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If reclusive poet Emily Dickinson and self-sufficient pop composer Imogen Heap had a love child, the result might be singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson.

Portrrait of the artist as a young homebody: ingrid Michaelson is chipping away at mainstream success from the comfort of her parents’ Staten Island home. Photo by Deborah Lopez

Hear me out.

Like Dickinson, Michaelson lives in her childhood home with her parents. Until recent brushes with fame, she crafted her music mainly in the privacy of her room. Even since landing songs on TV (“The Way I Am” was picked up for Old Navy’s Fall ‘07 Fair Isle Sweater advertising campaign; “Keep Breathing” was featured on last year’s spring-season finale of Grey’s Anatomy), she still hasn’t moved out of her parents’ place.

Of course, moving back in with the folks isn’t new. ABC News reported on the “boomerang” trend (post-college-age kids who return home to save money while repaying hefty school loans) a year ago; in March, The Wall Street Journal reported on middle-aged children forced by the slumping economy to return to the familial fold. But, socioeconomic impact aside, these housing solutions have never been considered a viable business plan. Michaelson might just change that.

According to Sentimentalist Magazine, “Michaelson’s ascent to the big leagues is a fascinating study in what has become the ‘New Model’ of success for up-and-coming indie artists looking to break the barrier.” It’s the low-fi concept behind such efforts as Josh Rouse’s aptly named Bedroom Classics label, the DIY-tactics of the Bright Eyes collective, and Frou Frou collaborator Imogen Heap’s tech-savvy self-recorded, self-released tracks. Michaelson, from the sanctuary of her family’s Staten Island home, garnered a fan base on MySpace, sold songs through iTunes and landed tracks on a popular TV show known for its pop-music prowess as well as its star power.

Three years ago, Michaelson told Stage Hymns that she didn’t like the word “career.” These days—buoyed by significant commercial success—she’s singing a slightly different tune. “I never liked to call myself a musician and say I had a career when technically I wasn’t really making any money,” she tells Xpress. “I felt kind of stupid calling myself a musician because I didn’t feel legit. That was my own demon. I can say I’m a musician now and feel OK about it. Maybe it took validation from other people, which might not be the best thing, but I can say ‘I have a career’ now.”

She laughs, “Yeah, ‘career’ is good. It’s my job.”

Some of the phenomena propelling Michaelson (however tenuously) into the limelight are just that: phenomena. Signs of the times. After all, it’s only recently that indie-film soundtracks (and not-so-indie—see mainstream crossovers Garden State and Juno), TV shows (The O.C., Gossip Girl) and commercials (Ford, AT&T) have become go-to sources for great new sounds. And, with the recording-for-dummies ease of Apple’s GarageBand, anyone with a computer and a little musical know-how can post a song online, available for the listening pleasure of millions of music fans.

With all of those forces at work, it’s somewhat surprising that Michaelson’s songs are downright anti-hip: They’re the sweetly awkward heart-on-sleeve musings of a closet geek. “I’d buy you Rogaine if you start losing all your hair. Sew on patches to all you tear,” she sings in “The Way I Am.” Like her thick-framed glasses and nerd-sexy outfits suggest, Michaelson prizes earnest emotion over sleek production. And fans agree, supporting not only this singer, but similarly inclined musicians like Amos Lee, Kimya Dawson and Josh Ritter (who headlines The Orange Peel show this week).

“I feel like there are cycles to everything,” Michaelson says. “I think now the big is quirky female singer/songwriters. As soon as one thing becomes popular or one person comes to the surface, then other people who [sound] similar to that are all of a sudden given more attention. So I think this is just another trend, and I’m sure it won’t last, but hopefully there will always be a place for pop singer/songwriters.”

For now, Michaelson is riding the wave. She’s slated to open for rocker Sheryl Crow, jam act the Dave Matthews Band and singer/songwriter Ray LaMontagne this year.

“Ray LaMontagne seems more doable,” she notes. Of her slots on the Crow and Matthews tours she singsongs, “One of these things is not like the other.” (That unlike thing being Michaelson.) But she’s willing to give it a shot, playing as a simple duo or trio in front of stadium-sized crowds.

That is a pretty big deal for a musician who, until a few years ago, was recording in anonymity, eschewing record labels (she claims she still doesn’t have—or really want—one) and dodging terms like “career.”

Just don’t expect this taste of stardom to go to Michaelson’s head. “I like what’s happening right now,” she says, “So why bother messing things up?”

who:Ingrid Michaelson, opening for Josh Ritter
what:Quirky indie-pop
where:Orange Peel
when:Friday, May 2. 9 p.m. ($15 in advance; $17 at the door. 225-5851)


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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