By Chris Neville
Chances are you’re already a Julia Michaels fan whether you know it or not. After breaking into professional songwriting as a teenager, the 23-year-old Iowa native has been an invisible yet inescapable presence on pop radio in recent years; along with songwriting partner Justin Tranter, she’s penned Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself,” Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself,” Nick Jonas and Tove Lo’s “Close,” and Britney Spears’ “Slumber Party” among many others. Michaels and Tranter have been so successful with regard to placing songs and making hits that a year ago they were the subject of a New York Times profile highlighting their abnormally high batting average. But the best song in their arsenal may be the one Michaels kept for herself.
Following guest appearances with Kygo and Jason Derulo, “Issues” is Michaels’ debut single as a lead artist. A portrait of two volatile people who help each other get a grip, it exists in her self-described thematic sweet spot: the intersection of emotional turmoil and sexual tension. Musically it’s stellar, boasting a brilliantly simple arrangement built from a darting string section, booming digital bass, finger snaps, and not much else. And with Michaels delivering an authentically dramatic performance against such a beautiful background, it adds up to the first great pop single of 2017.
When Michaels called me this week to discuss her past, present, and future, she was in Nashville working on music with an unspecified collaborator. So she’s continuing to work behind the scenes, applying the magic touch that has made her arguably pop’s hottest songwriter. But “Issues” indicates that we may come to know her as a star in her own right. Read our conversation below.
STEREOGUM: You moved from Iowa to Los Angeles as a child. How did you end up professionally songwriting in your teens? A lot of people wouldn’t even think of that as an option, especially as a teenager.
JULIA MICHAELS: I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always loved words, ever since I was a kid. I’ve written poetry most of my life. My sister actually started doing demos around the city, and my mom would take me to the studio mostly because I just loved being around music. And the songwriter my sister sang for asked me if I knew how to write or if I could sing. And of course my mom, who is like a total stage mom but I love her, was like, “Yes, of course she can sing!” And I was, like, 16. So I played a cover for her on piano — pretty poorly because I’m shit at piano — and she was like, “We should write sometime.” And I was like, “Really? Sure, yeah.” So we started doing songs for the backgrounds of television shows and commercials, stuff like that. And then from there we wrote a song for this Disney show Austin & Ally. It was the first thing we ever pitched for, and we got it. That’s when I kind of knew that I wanted to write songs.
STEREOGUM: I read the New York Times story about you and Justin, and it mentioned that you met in 2013 at a sort of “blind date” for songwriters. How many of those “blind dates” did you go on with other songwriters before you found that partnership that clicked?
MICHAELS: So many. When you first start out, people think this is super easy and you find your crew super quick. But you’ve really got to go through songwriter boot camp to find your people. For the first three years when I was writing I was doing sessions with a whole bunch of different people all the time every day until I met Lindy Robbins, who kind of mentored me. And then once you find that, all the pieces come together. You find the group that you feel more comfortable with and that you work really well with. I met Justin three years ago and, same thing. As long as you have one piece of the puzzle, it’s super easy to find the next one. And then you make magic with your friends. It just becomes fun and awesome.
STEREOGUM: I realize this is kind of an intangible thing, but can you describe how or why you and Justin work so well together?
MICHAELS: I like to think that together we make one perfect human being. Justin is a very light, very positive, very bright human being, and I’m rather dark and kind of miserable and depressing. So I think together we make up all the emotions that one person should have. We cover all bases when we write. I can think of the more emotional, kind of sexual situations, and then he can take care of the more fun stuff, and then we just kind of finish each other’s sentences at that point.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of emotional stuff, your bio includes a story about you giving away a song you’d written and crying about it in the bathroom for 90 minutes because you wanted to keep it for yourself.
MICHAELS: Yes, that’s me! Nice to meet you!
STEREOGUM: Which song was that?
MICHAELS: I don’t know if I really want to say that. But it really affected me, that song. It was the first time I had actually written a song and was really upset about it, and I wasn’t sure why. I mean, this is my job. I’m a songwriter, and I’m supposed to give my babies away and be OK with it. And then this one really affected me. Justin was actually the one that came into the bathroom and was like, “Maybe this is a sign. Maybe you’re really upset about this because there’s a bigger picture here and you’re trying to avoid it.” And I was like, “Maybe you’re right.” And when we wrote “Issues” I was like, “I can’t let this happen again. I can’t do this again.” It was the first time since then that a song felt so much like me that I just couldn’t let anybody else sing it. And now it’s out, and it’s insane!
STEREOGUM: What about “Issues” is so personally reflective of you?
MICHAELS: Lyrically, it’s just so much me. I guess it really pertains to anybody, but I am a very jealous person, and I do overreact to everything. And when I’m feeling down I’m super depressed, and when I’m excited I’m the most excited person on the planet. And the song was written because my boyfriend and I like to fight a lot. I have a lot of problems, and so does he. But then at the end of the day we realize how ridiculous we’re being and we’re like, “OK, everything’s good. This is just ridiculous.”
STEREOGUM: So when you sat down to write it, you were like, “I’m going through this situation, and I’ve got to channel it into a song?”
STEREOGUM: Is that typically how you work, or are there ever times when you’re just playing around without a specific inspiration? What’s the ratio there?
MICHAELS: It depends. A lot of it is definitely taking from personal experience. Even if I’m with an artist, I have a hard time connecting to something if I haven’t been through it. So even if they’ve been through something, I can always find an experience I can relate to and write from my perspective. It’s Justin, too. If you have all different kinds of perspectives, it makes it perfect for anybody who’s going through something. Most of the time that’s how it goes. I have this saying: “I can only write emotional songs, sexual songs, and sexually emotional songs.” That’s just who I am.
STEREOGUM: How often are you writing with another artist for another artist versus just writing and seeing what becomes of it?
MICHAELS: I’d say maybe 50-50? Most of the time we write to pitch, mostly because Justin and I, we go so fast and we just go off first instinct and the subconscious really. It’s just easier for us to go in and write down everything that we feel and then be like, “Cool, bye!” But it’s also cool when we get to sit down with somebody and hear somebody’s story, especially when they don’t know how to articulate what they want to say. They’re relying on two strangers, essentially, to help them get out these words. They’re trusting us to help their point of view come out, and there’s something really special about that as well.
STEREOGUM: Now that you’ve got a couple of features and “Issues” out there, do you expect to be keeping more of these songs for yourself?
MICHAELS: A lot of the time I can gauge what I want to keep for myself and what I don’t. If I go into a session with an artist or if I go to pitch, that’s not my song. I’m not that kind of person. Most of the time if I have an idea, I’ll voice note it and be like, “Oh, I want to keep that.” Other times I’ll be like, “This could be cool for this person.” I am a very possessive person, but not when it comes to music, usually.
STEREOGUM: Do you have some more singles ready to go? Is there a plan to roll out some more music, or are you just going to stick with “Issues” for a while?
MICHAELS: We definitely have some songs ready to go, but I think we just want to see how this one plays out because it’s going to be a lot. This is very new for me. It’s very exciting but also very nerve-racking. It’s something I’ve never done before. I’ve always been in the background, and happily been in the background, and this is the first time people are going to see me. It’s a very vulnerable situation. Again, it’s exciting and nerve-racking. But yes, I definitely have some other songs in the works and some things that I’m pretty ecstatic for everyone to hear.
STEREOGUM: Are you going to be doing some live performing soon?
MICHAELS: Maybe! [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Do you have much experience on stage?
MICHAELS: I’ve literally only performed twice. Last year I did the Wireless Festival with Kygo, and then I did the closing ceremony at the Olympics with him as well.
STEREOGUM: Those are two huge gigs!
MICHAELS: So it is pretty new for me, definitely.
STEREOGUM: Will you be performing songs you’ve written for other people too, or are you going to keep that separate?
MICHAELS: I think I’m going to keep that separate.
STEREOGUM: One last thing: On Wikipedia, which is not always trustworthy, it says “many big name artists” fought for the right to record “Issues.” Is that true? Did you have to fight to keep it for yourself?
MICHAELS: Yeah, there were quite a few people that wanted it. There were actually a couple who cut it and I didn’t even know about it. So it was definitely a battle, but at the end of the day it’s my words and my emotions and the song that I felt like was me, and it just didn’t feel right having somebody sing literally everything about me.