The hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” has captured the imagination of viewers, among them Ingrid Michaelson, whose new album “Stranger Songs” was inspired by the show.
The singer-songwriter was instantly drawn to the look and feel of the sci-fi drama, which debuted in 2016 and is now in its third season. It’s a period piece that begins in 1983 in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. The show is packed with retro props that re-create a pre-internet era of rotary dial telephones, tube socks, banana-seat bikes, boomboxes and Dungeons & Dragons.
“‘Stranger Things’ made me feel like I was little again,” says Michaelson, 39. “For me, it was specifically the very ‘nostalgic-ness’ of the show. There was a comfort in that.”
Michaelson is calling from the road en route from LA to San Diego for the first date of her new tour. She’ll be backed by a full band and promises a set list that includes new material, fan favorites and a few ‘80s covers including Madonna’s “Material Girl.” She’ll also debut a new song from her current work-in-progress, a musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ 1996 best-selling novel “The Notebook.”
“Stranger Songs” (Cabin 24 Records) is a smart and emotionally resonant addition to Michaelson’s body of work which includes a string of well-received releases. Although the new album is independent of the Netflix series, it easily serves as an unofficial soundtrack that maps the emotional arcs of the show’s main characters. The project first took root in 2017 when Michaelson was moved to write a poem about a central moment in the show.
“There’s a scene where one of the characters is trying to communicate with her son,” she explains. “The son is in another realm and the mother speaks to him through electricity – specifically through Christmas lights.”
The scene features the actress Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, a heartbroken mom desperate to find her young son Will (Noah Schnapp), who has gone missing in another dimension called “the Upside Down.” Joyce discovers that she can make contact with her lost son through strands of blinking holiday bulbs strung across an alphabet painted on the living room wall.
“That was a beautiful storyline,” Michaelson recalls. “I started out writing a poem about that scene, but it turned out to be more about me. The holidays made me think about the people who aren’t with me anymore. I’ve lost both of my parents. I thought to myself, If I’m writing poems about this show, there’s something there.”
Her poem quickly blossomed into the haunting “Christmas Lights,” a bittersweet ‘80s synth-pop song that percolates with an otherworldly beat. The lyrics achieve a fine balance, serving as a literal reflection of a specific scene, as well as a stand-alone song that captures the longing for family and old friends at the holidays.
Michaelson sings: “So it’s Christmas time again / Apart but yet together / You know I’ll always look for you / from now until forever / And I promise I’ll make things right / but until then / I will talk to you through the Christmas lights.”
What began as a small, heartfelt piece of fan fiction soon evolved into a full-blown album of eleven songs. Michaelson consciously decided on that number in honor of “Stranger Things” character Eleven, the hyperkinetic tomboy played by actress Millie Bobby Brown. Several of the album’s songs revolve around Eleven’s experiences, including the sultry blues ballad “Pretty,” a gritty salute to female empowerment: “I’m not afraid of the dirt / I’m not afraid of the world / I’m gonna fight like a girl.”
The song references a scene where the boys disguise the androgynous Eleven by dressing her in a blonde wig and pink dress. One of the characters tells Eleven that she looks “pretty.” Suddenly embarrassed by his admission, he quickly qualifies it as, “Good. You look pretty good.” Eleven looks at her reflection in the mirror and repeats, “Pretty. Good.”
“That just exploded in my mind,” says Michaelson. “Why does long blonde hair and a pink dress equate to something ‘pretty’? That was the seed for that song. Eleven is the most bad-ass character on the whole show and she’s this small, physically slight female.”
The dance number “Missing You” is a nod toward the show’s classic love triangle involving the characters Nancy, Steve and Jonathan. It’s a number about being with one person while dreaming of another. Michaelson sings: “He’s got his hands in all the right places / But the wrong face is in front of me.”
Her imaginative music videos are art projects in their own right and often feature multiple treatments for the same song. One of the videos for “Missing You” features Michaelson and 10 dancers in an elaborate piece of choreography filmed in one seamless take.
Like the Netflix series, the numbers on “Stranger Songs” champion the underdogs and outsiders in life. “Freak Show” turns the ugly taunt of a schoolyard bully into a term of pride.
“There’s a general movement now that ‘weird is good,’” notes Michaelson. “It’s the idea that it’s okay to be different. Back when I was growing up in the ‘80s, you didn’t want to be different. You wanted to blend in or else you’d get picked on. That’s what these characters are going through.”
The last song on “Stranger Songs” is the rueful ballad “Take Me Home.” It’s a song that serves as both a statement of purpose and a wistful yearning for the people and places of the past. Michaelson sings: ‘Oh, it breaks my heart to know / I can’t go back in time / And feel those feelings for forever.”
“I truly feel that on so many levels,” she says. “That’s why ‘Stranger Things’ resonates with me. It transports me back, even if just for a moment.”
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