Wisdom//

Spotlight On: Ingrid Michaelson

The American singer-songwriter shares how she handles burnout and her secrets to prioritizing her life.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Ingrid Michaelson has been enchanting fans with her vulnerable lyrics and catchy melodies since 2005, releasing nine studio albums. Best known for her hit singles Girls Chase Boys and Grey’s Anatomy anthem Keep Breathing, Michaelson is currently writing and composing a musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook on Broadway and has just released her latest album, Stranger Songs. She sat down with Thrive to share how she balances a very full — and sometimes overwhelming — schedule, how to find the good in those around you, and her best tips for prioritizing her life.

Thrive Global: Your new album Stranger Songs is a bit of a departure from your more personal lyrics — and is actually based on the Netflix show Stranger Things. When developing this you mentioned you found some comfort in the nostalgia of the show — so much so it inspired you to write the entire album surrounding the characters. Can you tell us about that?

Ingrid Michaelson: I love Stranger Things so much. I’ve lost both my mom and my dad, so there’s something about the nostalgia of the show that just makes me feel kind of happy and safe again. Looking back to my childhood memories. I thought I could write from the point of view of these characters, but do it in a way that if you don’t know the show, you’re not alienated, but if you do know the show you’ll be able to tie it back. So it was the idea of drawing on these characters for inspiration, but inevitably you’re writing about yourself in so many ways too.

TG: You mentioned that you put all your energy into your writing, and really everything you do, and that can feel overwhelming to you. Could you share a time when you felt burned out? What did you do to overcome that?

IM: It was two days ago. I called my manager, and I was like, “I just have to talk to you because I’ve been on my phone all day. I have emails. I don’t even know how many emails, like 50 emails that I was going through. And I’m toggling back and forth between buying a home, doing the casting for our workshop for Notebook, for approving all these things for tour, approving artwork, the website. There were just so many demands on me. And then I got to thinking about furniture for my new house, and I was like, “How am I gonna be there for this.” And she said, “Listen. Can you stop worrying about the furniture?” It’s the low-hanging fruit concept. You have to let go of the things that you really don’t have to do immediately, otherwise you will completely burn out.

You have to have somebody else on your team to help you, to guide you, to consult with, to take some of the load because you can’t do everything alone. I think having a team or having a confidant, a co-worker or a friend — and rely on those relationships and not try to be Superwoman. Allow yourself to take their advice. That’s my two cents.

TG: So how do you prioritize and focus when you feel overwhelmed?

IG: I tend to take everything on at the same time and then have a mini breakdown, and then my boyfriend or my manager will be like, “You can only do one thing at a time. What can you handle right now? What can’t you handle?” So it’s about being receptive to people’s good advice and just taking things one at a time. And also it’s not doing things that you don’t have to do — putting the things that are really important at the top of the list and doing those, and letting other things go.

Also, I’m more efficient and accountable when I team up with somebody else. I’m really bad when it comes to self-discipline in terms of, “I’m gonna sit down and write.” Some of my friends will write every Wednesday, or pick a date and stick to it. If I set up co-writes with people, that pushes me to keep a time frame.

TG: Speaking of letting things go, what is one thing you do for yourself that you won’t bend on?

IM: I have very hard and fast rules about my vacation time. In the middle of all this craziness I’m going to Big Sur in July because I know I need to. I am going to  this beautiful spa and hotel in the Redwoods. Then, I’m going to Maine, where my family house is. I am very strong about my time off with my team and very protective of it. When I plan these vacations, I very much stick to that rule of shutting off work. It’s important to take some time away from everything and protect that time. My family time and my time with my boyfriend is very important to unwind and unplug. The older I get, the more I understand how important that time is and the more protective I am of it.

TG: And the more productive you’ll be when you get back.

IM: Yes, exactly. I remember I was in Germany with Jason Mraz. This is so many years ago because I was opening up a tour for him. He shared with me that around the time when he was starting to get really big and things were taking off for him, he told his team, “I need time off.” So, he took time off and bought an avocado farm. I might be paraphrasing, but this is how I remember it. He was like, “I just needed that time to reset to be able to come back,” and he came back with “I’m Yours” after that break. That always stuck with me. I was like, “Jason Mraz bought an avocado farm.” He wasn’t working every single day. So I think that that philosophy of just giving yourself time and honoring that time away from work is equally as important as the work itself because the work will suffer if you’re suffering. Whereas, if you’re restored, it gives you new perspective.

TG:  Getting a new perspective is often hard to see when you are in the thick of a difficult, stressful time. Has there ever been a time in your life when you went from surviving to thriving?

IM: I remember living in this apartment in Brooklyn, and it was horrible. There were mice and roaches, and the bathtub was clogged up. I think everybody’s first apartment should be like that because you have to understand, oh, I don’t want to live in a sh*t hole. I have to work really hard.

I was working at a children’s theater camp, and I was a bartender, and I was working at a restaurant and a coffee house. I had so many jobs that year, and I ended up getting a song on Grey’s Anatomy. I remember sitting in my nasty apartment with mice in the walls and watching the episode my song was in on this TV from the 90s because I couldn’t afford anything. I remember thinking this is the beginning of something big. It still took me a little while to start touring and start actually making some real money and move out of the apartment, but I remember that moment of sitting in this filth and realize that my life was going to change. And it was a very interesting, beautiful moment for me.

TG: You are no stranger to social media criticism as a musician. People often feel empowered to be hurtful when behind the screen. How do you handle that?

IM: I think social media’s amazing. It connects us in ways that we never imagined before, but it’s also really dangerous, especially for younger people who are softer and more impressionable. Some people will write something snarky — a comment on one of my posts — and I’ll write back to them. I want people to know I am reading these.

Some girl said, “It’s funny how you look like everybody else now. Why can’t you be original?” I guess she said it because I have blonde hair now? I don’t know. I wrote back, “It’s funny how you’re trying to hurt my feelings. I’ve always been who I am. It’s just everybody else that decides who they think I am.” I knew she was trying to hurt my feelings, but I didn’t let her get to me. That’s the part of social media that I don’t like. I don’t understand why people want to tear other people down and social media is like a fertilizer for that. Young people have to just remember it’s not real life and these aren’t your people.

My advice is to just ignore it. Live the life you want to live. Post the things you want to post. Who cares what somebody thinks? Let them be miserable and angry and go through their own sh*t, and maybe they’ll figure out why they are attacking people. What is important to recognize is as long as you’re not hurting anybody and you’re being kind and you’re mindful, social can be great.

TG: Is there a mantra or quote that helps you thrive?

IM: A big thing that I have to tell myself over and over again is, “I can’t control it.” My need to control is crippling at times and I have to remind myself, “you can’t control this person or situation, but what are the things you can control?”  

Basically, those things are what you eat, when you go to sleep, how active you are and what kind of art you make. You just have to remember you can’t control how it’s received. You can’t control what anybody’s going to think of you or how they will act. If you can let go of that desire, or at least understand it’s there, and try to curb it — that can help with stress.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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