Sitting in a chair at our New York offices, wrapped in an Army-green coat studded with yellow flowers, hair styled somewhere between a curl and a crimp, Julia Michaels looked cool. The kind of Gwen Stefani cool that seems impossible to emulate, a sort of Urban-Decay-meets-Delia’s ’90s dream. But even still, even in her badass outfit, and despite having written some of the biggest hits of the last decade, her demeanor is relatable and totally chilled out.
Julia Michaels is one of those people who makes you feel at ease almost immediately. When I walked into the room to meet her, I was met with laughter and warmth. By the time we’d made our way into a corner office for the interview, I felt like she was someone I’d known for years. And in a way, I had.
The 23-year-old is the creative genius behind songs like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Fifth Harmony’s “All In My Head,” Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself,” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself.” Cumulatively, those songs have been played over 1.65 billion times on Spotify, and have infiltrated the pop-culture zeitgeist in pretty insane ways. As I began talking to her, it became blindingly clear that to know Julia’s music is to know her.
When I was a kid, I wrote about anything and everything. Then when I was 12, my mom got me a piano, and I started putting my poetry to the piano.
Her first “official” foray into the songwriting space was with Joleen Belle, a musician who worked with Michaels’ sister when Belle was 15. “[We] did a lot of things together, a lot of library music. Which is a catalogue of songs curated for commercials and television and promo stuff. When I was 17 we did a theme song for Disney together.”
From there, she met Lindy Robbins, who mentored her for almost two years. A few of their collaborations include two Selena Gomez tracks, two Demi Lovato songs, and a single for Fifth Harmony — all written while she was still a teen. But perhaps her most complimentary writing partner, and current collaborator, is Justin Tranter, a founding member of rock band Semi Precious Weapons, with whom she wrote Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Good For You.” At this point, Julia writes about 90% of her tracks with Justin. I mean, they’re so damn good — why mess with the secret sauce?
I write from personal experience. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel authentic, and people can always tell if something is inauthentic.
When I start asking her about her songwriting process, and how she spawns these mega-hits, it all comes across as a very organic. “Sometimes I’ll be in a studio and something will just prompt. Like a little lightbulb. Sometimes I’ll have a sentence or a concept, and then I’ll form a melody around that. Sometimes I’ll have a melody and then realize I need to build something around that.”
I won’t pretend to understand how Julia honed her writing and musical talents to such a fine point at the ripe old age of 23. For someone who had little technical training, her ability to pen #1 songs, sometimes in as little as 30 minutes, is as allusive as it is magical. But it’s pretty obvious that her honesty, in person and as a writer, is one of the things that makes her so successful.
You get so used to hiding behind people. I’ve been doing it for so long. And I think that you wake up one day, and that insecure side of you that tells you that you’re not good enough gets a little quieter. And you think, ‘Ok, I need to do this.’
But what prompted her to shift from BTS writer to artist? Julia’s single “Issues,” one of the breakout hits of 2017, and the prologue to a forthcoming EP, hit too close to home to pass it along to another artist. “This is a very personal song. I wrote it after a fight I had with my boyfriend, [and] I just felt uncomfortable having someone else sing such a personal song of mine.”
It also marked a coming of age, of sorts. “You get so used to hiding behind people. I’ve been doing it for so long. You kind of lose who you are after a little bit, and you forget that you have a voice and that your voice is powerful, no matter who you are. And I think that you wake up one day, and that insecure side of you that tells you that you’re not good enough gets a little quieter. And you think, ‘Okay, I need to do this.'”
Her progression as a writer and an artist mirrors a personal crescendo of self-discovery from childhood to teen to adulthood that we all endure, in some form. We go from hiding behind an assumed identity to finding ourselves, eventually. It’s easy to relate to and sing along with someone who is open about that struggle. After all, everyone’s got issues.
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