Ingrid Michaelson has become an unlikely star.
Not long after Old Navy used her precious single "The Way I Am" in a sweater commercial last fall, her album, the charming Girls and Boys, soared near the top of the iTunes pop chart. Her songs have also been featured on Grey's Anatomy and One Tree Hill, and in April, she sang on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She's accomplished all this, including a cover story in Billboard magazine and a video in frequent rotation on VH1, without a major-label contract or a mighty publicity machine.
Not bad for the 28-year-old Staten Island, N.Y., native, who lives at home with her mother (a sculptor and executive director of the Staten Island Museum) and her father (a classical music composer) when she's not on the road.
"I never went into this to be the poster child for unsigned artists," says Michaelson, who headlines Recher Theatre tonight. "The fact that we didn't have a label meant I had an opportunity to chart my career."
And given the tumultuous climate of the recording industry, in which even multiplatinum marquee acts are taking the independent route, it was a smart move. Michaelson first generated buzz on the Internet, as is often the case with most artists these days. After struggling for a while to establish a career on Broadway, Michaelson, who studied theater at the State University of New York, Binghamton, decided to seriously pursue music. In 2006, the artist financed her own recordings and loaded her quirky love songs onto her MySpace page. Glowing with Joni Mitchell and Niko influences, the songs caught the attention of Lynn Grossman, owner of Secret Road, a music licensing and artist management company in Los Angeles.
Michaelson says Grossman contacted her and promised to get one of her songs on Grey's Anatomy. But the singer-songwriter was skeptical.
"You hear these things, and you don't really expect anything to happen," she says.
Grey's Anatomy producers ended up using three of her songs, including "Keep Breathing," which was written specifically for the show. The plaintive tune, layered with evocative percussion, played during the closing minutes of the season finale in May 2007. That same month, Michaelson self-released Girls and Boys. Five months later, the Cabin 24 label reissued the album, which soon crept into the lower reaches of Billboard's Top 200 pop album chart.
"I didn't plan any theme or feel with the record," says Michaelson, who last week was en route to a gig in St. Petersburg, Fla. "I just know more about relationships, so I called it Girls and Boys. It's matters of the heart, a rack of love songs."
Michaelson, who with her bookish eyewear bears a resemblance to pop singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb, showcases an impressive range on her latest album, the follow-up to her 2005 self-released debut, Slow the Rain. Acoustic, airy ballads sit well alongside melodic rock tunes. And all approach romantic love from a slightly left-of-center point of view. Michaelson's silken, breezy vocal approach lifts the songs. Her light touch is often affecting.
"Even if it was just heard by my family and friends, I would still do music," the artist says. "All of the attention has made me more excited about the next record. Creatively, I like being challenged. In everything, though, I like to push a little bit."
See Ingrid Michaelson at the Recher Theatre, 512 York Road in Towson, at 7 tonight. Tickets are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.