Julia Michaels, the prolific pop songwriter turned Grammy-nominated singer, never even wanted to be an artist. And, up until a short while ago, if you suggested she should, she’d shut you right down.
In 2015, Michaels was co-writing an EP for the Oscar-nominated actress Hailee Steinfeld—who, bolstered by a role in the Pitch Perfect film franchise, had signed to Republic Records. (Her debut single, the tongue-in-cheek self-love anthem “Love Myself,” cracked the Billboard Top 40, and made waves for being a radio-friendly bop that was definitely about masturbation.) During this period, Charlie Walk, the president of the label, suggested Michaels step out of the studio and into the spotlight. She laughed, then told him to shut the fuck up.
In 2017, Michaels, 24, swiftly executed the career flip she’d sworn off. In January, she released her debut single, “Issues,” which peaked at No. 11; over the summer, she released an eight-track mini-album Nervous System (July 27, Republic Records); and in November, she snagged her two Grammy nominations (for Best New Artist and, for “Issues,” Song of the Year).
What changed her tune? For Michaels, it was realizing she’d finally written a song she couldn’t give up. Michaels penned “Issues” in 2016 with her longtime songwriting partner, Justin Tranter, after a fight with her then-boyfriend. It is a spare, sparkling argument for loving someone despite his or her flaws—and despite your own. Over pizzicato strings, she begins by owning her romantic foibles (“I’m jealous / I’m overzealous,” and “I get angry / Baby, believe me / I could love you just like that / I could leave you just as fast”). What follows is one of 2017’s most appealing pop choruses, delivered with a frankness and vulnerability largely absent from the sleek, give-no-fucks attitude of many of her peers. “Yeah, I got issues,” she admits, “And one of them is how bad I need you.”
Perched on a couch in the lobby bar of the Ludlow Hotel on New York’s Lower East Side, Michaels explains that originally, she intended to give “Issues” to another artist. She radiates California cool in a faded graphic tee and distressed jeans; strands of beachy, dirty blonde hair frame her face. She is covered in tattoos: a treble clef atop her left middle finger; a quill on her forearm; and, nestled among her collarbones, where the charm of a choker would sit, the words speak up. “A couple people had gone to cut the song,” she says, “But because of why I wrote it, I felt really uncomfortable having somebody sing it and not know what it was connected to, or what they were singing about. Normally, that wouldn’t have affected me,” she shrugs. “And it just really affected me this time.”
So she sent the song to Walk, at Republic. “I was like, ‘What do you think of this?’” she says with a faux-coyness. “And [Walk] was like, ‘Well, what do you want me to think of this? And I was like ‘Well, maybe we put it out.’ And he was like”—she smirks, crinkling her nose—“‘ Okay then.’”
Michaels, born Julia Carin Cavazos, moved with her family from Iowa to Santa Clarita, California, when she was five. Soon, she began accompanying her older sister, Jaden, also a singer-songwriter, to sessions at nearby studios. “I always loved writing,” she says. “I tend to be a non-confrontational person, so that’s my way of speaking up, I think. I used to used to write songs and then be like [to Jaden]”—she gestures as if presenting a prize on a game show—‘Here, can you sing these for me?’” (She says, laughing, that her sister rebuffed her requests.)
At 16, she began collaborating with the professional songwriter Joleen Belle. By 18, she’d scored her first major television placement: the theme song for the Disney show Austin & Ally, written with Belle. Interstitial music for the MTV series The Hills followed; Michaels moved to Los Angeles.
During her first years in LA, working nose-to-the-grindstone took a toll on her health: “I was doing sessions all the time,” she says. “I didn’t have my manager that I have now. I just had a publisher. And I didn’t realize, because I was so young, that I could say no to things. So I was doing three sessions a day, not having time to eat, just running myself ragged and drinking coffee. One day, I had so much [coffee] that my heart started to like, beat out of my chest. And I freaked the fuck out and went to the hospital. I was severely dehydrated. I had so much, so much caffeine in my system. I was like, 'Cool, I’m not drinking this anymore.'" Michaels motions toward her coffee cup on the table between us. It’s decaf, she says; she hasn’t had caffeine since that day.
At 20, she found her songwriting soul mate in Justin Tranter, the former vocalist of the proudly queer New York glam-rock outfit Semi Precious Weapons. “He had platinum blonde hair,” she says of meeting him for the first time, in a session. “[He wore] six-inch heels. Like, glitter—just, full on looking like a fucking rock star.” But that first day took a turn: As they worked, Michaels became so nervous that she shut herself in the studio’s closet. “I have a very over-stimulated brain,” she says, “So when there’s someone shouting melodies or working on a track, my brain just doesn’t know how to take all of that in. So I sat in a closet, and I came up with this melody and this start to a lyric to his song title. Meanwhile, he’s [outside] thinking I’m a fucking psycho, just sitting in the closet. I came out and I was like, 'What about this, what if we did this sort of melody?' And he was like, 'Oh, great, you can totally be psycho. We’re good. Like, this is awesome.'" (Recently, Michaels penned an essay for Glamour about living, writing, and learning to perform with anxiety).
Michaels and Tranter would go on to write big-time tracks for big-name artists together, including more for Steinfeld (“Rock Bottom”) Selena Gomez (“Bad Liar,” “Good For You,” “Hands to Myself”), Justin Bieber (“Sorry”), Britney Spears (“Slumber Party”), and Fifth Harmony (“Miss Movin’ On”). But they would also write together for Nervous System, though in many cases, Michaels would come to the studio with snippets she’d written alone, on the piano.
This makes sense; the whole album is immensely personal for Michaels. Written over a few months, it chronicles the ups, downs, and ultimate demise of her relationship with Lambroza. The songs range from the come-hither, crushed out single “Uh Huh,” to the wistful, piano-driven “Worst In Me,” about her confidence in the relationship faltering: “Remember when I used to be happy for you? / You could go out with your female friends, and I’d be totally fine,” she begins, then flips it, “Remember when you used to be happy for me? / You’d celebrate all my success without crossing a line.”
In today’s pop climate, songwriters-turned-artists, like Sia and Bruno Mars, are not a rarity. But success is far from guaranteed: For example, the 25-year-old songwriter Emily Warren co-wrote two of 2017’s pop gems—Charli XCX’s script-flipping banger, “Boys,” and Dua Lipa’s ultimate fuckboy lament, “New Rules"—but her singles have not taken off with anywhere near the velocity of Michaels’. Although there’s no blueprint for what makes an artist resonate, Michaels, at her best, shares a particular strength with Sia. Though their voices are near opposites—where Sia belts, Michaels under-sings—they both communicate their emotions with such a specific intensity that it’s impossible not to feel them, too. (In an electrifying, stripped-down performance of “Worst In Me,” for VEVO Lift, Michaels looks genuinely close to tears.)
Yet, as Michaels navigates her own rise in 2018, what will serve her best as an artist is what serves her as a songwriter: a natural inquisitiveness—at the Ludlow, I ask her why she keeps asking me questions—coupled with an ability to make an individual experience feel universal. “We all go through the same shit,” she says, “Even if it’s not the exact same experience, we experience the same emotions."
Avery Stone is a writer in New York. Follow her on Twitter.