For Ingrid Michaelson, Stranger Things is much more than just her favorite series to binge on Netflix. It’s also the inspiration behind her eighth studio album, Stranger Songs, available today from her own independent label, Cabin 24 Records.
While celebrating the record’s release at an intimate concert at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom on Tuesday evening, Michaelson explained that the series, which is set in the 1980s, provides her with more than just a rush of nostalgia. For her, watching Stranger Things is like entering a time machine that allows her to relive some of her fondest childhood memories. As someone who has lost both of her parents in recent years, Michaelson has been able to treat the series both as a means of connecting to her past and charting her future.
To create Stranger Songs, Michaelson started writing songs from the perspectives of the series’ characters. “There’s so many different varying degrees of what a human can feel. And I think that’s what I write about, that’s what I sing about and that’s what the show does really beautifully,” she told Entertainment Weekly. Unlike in her previous work, Michaelson is channeling these songs into character studies as opposed to writing about her own life.
This narrative shift is one that Michaelson is exploring quite a bit these days, as she’s also in the midst of penning the music and lyrics for the Broadway-aimed musical adaptation of The Notebook. “I think this [album] is a natural extension of that,” she continued about working on both projects simultaneously.
For fans of the series, the themes covered across Stranger Songs are filled with references and Easter eggs that reveal the specific characters and/or scenes that Michaelson is singing about. But for those who don’t watch the series, the songs are about universal themes that don’t require a knowledge of the goings-on of Stranger Things.
For example, viewers of the series may pick up that “Best Friend” is Michaelson’s ode to Barb, a fan-favorite character who makes the ultimate sacrifice for her best friend – who she might also have romantic feelings for. Yet for those unfamiliar with the source material, “Best Friend” is simply a haunting song about unrequited love and the tumultuous, aching feeling of not wanting to ruin the successful foundation of a pre-established relationship.
“Christmas Lights” is inspired by the way that Winona Ryder’s character communicates with her son in the beyond through (you guessed it) Christmas lights. For Michaelson, the song is about talking to lost loved ones through signs and inanimate objects as a way of coping with grief. Again, fans of the series can appreciate the specificity of the metaphor, but those unaware of why Ryder drapes her home with strings of holiday lights in the middle of summer won’t be missing out on the track’s heartfelt sentiment.
Paying homage to Stranger Things means more than just writing songs about what the series’ characters are going through. The series, which debuts its third season next week, always features a soundtrack composed of the biggest hits from the 1980s and an eerie synthpop-infused score. Incorporating those influences makes Stranger Songs the most drastic sonic departure yet from Michaelson’s signature ukulele-fronted folk sound. Although she’s treading new ground, her new material is a natural evolution from the indie pop she’s been known for since 2005.
The concert took place days before the album was available, but avid fans already knew all of the lyrics to the individual tracks from it that had been released as part of the buildup to the record. The frenetic response and loud sing-alongs to “Pretty” and “Jealous” proved that Michaelson’s fans are more than embracing the bold direction that her music is heading. And when it came time for the exceptional lead single “Missing You,” inspired by Nancy’s torrid love triangle, it was impossible to locate an audience member who wasn’t dancing as Michaelson crooned, “when he’s kissing me, I’m missing you.”
At the concert, Michaelson also debuted performances of “Freak Show,” the album’s melodic opener, and “Hate You,” a somber cry for love lost that contains lyrics like, “I just hate how much I don’t hate you.” Her emotional and impassioned delivery of these standout tracks made it clear that, even though she’s writing from someone else’s viewpoint, these songs are still deeply personal for the inspired musician. That she saved the reveal of phenomenal songs like “Young And In Love,” “Hey Kid,” “Mother” and “Take Me Home” until the album’s actual release only underlines what an abundance of riches Stranger Songs has added to Michaelson’s repertoire.
The concert also highlighted some of the most beloved songs from Michaelson’s career. The songstress even debuted a revamped version of “Be OK,” giving it a 1980s-inspired makeover to make it sound more in line with the content on Stranger Songs. She also performed greatest hits like the anthemic “Light Me Up,” the buoyant “Girls Chase Boys,” and stripped takes on her cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” and her breakout smash, “The Way I Am.”
This fall, Michaelson will be taking Stranger Songs on the road for a massive tour that includes stops from Los Angeles to London to sixteen other cities in between. If Tuesday’s release concert was any indication, fans are sure to have a can’t-miss experience. They will hear Michaelson’s music performed live in ways that will reach whole new levels.