Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson probably likes Christmastime more than you. Growing up in New York does that to a person. The sights and scents of the season seem magical there. So it makes sense that her first-ever Christmas album, Songs for the Season
— and subsequent tour that includes a stop in Cleveland on Saturday, Dec. 8 — was a long time coming.
“I’m ready for the season all the time,” says Michelson via phone as she was gearing up for a holiday show in San Francisco earlier this week. “I start watching Christmas movies in September. I watch the classic ones, obviously, but I also do enjoy those Hallmark movies, they’re very comforting. And with this record I just needed enough time to sit back and figure out what to do. How to make it right.”
This time of year, it seems every musician rushes to drop a holiday-inspired record. But Michaelson, who's hosted a hometown holiday concert for the past 12 years, says she can always tell when artists are doing it as a cash grab and not from the heart. And indeed, among this year’s batch of Christmas albums includes those from John Legend, William Shatner, Eric Clapton and Pentatonix, Michaelson’s does stand out. The difference is that Michaelson’s effort pulls from the classics that she grew up playing on repeat in her parents’ house.
“The music I tend to listen to around the holidays is from the ’50s and ’60s; it feels right to me,” she says. “I wanted to create a vintage mid-to-late ’50s sound with this record. So we did a whole orchestra at once, it wasn’t old technology but we took measures to make it feel like it came from a different period.”
She says that mostly she wanted to create something she would listen to year after year. Like the classic records from Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, this record is intended to be a part of your family's traditions. Just last week, the 38-year-old says a fan shared a video on Instagram of her small daughter dancing around to the record while baking.
“It made me tear up a little,” Michaelson says.
Michaelson first grew to prominence in the mid-aughts with spritely acoustic tunes like “The Way I Am” and then “You and I.” Her stripped-down version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” has been a staple at weddings for a solid decade now. She says that as soon as she stopped singing the way she thought people wanted (she has a Broadway-style background), her effortless, pure sound was able to break through.
Nowhere is that reflected better on her new record than with her one original tune, “Happy, Happy Christmas.” Here, the soaring vocals are heartbreaking, yet hopeful. Christmas is full of sadness for many, Michaelson knows. Her father passed away last year and her mother a few years prior.
“I feel like a lot of holiday music can be instantly cheesy; I didn’t want to write anything that was contrived,” she says. “As much as I love the holidays, the older you get there’s sadness involved. You lose people and relationships, and I wanted to address that in the record. Not everything is happy and jolly, and this is about choosing to keep going because that’s the hard thing. It’s easy to wallow and be sad. This time could be really sad for me, but I chose to be joyful and celebrate with those I do have.”
The rest of the record is also a reflection of this sentiment and includes the talents of singer-songwriter Christina Perri, Broadway actor Will Chase (her boyfriend) and Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton fame and also those Nationwide insurance commercials. Earlier this year, Michaelson took to Twitter saying she couldn’t wait for people to hear Odom sing on a pared-down version of the Mariah Carey classic “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
“Your heart will spill out of your mouth and shatter into the earth then grow into a beautiful strong tree,” she wrote.
And she says that while recording the song together in L.A. over the summer, she was taken aback by his mastery.
“That key is a high key for a male,” she explains. “He told me, ‘I wouldn’t sing in this key for many, but I will for you.’ And just listening, it’s beautiful. It was very heart melting.”
While most of her collaborators will not be on the current holiday tour, Michaelson explains she has two female vocalists by her side doing Andrews Sisters harmonies and dance moves.
“We’re doing a lot of fan favorites. I’m not just going to shove Christmas music down people’s throats,” she assures. “This is different from my bigger shows as it’s less structured. I get to talk a lot, and there’s more of a story-telling atmosphere.”
Best of all, the Cleveland date is Michaelson’s birthday, which she usually insists on taking off from touring. But as it’s a holiday record tour, she’s making an exception.
“Don’t worry; I’ll make everyone sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me,” she says. “If anyone wants to come, I’m accepting gifts of the baked good variety. I’m only half joking.”
Ingrid Michaelson Trio: Songs For the Season with Jenna Nicholls, 8:15 p.m. Sat, Dec. 8, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $39.50 - $234.50, agoracleveland.com.