A skinny guy and his girlfriend, flannel and fedora clad, are gazing at Ingrid Michaelson. The boy kisses the girl's collarbone as she mouths the words along with the singer-songwriter. The two look at Michaelson as if she is the only one who can understand what their relationship means; as if she has successfully encapsulated love in a few chords.
"It's like you have this ball of yarn and then suddenly it's a hat or a scarf and you've made a beautiful thing: a song," Michaelson said a few hours before taking the stage Thursday night in Solana Beach to help kick off the Hotel Cafe Tour. She is 28 and was wearing a clingy gray T-shirt with three dinosaurs printed on it. She had on a pair of clunky leather boots. Her hair is amber-colored and parted down the middle.
"I like to use the heaviest parts of words when I write," she said, peering through her signature red-rimmed oval glasses. "That way, they can be memorable when there are just a few of them."
Seemingly, it hasn't just been this one couple in the audience who have been clinging to Michaelson's words. More than 25 million "Grey's Anatomy" viewers heard her song "Keep Breathing" during the ABC series' final episode of last season. In fact, television has been one of the major components in propelling Michaelson toward burgeoning indie-pop stardom. The placement of her first single, "The Way I Am," in Old Navy's Fair Isle sweater commercial in December prompted viewers to Google Michaelson's lyrics, in turn pushing her into the top ranks of the iTunes charts.
Michaelson, whose self-produced album "Girls and Boys" has sold more than 160,000 copies in the U.S. to date, is at the front of a parade of musicians who are combating a changing music industry head-on with the help of broader commercial technology.
But it was just last May that Michaelson was spending her days making fairy wings out of old curtains for her job as the director of a city-funded after-school children's theater program in Staten Island, N.Y., where she lived with her parents.
"If I'd had to make sparkled leotards and laugh with 14-year-olds for the rest of my life, it would have been very sweet and safe and fine," said Michaelson. "Music isn't a safe job at all. I'm very fearful of everything crashing to an end."
The worry is understandable coming from a woman who is familiar with sudden, confusing kinds of miracles, the first occurring when a few staffers at L.A.-based music licensing and artist management company Secret Road stumbled upon Michaelson's MySpace page, fell in love with her music and asked if they could sign her.
Though enticed by the prospect, Michaelson was hesitant. She'd been performing for a while at a New York coffeehouse, the Muddy Cup, whose open mike segment occurred during her shift. She would serve coffee, run up on stage, sing a song, then return to offer more cream and sugar. It was a frustrating lifestyle, she said.
"I love my songs. They're really sweet and intelligent," she said, laughing a bit. "But that doesn't matter if you're singing in a cave and no one's there. I always knew that once people heard my music, I'd be all right.
"Still, I was very lethargic at times," she admitted. "I'd get these bursts of intensity and urgency toward my music, but then it'd dissipate. It was kind of like, well, what can I do? I can't quit my job and just tour across the country."
Luckily for her, Secret Roads founder Lynn Grossman made good on her promise to get her music heard. And Michaelson's album, released on her own independent label, Cabin 24 Records, is under contract now to be distributed by Original Signal/RED.
In the beginning, it felt as if she was the "Grey's" girl, then the Old Navy girl and now she's the indie girl out there doing it on her own, said Grossman, who now manages Michaelson. "There's something very special about this moment in time and the ability to use MySpace, the Internet and iTunes. The tools make it so much easier to do it independently than it was 10 years ago. But the music has to sell itself too. You can't just take any band and make it work."
Recognition from industry peers helped Michaelson earn a stint as a headliner on this year's Hotel Cafe Tour, which began in Solana Beach and will stop at Anaheim's House of Blues tonight as well as for a sold-out performance Sunday at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. The lineup rotates from city to city from among a roster of 19 acts, including Sara Bareilles, Greg Laswell, the Cary Brothers, Kate Havnevik, Jessie Baylin and Jim Bianco.
"There's a short list of people whose music we really respect," Hotel Cafe co-owner Marko Shafer said of the tour selection process. "And Ingrid, she's just exploded. A lot of other Hotel artists are looking at her as a model of how indie musicians can succeed without a major label."
"I don't think she has anything to prove. She's out there right now on the road to validate the success to herself more than anyone," said Michaelson's close friend Deborah Lopez, a photographer who lives in New York. "The girl can sing. No Pro Tools, no nothing. She has a way of slowly gripping your heart, squeezing it in and then releasing."
The journey here has been chaotic, yet Michaelson said she feels more grounded in her identity as a musician than ever.
"It took me a while to realize I could be myself on stage," she said. "I don't have to do that female singer-songwriter, barefoot and moaning about the loss of love thing. I'm not trying to be anything anymore. Maybe that's what people like about me."
Ingrid Michaelson with the Hotel Cafe Tour
Where: House of Blues Anaheim, 1530 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim
When: 7 tonight
Contact: (714) 778-2583
Where: Music Box @ the Fonda, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. April 12
Contact: (323) 464-0808