Culture

Julia Michaels On Her Petty Pop Era & Why She’ll Keep Singing About Love, Even When It Hurts

“Songwriting will never not be an incredible experience to me.”

By Lucy Cocoran
Julia Michaels' distinctive voice enters the Zoom and immediately a sense of warmth fills the room. Softly-spoken, incredibly vibrant and unmistakably unique, it's the voice that generated an immediate fanbase back in 2017 when she released her debut single, Issues.
She's calling from the studio where she's working on new music, and, though she can't give an exact release date, she promises things are coming soon.
Over the past week, she's teased two very different versions of the same song on Instagram - one is a heart-wrenching, emotionally-charged piano ballad, while the other has a distinctively pop overtone. She doesn't explicitly say what the song is about because she doesn't have to.
It's about getting your heart broken.
"It's the thing I sing about most because it's the thing that I experience the most," Michael's told ELLE Australia, of why she keeps choosing to write about love, especially when it's painful.

"'I've experienced love and heartbreak more than I've experienced a lot of things in my life, and each one is different, like a fingerprint," she mused.
Even when discussing heartbreak, she still finds a way to make it sound poetic. It's that knack for seeing the beauty in an arguably ugly situation that has seen her carve out a special place in the music business. Still, one can only imagine how terrifying it must be to lay your soul bare for two million people; but for Michaels, it's the act of being honest with her fans that ultimately helps her heal.
"I want to put these songs out while I feel them," she explained. "I don't really sit on songs for two years and then put them out. This is very current in my psyche and my emotional state. I'm still processing it and I want them to be on that journey with me."
It's possible that, on some level, her fans expected a song like this. The debut of short bangs was a metamorphosis of sorts, signalling the beginning of a new era. After all, girls rarely change their hair without some kind of meaning behind it.
"When I'm in a transitional period in my life, I want to do things to my hair," she explained. "Whether I want to cut it short and dye it blonde or grow it out and get bangs, it correlates with my emotional transitions."
Michaels translates the same outlook on her hair towards her career, explaining that she never likes getting "too comfortable" in one place for too long.
"Evolving and growing is so necessary to your person and who you are," she said, before adding that she never wants to feel "boxed in" to a particular genre, or get to a point where people expect a certain thing from her.
"In my eyes, music is so fluid and ever-changing, so I always like to experiment. I put my focus mainly on lyrics and melodies and then try to match the production to the way that I feel," she explained.
Her tendency to prioritise the lyrics in her creative process should come as no surprise, given she got her start in the music industry by co-writing some of the biggest global chart toppers in recent history. From Sorry by Justin Bieber, Lose You To Love Me by Selena Gomez, Fever by Dua Lipa and 2002 by Anne-Marie — her writing credits read like a shopping list of number one hits.
Countless people would have belted out the most iconic lines from these songs without ever realising that Michaels was behind them, but as she would tell you, that's the whole point.
"When I'm writing in the studio with the artists, it's entirely catered to them and their sound and experience," she said. "Even if I love the song, I'm like 'this is your baby, I know you're gonna nurture it, so go and have a good time.'"
Each time she works with someone new, she has a particular way of getting inside their mind, which involves getting to know them on quite a deep level, or as Michaels puts it, "digging into their psyche."
And, despite the musicians she works with all having very different sounds, they're all bound by similar experiences — it's just about figuring out what those are.
"We might not have experienced the exact same thing, but we've all experienced the same emotion," she explained, before emphasising the importance of building trust during this process.
"It really is just such a beautiful thing. Songwriting will never not be an incredible experience to me."
The fact that she's written multiple songs for the same artists is a testament not only to her talent, but to her character. Michaels co-wrote eight songs of the eleven songs on Selena Gomez's acclaimed Revival album, which debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart in 2015.
"I'm grateful that I'm able to stick around for other songs because of the trust that is built," she said.
As their professional relationship blossomed, Gomez also went on to become a close personal friend, too. Similarly, while working with homegrown Australian singer Keith Urban, (whom Michaels cannot speak of highly enough) the pair forged a lifelong bond while working on their joint song, Coming Home.
"When he and I were working on Coming Home together, I told him that I had just bought a new house," Michaels revealed. "Around a week later, I went on tour with the incredible Niall Horan and I was gone for like two and a half months. I got home, and I had absolutely nothing in that house, but in my living room was an upright Steinway piano from him [Urban] which said 'welcome home'. It was just the most magical thing because I hadn't had a piano since I was twelve."
It's this very piano that she's currently creating new music on, accompanying her from one phase of her musical career into the next. If she's made one thing clear, it's that she's ready for change, but Michaels also knows that in order to look forwards, she'll need to look backwards, even if it kills her a little. In fact, she fully acknowledges that some of her best work has come from tuning into those feelings, rather than tuning them out.
"I go through a lot of petty feelings and being heartbroken but also being kind of spiteful, so I've been calling this my petty pop era," she said, of what people can expect to see from her new work.
Still, there's a certain sense of dread that comes with putting something out into the universe. Despite being the opening act on five major world tours including Shawn Mendes, Niall Horan and P!nk, along with taking out the Winning Pop Song Award in 2018 for Issues, Michaels said she still feels anxiety around releasing new music, with that voice in the back of her head taunting her with the thought that people might hate it.
That being said, she also knows she has the best fans, whom she knows to be "emotionally intelligent, wonderful, supportive and beautiful."
"I think you attract the energy that you want to put out, and I'm so grateful that I've always had a safe space," she said.
"It's just us and that's all that matters."
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  • undefined: Lucy Cocoran