How Stranger Things inspired an entire album of Stranger Songs

Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson tells CNET about '80s nostalgia, her love for Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven and her hopes for season 3 of the show.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
7 min read

Ingrid Michaelson's new album is out June 28.

Shervin Lainez

After a seemingly endless wait, the third season of hit Netflix show Stranger Things is arriving July 4. But if that still seems like too long to keep your patience in check, here's a little something to get you in the mood.

Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson's eighth studio album, Stranger Songs, is inspired from beginning to end by the characters, story arcs and vibes of Stranger Things. It'll be released days ahead of the show on June 28.

Take the first two singles from the record, Missing You and Jealous, for example. Both were significantly influenced by specific plot points from the show that stood out to Michaelson.

Missing You is an ode to Nancy Wheeler (played by Natalia Dyer) and her secret yearning for Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) while she's with boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery). Jealous, meanwhile, reflects on the moment Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) uses her powers to push new girl Max (Sadie Sink) off her skateboard.

Stranger Songs marks a stylistic evolution for Michaelson from her trademark brand of indie and folk-pop music in which her voice and melodies do much of the heavy lifting. Her vocals in Stranger Songs are often overlaid with synths and sometimes preceded by strings of 8-bit electronica, which jangle unnervingly in minor keys.

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Pretty, her latest single and the tenth track off the album, is out today. It's a slinky, feminine war cry -- as soft as it strong -- that almost reimagines Brown's Eleven as a tough-as-nails Alice in an eerie, perilous Wonderland.

We caught up with Michaelson ahead of the album's release to hear more about how the iconic TV show has provided her with a different lens through which to make music. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CNET: When did you first watch Stranger Things and how many times have you watched it through now?
Ingrid Michaelson: So I think it was 2017 -- pretty soon after it came out. And then since then I probably watched the two seasons 10 times each, because we were having it going on in a loop while we were in the studio.

At what point did you realize you'd gone beyond admiring it as a fan, and it was actually inspiring you?
It must have been about a year and a half ago. I remember being on a plane and I wrote a poem. I lost my mom and my dad -- my mom five years ago, my dad two and a half years ago -- and I think the idea of talking to your loved ones through Christmas lights was just very evocative to me. It just started out with a poem that was inspired by the idea of it and I thought to myself, maybe I should see if I can make this into a song. And then it became maybe should make a record.

It was a nice way for me to communicate what I feel and what I'm thinking, but not always through the lens of me. To be able to speak through these characters is something I thought that would be different for me and interesting for the listener. And, you know, even though you're writing for other characters, inevitably, you're also a lot of time writing about yourself.

Is that common for you -- for writing music to start out as writing poetry?
No, that's nothing I've ever really done before. I've never had a specific task like this, so that's been really fun too, and really different for me to have these rules. It was funny, because if I was writing with someone who hadn't seen the show and I was like: Well that doesn't really make sense with the show. They were probably like: What the hell? This is so weird.

But it was really fun and really challenging, and there was a fun framework to work within.

You said that you had people working on the record who hadn't watched the show -- how did you choose who to work with to get the balance right?
It just really depended on who I was writing with -- I wasn't choosing people who had or hadn't seen the show. It just was the people that we chose to write with because of their talent. And if somebody hadn't seen it I was like: Well, don't watch it, because there might be a fresh perspective that you have that I don't have because you're not tethered to it.

Those kind of ended up being some of the some of the best writes, because I had all the rules and regulations in my head, but they didn't, so we were able to be a lot freer with some things.

What were the storylines or characters from Stranger Things that you felt the strongest kinship with?
Eleven's character is just so amazing. She's just this girl, but she's so powerful, and in terms of Hollywood, that's not the norm. So it was really amazing as a woman to see that kind of writing, and amazing for young girls to see. She's the strongest one on the show -- and not in any ironic way, she just is.

I think also Millie Bobby Brown is an amazing actress and does such a glorious job with the role that I just love that part

You've been posting little clips from the show on Instagram to indicate to your fans what inspired each single. Eleven is also the inspiration behind your new single Pretty -- are there any particular scenes that helped you write this song?
There is a specific scene where they dress her up. So she's in her hospital gown, and she has a shaved head. They give her a little pink dress, they put her in a blonde wig, and Mike says: "Oh, she looks pretty." But then he covers it and says, "pretty good." He's embarrassed, he doesn't want her to think that he likes her.

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I thought about the concept of somebody being pretty, and what does it mean to be pretty in a pink dress? Inevitably, Eleven ends up losing the wig, the dress gets covered with a blue jacket, she has her dirty Converse on. It's not a quote-unquote typical feminine -- for lack of a better word -- look, because that's not her style.

But I just thought playing with the idea of what makes a woman or a girl pretty, and what is the definition of that … I thought that was something that we could write about, so I got together with two amazing writers and a producer and we wrote that song.

If I'm remembering correctly, she also struggles to get her head around the word because it's outside of her realm of understanding.
Yeah, she looks in the mirror and goes: "Pretty. Good." She doesn't know what it means, but she knows obviously this person is giving her attention and it's positive. It's such a small moment… and I think they handled it beautifully because, like I said, they put her in that and then she ends up in her Eleven uniform. To me, that's when she's her most beautiful, not when she's all dolled up.

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There are echoes of Stranger Things throughout the lyrics, but also in the sounds and imagery that you've kind of created around it. What are the elements you knew you really wanted to incorporate into the wider concept?
I wanted a few Easter eggs for people to be like: "Oh, that's cool, I get that, I get that lyric."

But I didn't want to alienate people who hadn't seen the show.

I also wanted there to be some '80s synth sounds and make it feel sonically a little bit nostalgic, but I didn't want to hit people over the head with that necessarily. Subtlety was sort of the object of the game.

Is this the first time art or something from popular culture has influenced your music in this way?
It's never been this direct. I definitely have been influenced by art in the past, by music or plays or movies, but I've never taken it to this extreme before.

I've made so many records as just Ingrid Michaelson, that I was like, I need to do something different, just in my own brain for my own self -- and for my fans. I thought this was a good opportunity, because I do feel a deep nostalgia, like an unending nostalgia, and it gets deeper and deeper as I get older.

That show for me just makes me feel like I'm a little kid again and I think that's where a lot of love for that show is. It's got this universality because it has this nostalgia, but even if you weren't alive in the 80s you still feel that nostalgia. It's such a powerful human emotion and I definitely feel like that was the leading emotion in my heart when making this record.

As a fan of the show, what would you like to see happen next season, and are you holding out hope that some of your music might be incorporated in some way?
The thing about Stranger Things is they only use real '80s songs, so there was never a hope for my music to get in there. But that's what makes the show so great, that they're so authentic.

I've seen in some of the teasers and Eleven and Max are really close friends. I like the idea of the two women in the show coming together instead of being at odds with each other, so I'm interested to see that friendship and see how that forms. And I just want to know what happened with the demagorgon. I mean, I thought we got rid of him. Why was he hovering over the school at the end, you know? Like, what's up with that?

Also, like everybody else, I want to see Winona Ryder and David Harbour's characters together because they're both such lost souls. They need each other and they haven't figured it out yet. I'd like to see that.