We’ve Got A File On You: Julia Michaels

Miranda McDonald

We’ve Got A File On You: Julia Michaels

Miranda McDonald

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Not many people can execute pop music realism like Julia Michaels. Just like 19th-century art aims to truthfully represent their subjects without artificiality, her music reflects her rawest form. Michaels leapt from writing poetry at age 12 to transforming into one of pop’s go-to songwriters. Her lyrics read like the most personal pages of her diary, and that jolt of honesty is what led to her crafting tunes for the likes of Justin Bieber (“Sorry”), Selena Gomez (her Revival and Rare albums), Gwen Stefani (“Used To Love You”), Nick Jonas (“Close”) and Dua Lipa (“Pretty Please”).

Michaels is sort of a paradox: Her lyrics are deeply intimate to the point where you almost feel like you’re intruding, while simultaneously relating to nearly every verse. That vulnerability is also found on her mammoth hits for other artists whose aim is to be more personal, where Michaels’ role as a songwriter doubles as a counselor. Her open discussions of trust issues, coping with anxiety, or learning to accept her body’s flaws stem from real-life conversations and ex-boyfriends, as well as artist inspirations like Juliet Simms, Paramore, and — her favorite — Fiona Apple.

But she’s also an artist in her own right, dropping her first single “Issues” from 2017’s major-label debut EP Nervous System. From there, Michaels released two more EPs (2019’s Inner Monologue Part 1 and 2), appeared on soundtracks for HBO’s Girls and 2018’s Fifty Shades Freed, and was the opening act for Shawn Mendes, Maroon 5 and Keith Urban. Michaels has also racked up three Grammy nominations: twice for Song Of The Year (“Issues” and “If The World Was Ending” with JP Saxe in 2021) and Best New Artist.

Now, Michaels is adding another chapter to her diary with her debut album Not In Chronological Order. Released today, the 10-song set haphazardly journeys through relationships with former flames and with herself. The album reflects a more confident Michaels, who recently ventured out of her element to star in her first fashion campaign with designer Christian Cowan, which she says embodies her fluid androgynous/feminine style. “I like stepping out of my comfort zone,” she tells Stereogum over the phone on an early Los Angeles morning. “If you were to ask me back when I was 23, I’d probably be like, ‘No I’m too horrified to go anywhere. I just want to eternally be in my house.’ But I definitely want to try new things with writing too, and just expanding and exploring every possibility I can.”

In our interview, we head down memory lane as Michaels looks back on the career-shifting songs (some she wrote for other artists, and some she kept for herself) that have shaped her story.

Not In Chronological Order (2021)

For me, the album title has two meanings. With the aspect of love, some moments could be fuzzy or a little bit selective, but I also feel that your career hasn’t been in chronological order either. You’ve been a songwriter for years, but you’ve also dropped music prior to this debut.

JULIA MICHAELS: I never really thought of it like that, but yeah, I could see how that would be interpreted for sure. I have had a very odd way into the music industry. But I called it Not In Chronological Order because I think my fans always expect me to have the story from top to bottom as it happened. I’ve always actually been that way. But when I was putting the album together, I liked the feeling better than the story chronologically. I don’t know, it just felt better that way.

I really enjoy seeing your playful side on the “All Your Exes” opener. The music video could be the basis of a horror movie. How was your experience making it?

MICHAELS: It was really fun and collaborative. My boyfriend actually said that he’s pretty sure I wasn’t acting and that was my true form. And that’s why it was so easy for me to do. [Laughs] I feel like in recent years, like 2018 and 2019, I wasn’t a very visual person. I think that’s just because you’re on tour and doing all of these things all the time. You don’t really let your brain settle and you know, 2020 was just such a crazy year. I had so much time to self-reflect and I got more visual as time went on.

So for “All Your Exes,” I was imagining this sort of Suzy Homemaker dinner party, where I’m catering to my boyfriend and all his friends and I’m holding food on a silver platter. The camera is on my face and it pans out. On the silver platter, I’m holding surgical tools and his ex is tied to a bed and I’m like fucking with her essentially. When I was looking at all these treatments, [director] Blythe Thomas’ looked the most like what I had seen in my head.

I got on a phone call with her about it and she goes, “How funny would it be if we did do a dinner party? But instead of being with friends, it’s all his exes and they’re all dead. You’re just feeding them food and you’re having the time of your life at the dinner party.” I said, “That is hilarious. We absolutely have to do that.” I wanted it just to be super kitschy and really satirical because I feel like that’s what the song is. It’s got a lot of dark humor, but it’s masked under the idea of you loving somebody as deeply and as intimately as you do me before me hurts.

This song could have easily been a slow, somber, piano-driven track, but I like that you switched gears and made it more up-tempo. It breaks the mold of what people may have come to expect from you. Was that intentional?

MICHAELS: Absolutely. That was a decision by my co-executive producer. JP [Saxe] and I started it on the guitar and it was pretty grungy. And I sent it to Stefan [Johnson] from the Monsters & Strangerz and he was like, “This is the best one I’ve ever heard. I want to live with it and get this right.” He sent it back like a week and a half later with that drumbeat on it. It was not what I was expecting at all. I thought it was going to be a bit more dark and eerie. I was taken aback by it in a really pleasant way. I was in my car and was like, “Wait, this is awesome.”

The song that stands out to me the most is “Little Did I Know.” I played it in bed after midnight and all these emotions really hit me. I think it’s breathtaking and one of the best from your entire discography.

MICHAELS: Wow, thank you kindly. I also wrote that with my boyfriend. It’s funny, I had come home from not a good songwriting day. I was with an artist and I wanted it to go better than it did. I just felt really down on myself. Like, I’m a songwriter. I’m supposed to be able to pull through this and make it work. I was having a moment and I was just like, “I think I need to write a real genuine song.”

Then I looked at JP and said: “You’re one of my favorite writers. You want to write a song with me?” He laughed and grabbed his guitar. We started writing it in bed that night, woke up and started again. He was on the edge of the bathtub and I was standing in the bathroom. Then we went to his old house that he turned into a studio and we wrote the chorus there. When it came time to recording — I think this was in July, like peak quarantine — one of my really good friends who’s done all my vocal production since I was 22 came to my house fully masked. We were all scared of each other. He set up in my guest bedroom. We did all the vocals there, and JP and I did the choir stack. That’s how that whole thing sort of came together. But it started with me wanting to write a song that’s really honest and sincere after feeling like it was something that I wasn’t able to do.

I mean, you pulled it off. I love that you wrote it with JP because it reflects the feelings that you guys have for each other.

MICHAELS: Thank you. It was definitely easy to write because I got to just stare at him while I was thinking about all these things. I had my muse.

Let’s talk about “Love Is Weird.” You’re so blunt with the way that you write. There’s some songwriters that have this overly poetic way of describing the intricacies of love. But I like that you just put it all on the table like, “Sometimes love could be great. Sometimes it could be fucked up.”

MICHAELS: Thank you. I also thought about that actually, especially when I’m writing with other people. I think a lot of people think that it has to be some grand metaphoric situation. I don’t think people realize that they can have a conversation about love. You can literally just say that, you know? I was writing a song called “Wrapped Around” with Billy Walsh, John Ryan, and Monsters & Strangerz. We had about 35 minutes left in the studio and we pulled a Hail Mary. For people that don’t really know what that is, if you have an hour left the studio after you’ve finished a song, you do a quick song. If it works out, awesome. If not, you go home and call it a day.

Billy and I were talking about something and I don’t really remember the conversation. I just remember saying “love is weird.” He was like, “That’s a song. You should write that.” John picked up the guitar and then like 40 minutes later, we have it.

I love hearing stories of how songs blossomed from real-life conversations.

MICHAELS: It came together so fast because it was just based around memory and sort of the complexities of love. I always find it really interesting that you can be in love with somebody and think they’re your entire world. And then you go through two months of mourning that love: you’re crying, not eating, not sleeping. You’re listening to music that makes you sad so you can stay in your feelings as long as possible. Then all of a sudden it’s been a year later, you’ve regrouped and put yourself back together. You’re sitting in a park with somebody new and you’re psychoanalyzing them and like, “Is this person gonna kill me? Are they actually genuinely as beautiful as they seem?” And you’ve forgotten all about that one you were just crying about.

Most of the album is reflecting on love with someone else. But you turn the mirror on yourself the “That’s The Kind of Woman” closer. Honestly, hearing your voice crack in those last few seconds broke me. I didn’t expect to have that connection.

MICHAELS: I think I’ve always been very internal and have talked about things that I wish I could do better especially in terms of myself. I have a song called “Body” on Inner Monologue Part 2 where it talks about my relationship with my body and how I wished it was different. And this song is sort of like if I was a well-rounded, more stable individual, what would that look like? I remember I was in the bathtub and thinking about all these different things like, that’s the kind of woman that I would leave myself for.

I brought it to [songwriter/producer] Michael Pollack and he’s like, “I don’t want to put too much of my lyrical side in this because I think this should be your flaws, idiosyncrasies, and insecurities.” He let me just do my thing and finessed it with me. It was a really beautiful moment. We were both crying. It was super relatable from both of our perspectives. We even tried to redo the demo vocal after, and it just never felt the same.

So the demo is the final track? Did you do it in one take?

MICHAELS: Yeah. I think there were a couple of parts where, because I was crying, it had gotten a bit low for me. I had to regroup and rethink it, but for the most part, it was pretty easy and simple.

You mentioned your bathtub twice now. Do you find the most inspiration there?

MICHAELS: I know, it’s been a little recurring thing for me. It’s my place where I get to be alone with my thoughts. I get a second to think because with most of my days I’m doing interviews for the album or sessions with other people. I’m doing rehearsals, I’m still doing performances. So that’s my only quiet alone time where I can be self-reflective about anything I wanna get off my chest: “Maybe this kinda sound could be cool for this person” or “This idea could be fleshed out if it was done right.” That kind of thing. It’s my “me time” where I get to elaborate on things mentally that I haven’t had the chance to.

Disney Channel’s Austin & Ally (2011)

I had no idea that you did the theme for Austin & Ally. I know you initially met Joleen Belle when you were 15 and wrote the song with her, but how did it all come together?

MICHAELS: So my sister used to sing demos around the city and my mom brought my sister to her demo that day, which was with Joleen. My mom, I love her to death, but she was always a bit of a momager. She always tried to force me into things that I didn’t want to do. I love it so much, but there are definitely times where I’m grateful that she doesn’t live anywhere near me. [Laughs]

I totally understand that. [Laughs]

MICHAELS: So I went with her one day. My mom, of course being the woman that she is, made me sing for her. So I sang a Juliet Simms song on the piano, very poorly, called “Makeup Smeared Eyes.” Jolene was like, “Do you write?” I was like, “Well, I like to pretend I can. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I have songs. I have ideas.” She said we should write together sometime. So one day I was getting ready to go to the mall with my friends. My mom picks me up and she drives the opposite way of the mall. She said we’re going to Joleen’s and I’m like, “But my friends are waiting for me!”

I started working with Joleen pretty heavily after that. We started with library music, which is like songs for the background of television and film. Then they give them to these companies. You’ll hear one of these songs that you did in a commercial for The View or something like that.

Then prior to Austin & Ally, the music supervisor for the Disney channel was like, “You guys should try for the theme song. So we did it with the producer Mike McGarity. A week goes by and [Disney] is not saying anything. We emailed them like, “Hey, we’ll do six songs if we have to, just let us know. We’ll try it again!” I was homeschooled, but I went to a little charter school. I was in my math class and I got the call that we got the theme song. I basically like mic dropped out of math, like “Fuck this!” [Laughs]

Co-writing Fifth Harmony’s “Miss Movin’ On” (2013)

You had your first major songwriting gig with Fifth Harmony’s “Miss Movin’ On.” This was their debut single, but this was also your big debut as a songwriter.

MICHAELS: So I started doing demos around the city when I was about 17, 18 to just network with people. I really wanted to be a writer but I didn’t really know how. I thought that was an interesting way of doing it. And through that, I met Lindy Robbins who is an incredible songwriter and just the most wonderful woman you’ll ever meet. We had pretty amazing success together, like right off the bat. One was the Fifth Harmony song, “Fire Starter” for Demi [Lovato] and then “Slow Down” and “Undercover” for Selena [Gomez’s] Stars Dance.

Fifth Harmony was the first one that came out. I remember them telling me they were going to premiere it on KIIS-FM. I’m driving in my car and waiting for it to come on the radio. They ended up doing an acoustic rendition of it. I had to pull over ’cause I was so emotional — I was crying. I called my mom freaking out. I was 19, I think at the time. It was definitely a really beautiful moment. When I hear on the radio, it still feels like the first time every time.

“Issues” (2017)

I remember when “Issues” first dropped, it was the seamless transition from you being a known songwriter to being a respected solo artist. Did you feel any pressure or did you feel more at ease because you’re such a comfortable songwriter?

MICHAELS: No, I was terrified. [Laughs] I had put a lot of my own personal experience into that song. So I was in a relationship with someone that was a total shithead and I had written a #1 on Billboard. It was [Justin Bieber’s] “Sorry,” actually. My boyfriend at the time was also a producer and was just so upset that that was me and wasn’t him. It made me feel horrible that day. I remember getting to the studio and I was crying. I was with Benny Blanco, Stargate, and Justin Tranter. I think Benny and Stargate had just went #1 on radio with “Same Old Love” with Selena. So there were a lot of things to celebrate that day. I was just miserable and my manager is bringing cupcakes and popping champagne.

I was actually going to ask how you celebrated “Sorry” being your first #1 hit. But you’re telling me that you weren’t able to really revel in that moment as much as you wanted to.

MICHAELS: Yeah. So I actually had “Issues” written down in my phone, which is funny ’cause I never write anything down anymore. I just started singing: “I’ve got issues, you’ve got ’em too, give them all to me and I’ll give mine to you. I’m jealous, I’m overzealous.” We put it together pretty simply. I just had such a hard time giving that to somebody else because I just had injected so much of myself that day. You know, I put the song out with Republic. [Former Republic Records president] Charlie Walk had been trying to get me to be an artist for quite some time. And I was like, “Go fuck yourself. I don’t want to do this.” He told me all the reasons why I should. I was like, “Well here’s the song. If you want to put it out, awesome. If not, totally understand.” And uh, we put it out. Then I didn’t realize I would have to perform it. [Laughs]

Oh, you just thought you could just go under the radar!

MICHAELS: Right! I had developed so much stage fright. I’d done performances as a kid and I didn’t have insecurities. Then I grew up and was like, “I don’t like my voice. I don’t like certain parts of myself. I don’t want everybody to see those parts of myself.” I learned by being in the booth that I could fuck it up as many times as I wanted until it was perfect. But I had to perform once and it has to be perfect. I think the pressure to perform really got to me and I was so scared all the time. It was pretty brutal. I think the thing that changed it for me was when I sang “Issues” at the VMAs. There was a girl in the crowd, and I couldn’t tell you where she is or what she looks like now, but I remember her mouthing to me: “It’s okay.” She sang the whole thing with me and it changed everything.

First Grammy Nominations (2018)

It all worked out for you because you got your first two Grammy nominations: Song of the Year and Best New Artist. Do you remember who you were with when you got the news?

MICHAELS: I was actually in Australia and my stepmom was with me. It was my first tour and I wanted somebody familiar with me. She’s sleeping in one bed and I’m in the other bed in my hotel room. Beka Tischker, my manager, walked in there quietly. She thinks that I’m sleeping where my stepmom is. She tries to wake her up and she realizes it isn’t me. She comes over to my bed and she’s like “WE GOT THE GRAMMY NOMINATIONS!” She’s like freaking out, she’s jumping on me and crying. I’m coming to, like what is happening? Then I realized what she was saying in her hysterical mumbles and was like, “Holy shit, this can’t be real.” It was a really, really, really awesome moment.

Writing With Justin Tranter (2013-Present)

I feel like you guys have become the secret weapon for pop music. You help artists translate their emotions, from Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani, Hailee Steinfeld…

MICHAELS: We just always had a really special dynamic with each other from the start. I’m a very specific person in the studio. I can be a little neurotic at times. I can be writing things in my head and if there’s too much going on in the studio — if there’s too much happening with the drums or if there’s four people in a room trying to sing the melody at the same time — I just feel overwhelmed. I need to remove myself. It’s wonderful having Justin because he’ll be like, “Hold on, let her think” or “Can we just keep the chords for now?” We have that wonderful dynamic in the studio.

How did you guys first meet?

MICHAELS: Well, fun fact. I met him [in 2013] because I had been working with the same people over and over and I just wanted to break it up. I wanted a week of new people and he was the second session that week. I remember getting here and I’d never met Justin before. He was like, “I really wanna write something like ’90s En Vogue” and at the time that was not my style. I said, “I don’t know if I really want to do that today.”

So he was singing a bunch of melodies, getting really into it, and I actually hid in a closet. I was so nervous and I just wasn’t prepared. have a really guarded energy sometimes. So I’m thinking of ideas and I opened the door. I’m like, “What if we did something like this instead?” Justin said, “I love that. That’s amazing. We should absolutely do that.” Then all these other things happened. I almost got in a fight with someone on the street — not my doing. She thought I was mad at her or something and was trying to kick my ass. [Laughs] It was just a whole situation, but I think it bonded us. We just started working extremely consistently from then, and we spent almost five years pretty consecutively writing together.

Guesting On Ralph Breaks The Internet Soundtrack (2018)

This was a rare moment where you performed a song that you didn’t write.

MICHAELS: So Tom MacDougall, who used to supervise music for Disney animation, knew that I was a giant Disney fan. I literally got my start with Disney Channel and Hollywood Records, which is an affiliate of Disney. Every time a movie comes out, I’m the first person to see it. So he asked me if I would want to do the reimagination of a song from the movie. I didn’t realize I was going to do a music video, which was very fun. I was jumping all over tires and hamming out in a car. I hope I get to do more with Disney since I’m obsessed with everything that they do.

Working On Britney Spears’ Glory (2016)

This is just the fan in me coming out, but I have to bring up you and Justin’s work on Britney Spears’ Glory album. You guys wrote some of my favorite songs on there. “Just Luv Me” is one of my all-time favorite tracks that she’s ever done. I’m guessing it brought you out of your element because they’re all pop bops, really.

MICHAELS: It was awesome. What Justin and I will always do is try to cater to what the artists need. That’s exactly what we did for her. She knew what she wanted to say. She knew what she wanted to sound like. We were just grateful that we could be there and we got to listen to her sing and write these very pop digestible melodies with her was amazing. She was so special, so much fun and funny.

Did you have any thoughts on the “Free Britney” movement, especially following the documentary in February?

MICHAELS: You know, I don’t know what’s what. When I was with Britney, we kept it about the music. And she was very coherent. She was very lovely and fine. Like I said, she knew exactly what she wanted to talk about. That’s all I can really say about it. I don’t know anything about the situation, but I hope that she gets everything that she wants because she is a very wonderful human being.

Duetting With Selena Gomez On “Anxiety” (2019)

You’re so vocal about mental health and how you’re dealing with anxiety. I think it’s really commendable because now there are more artists who are really speaking out about it. Having songs like this help fans who may be coping with similar issues.

MICHAELS: Thank you, I appreciate that. I definitely think that mental health was a very taboo topic to talk about for a long time. There’s this sort of mental liberation right now where we can talk about it and we’re not going to be made to feel a certain way about it. It’s a very common thing that should be talked about more and makes you feel less alone.

I think there’s always been this common misconception when you talked about it, that people think that you’re burdening them with your problems and that’s just not the case at all. I just think it should be discussed more. You should be able to talk to people and not feel guilty or feel that you’re putting your problems on other people. If somebody loves you and wants to be there for you, they will listen with open ears no matter what. I think with music, this is our way of expressing who we are and our feelings and our thoughts. I think if anxiety is part of your truth as far as your story, you should absolutely be able to talk about it.

Co-writing Linkin’s Park’s “Heavy” (2017)

The opening lyric “I don’t like my mind right now” sounds like quintessential Julia. What was like it writing with the band?

MICHAELS: I don’t remember what I or other people that were in the studio that day wrote. But it was me, Justin, Chester [Bennington] and Mike [Shinoda]. I remember putting the demo down just for timing’s sake and then hearing Chester sing that high note on the “I’m holding on” part and just being like, “Wow, what a voice.” I remember him being super lovely, smiley, really bubbly. I saw him at an iHeartRadio summit when “Issues” was starting to kick off and he was just so proud of me.

Actually, when we did the song originally, he wanted me to feature on it and I wasn’t an artist then. So I was like, “I don’t want to take away from your song and just be some random girl.” That’s when Kiiara came into the picture. I remember hearing the news that he was no longer with us and being in shock. I didn’t know him well and I don’t know what he was struggling with. I don’t know what he was going through. But it was a weird thing because I had just seen him and he was so happy. When I heard he was gone, I was just floored.

“If This World Was Ending” With JP Saxe (2019)

I thought this song with your boyfriend was a bit ironic because it came out a few months before the pandemic happened.

MICHAELS: We actually wrote it about the earthquakes in LA in July. That was the first song we wrote together and the first time we ever met. We put it out in October, then March comes and LA is shutting down. We’re confused. We don’t know what to think. We don’t know if it’s actually a real thing. It was definitely scary and concerning. I had had a very difficult time. But then we thought about it: the silver lining is that people found this song and resonated with it at a time where they needed it. I will always be so grateful that people have this song.

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Not In Chronological Order is out now via Republic.

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