Julia Michaels, Pop's Secret Weapon, is Stepping into the Spotlight

Julia Michaels, Pop's Secret Weapon, is Stepping into the Spotlight

The songwriter-turned-popstar opens up about the issues that inspired "Issues," her upcoming EP, and working with your favorite artists.

The songwriter-turned-popstar opens up about the issues that inspired "Issues," her upcoming EP, and working with your favorite artists.

Photography: Robin Harper

Text: Jake Viswanath

“He shows up in bright blonde hair, full makeup, looking finer than most women and most men, and I was like, ‘Okay you're awesome,’” Julia Michaels recalls of meeting her future songwriting partner Justin Tranter for the first time. “Then he was like, ‘Let's do something '90s and vogue,’ and I was like, ‘No!’ I don't know what that means, it's not what I do. And then I basically hid in the closet because I was so nervous, and then I came out afterward and sang this melody for this song title that he had. And then he was like, ‘Oh cool, you can be as crazy as you want,’ and we've just been writing ever since.”

The bout of nervousness led to an immensely successful partnership that spawned catchy, innovative hits for Selena Gomez (“Hands to Myself”), Justin Bieber (“Sorry”), and Britney Spears (“Do You Wanna Come Over?”), solidifying Michaels as one of pop’s secret weapons. But her anxiety was also one of several inspirations for her solo debut; “Issues,” a throbbing finger-snapper about the wonderful problems we all suffer from, has properly established her as an artist with her own voice, becoming the first artist of 2017 to reach 100 million streams with her debut single, and for good reason: the lyrics are almost too relatable, but her melodies make the track irresistible to sing along to.

While all our most common issues are addressed in the track, it was actually born after a fight with her boyfriend. “I tend to be a very non-confrontational person, so a lot of times, he's just sort of fighting at me, and I'm just listening,” she explains. “But it's great as a songwriter because everything that I can't say to him, I can put in the song. After we got in this fight and realized how pathetic we were being, I wrote it, and ‘Issues’ is essentially me in three minutes.” It was this track that spurred her on to work toward becoming a solo artist. “I always tend to put a little bit of myself in everything that I write, but this was just a little too personal. And I just thought, I've kind of hid behind people for so long that I don't really know who I am, and when I wrote ‘Issues,’ I felt like I finally found myself a little bit.”

It's no wonder she did. From the opening line, Michaels forces herself to admit to her biggest flaws, something which she is still in the process of fixing. "My insecurities about not feeling good enough is one of my biggest issues, and performance anxiety is one of my biggest issues. In a relationship, jealousy would have to be my biggest issue.” But she knows better than anyone that writing is one of the best ways to help yourself and others, which she continues to do on her upcoming EP.

“The EP is essentially me exploring myself, and I think the parts that you're going to hear most about me are my emotional and sexual sides, because I think those are the parts I know best about myself. One of the songs is called ‘Deeply,’ and I actually wrote that song for my boyfriend,” she explains. “Sometimes there are moments in your life where you go through something where you don't feel like yourself and you don't really know why. And then you, as their partner, start to take it personally because you think it's something you've done, and then you try to overcompensate to help fix it, but then you realize that it's not you and it's just something internal. So I wrote this song for him to say ‘Hey I'm here for you, whenever you're ready to just talk or anything, I'm here for you.’ That’s a really special song for me.”

The tone of these tracks are almost opposite of the bouncy hits that she's written for others, and reflect something much more personal. “This industry is not easy, and a lot of people think that it happens overnight and it definitely doesn't. I never take it for granted. Every single song has its own anecdote and its own experience, and they're all special.” These experiences often come from collaborating with her fellow artists, who bring more to the table than one may initially expect. “Certain artists will come in and they'll be extremely vocal right off the bat. Even if they're not writing the songs and just them coming in and talking to you, the more open they are about what they're going through or any experience that they have, it does so much,” she said.

Working with one artist was particularly memorable for the right reasons: pop icon Britney Spears. “She is phenomenal. I don't think people realize how talented she is. She would come in, we would play some chords, and she'd sing the best pop melodies, because they're so ingrained in her brain at this point, and come up with the concept, sit down with us and make sure the lyrics sounded perfect to the concept, and she'd be like, ‘Cool, I'm gonna go!’ And I was like, ‘Cool! See you later, Britney!’,” she recalled with an infectious giggle. “She’s the best!”

For now, Michaels plans to balance her emerging career with writing for other artists, but don’t ask what’s next. “This is all such a crazy transition for me that I'm just trying to take it all step by step or else I will be an overwhelmed, anxious mess," she said, complete with nervous laughter. "Sometimes it's super overwhelming, sometimes it's really beautiful. The performing can get really overwhelming just because I get really nervous, but then I go on my Instagram or Twitter and I see how many people love 'Issues' and feel connected to it, and that feels really nice. Sometimes I'm at home and I don't work for 4 days and I'm like, 'Ah! This is so boring.' I'm just going through every emotion right now.” Considering these issues turned into “Issues,” she's reacting correctly for future success.

Credits: Production Hannah Huffman Hair by Preston Wada at Opus Beauty using Kevin Murphy Makeup by Melissa Murdick at Opus Beauty using M.A.C. Cosmetics

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