be beautiful."
Michaelson has taken this message to heart. "I want to make sure people know that they're beautiful," she said. "There's lots of women and lots of shapes and lots of men and lots of colors and lots of hair textures. There's lots of beauty in the world, there's not one specific kind of beauty."
Several songs on the new album expand upon this message and encourage the listener to feel comfortable in their skin. This theme appears in the album's first single, "Hell No," which describes Michaelson resolutely moving past a break up, and embracing that change whole heartedly.
Rather than represent "Hell No" with an over-produced music video, Michaelson choose to sing to her fans with a chipmunk face on. "I'm totally into the idea of making my face look like a chipmunk," she said. "In this world of making everyone look gorgeous, beautiful with big lips and huge eyes and tiny legs and a big ass, how funny is it [to make video like that]."
Michaelson's new album is both a larger societal critique and an incredibly personal narrative. The truths she offers about her self are uncomfortable but honest and largely universal. They encourage the listener to forget fitting in, forget the artifice and simply live.
Perhaps this is Michaelson's most intriguing contribution to pop music today: to show the masses of music listeners how to be themselves, by just being herself.
Sept. 1, 2016, 4:30 p.m.: This post has been updated.