Julia Michaels specializes in a certain kind of pop music therapy. As a songwriter, she sits down with singers like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Gwen Stefani; talks to them about what the hell is going on in their lives; and then scales that down into a perfect song: “Sorry,” “Hands to Myself,” “Used to Love You.” She’s into your scars and your warts and your heartache and she’s really, really good at making all of it sound beautiful.
Michaels had her first big break when two songs she wrote, Fifth Harmony’s “Miss Movin’ On” and Selena Gomez’s “Slow Down,” charted when she was just 19. “I’ll never forget it, Fifth Harmony did an acoustic performance on Kiss FM and I knew they were going to do it,” she says. “So I drove around and waited and when I heard it I pulled over and bawled my eyes out.” And since then Michaels has done more than just land a few top-charting songs, now her sparse, whispery style feels like the Top 40 standard.
But 2017 was Julia Michaels’s year because, after years of writing for some of pop music’s biggest names, she put out a record of her own, her EP Nervous System. It was writing her hit “Issues,” a creepy, emotionally-fraught love song that sounds like you’re trapped in a Gone Girl-themed music box, that made her decide to start making music herself. And now Michaels is nominated for two Grammys, one for “Issues” and another for Best New Artist. Jezebel spoke to Michaels about her win and career, this conversation has been edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What were you doing when you heard you were nominated for a Grammy?
JULIA MICHAELS: I was actually in Australia doing the Sean Mendes tour and I was woken up by my manager at 1:30 in the morning [laughs]. She goes, We’re nominated for a Grammy! And she jumped on me and started crying. It took me a good three minutes to realize what she was talking about. We were just crying and jumping on the bed, ecstatic.
You started songwriting professionally when you were just 15 years old. What was it like to be in the industry at that age?
When you’re that young it’s hard to get people to take you seriously. Sometimes people don’t want to take a chance on you because you’re so young. But then you meet someone who believes in you and wants to help nurture your growth and your talent, which is exactly what happened to me. I just happened to meet the right people at the right time. Both mentors of mine happened to be women and I wouldn’t be here without them.
Can you think of a time when you were underestimated because of your age?
It’s hard to think of specific times but it definitely happens. And that can feel burdening and disheartening for someone who really wants it and isn’t given the proper opportunities.
I think when people think of teen pop or pop music for young women, historically a lot of songs have been written by older men. But you’ve actually been the same age as a lot of the young women you’ve written for. What do you think that brings to the work you do with other artists?
It’s easier, especially when you’re writing for or with another woman, to relate. We all experience the same heartbreak and we all bleed the same. Going through those exact same experiences at relatively the same time it really helps to kind of break down walls and help someone trust you a little bit more.
You’re trying to gain that trust and figure out what’s going on in their personal lives and helping them turn that into a song. Is that easier or harder to do that with your own feelings?
I would say it’s harder to do it for yourself. It’s easy to help people pull their own problems out but when you have to confront your own yourself it can be a little difficult sometimes. And as a songwriter when you write for other people, you get to tell part of your own story and leave it with them. When you’re an artist you have to constantly sing these things that bring up not so great memories. Sometimes I’ll be touring and have a vulnerable day and I’ll have to live a lot of the memories that I try to suppress [laughs.]
People were asking you to sing your own songs for a long time. Why did you resist?
I’ve never been much of a confident person. I’m pretty insecure. I always wanted to help others get out their problems because I was afraid of confronting my own. When I wrote “Issues” it was such a personal experience that I felt uncomfortable having someone else sing it without knowing the full back story, of why it was written. And it was the turning point for me, to sing it myself. I have pretty bad stage fright, that also doesn’t help.
I’m not super great with judgement, too. When you’re first starting out as an artist and you’re playing for others, you see different expressions on different people’s faces and sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re not [laughs.] That can really mess with someone’s psyche too! There are a lot of factors that went into me wanting to do this and it took me a long time to make the decision. But once I’m in, I’m in. I don’t do anything half-assed.
How do you cope with stage fright?
I realize that small crowds really affect me. They make me feel more anxious. But when I’m performing in front of a big crowd, I’ll see, even if it’s just one person, and they’re singing the lyrics to the song, I’ll focus on them. Then I don’t feel so alone.
You’re very open about the personal experiences that inspire your songs but a lot of artists tend to keep things ambiguous on purpose. Why do you feel more comfortable being candid about it?
I think regardless of whether people want to know things about me or not, they’re going to find them out eventually so why not just tell them my story from my mouth, my words. I’m an open book. I openly admit to being very vulnerable and emotional I think that a lot of the times women don’t see that as a strength. So many times we’re stereotyped as being crazy and I don’t see weakness in being able to express who you are and how you feel. I want other women to think, hey, I can do that too. I can be bold and be brave and tell people who I am and people aren’t just going to run away or not accept me because I’m teetering emotionally.
Do you think that traditionally people have resisted or disliked women artists who are seen as being “too emotional” in their songwriting or music?
I don’t know if traditionally it has been. I think it depends on the person. I feel like a lot of pop over the years has leaned more sexual. But if you look at Fiona Apple or Alanis Morrisette or Ani DiFranco, they thrive on showing people who they are and how human everybody is. That’s where I get my inspirations from because I just combined the two because I grew up on both. But I don’t know if traditionally if it’s something that’s been avoided. If anything I think now it’s more and more accepted every day.
You mentioned growing up on music that skewed sexual in the past and I wanted to ask you about “Pink,” because it’s a really fun, kind of gutsy song.
I wrote that song early this year and I’ve always been a pro self-love kind of person. I’ve written a lot of songs about self-love and I don’t think it’s fair that a man can talk about masturbation so openly but for women it’s still kind of taboo, which is something I’ve talked about. I want women to know they can be free with their bodies and be okay with themselves and it’s not something to be embarrassed about. There was no resistance at all. Even if [my label] did say something I’d say, like, shut the fuck up [laughs.]
Has trendiness, or making music based on for trends, ever weighed on you as an artist?
When I first started out as a songwriter I felt like I had to follow this on-trend formula. Instead I just sort of said fuck it and started writing what I wanted and people started to listen. I was like great, this is what I need to be doing.
Do you remember that moment when you kind of said fuck it?
I think it was probably around the time I started writing “Good For You” which was not like anything on the radio at the time. We wrote it really quick not really thinking anything of it and suddenly it was out and it was everywhere. And that was kind of the turning point for me.
You write songs pretty fast.
Yeah, but it depends on the day.
How do you keep yourself from laboring over the details too much?
My writing is more of a stream-of-thought approach. I don’t dwell too much. And if something feels too hard or too complicated I just move on. There’s no point in wasting people’s time if it doesn’t feel special. I don’t purposefully write really fast, sometimes they just flow out of my body that way. But a lot of the songs that I’ve written that have been on the radio in the past few years have been written in an hour or under.
I’ve read before that you like to work with male artists because they can be harder to crack emotionally. How do you get someone like Justin Bieber to be vulnerable with you?
I think it’s the same way you’d get a woman to be vulnerable, you just talk to them and treat them like a human being. You have a genuine interest in who they are and what they’re going through. I think that helps a lot in the creative process, getting someone to a place where they feel comfortable writing about something they wouldn’t necessarily write about.
I’m not super great at small talk so a lot of the times when I meet someone I get to know a lot about them because I ask so many questions about who they are, where they came from and how they grew up. And I think I independently do that because I just want to know things about people and connection. Every conversation I have is very therapeutic.
How do you feel like the industry has changed since you started working in it?
I would say that people are becoming more open to different ideas, more open to vulnerability. There’s more women than ever that are taking over the songwriting industry which is phenomenal. And there’s a lot more diversity in terms of songwriters. It’s amazing, every single day the industry changes. Sometimes not for the better and sometimes for the better.
Obviously women across different industries are coming forward right now with stories about sexual harassment in their fields, but it still seems like pop music hasn’t yet reckoned with this. Do you feel like pop music has a problem that it still needs to reckon with?
Well, I mean the pop industry definitely has been hit. There have been a couple people who have gone down. But I think because the people that have gone are not in the public eye people don’t care to listen as much. It’s not as juicy or as gossipy as the other stories. A big one would be Kesha and Dr. Luke. And there’s a few people at some publishing companies who have definitely gone down as well. So the music industry has been hit, it’s just not talked about or as glamorized as much—well, not glamorized, but people aren’t as cognizant of as some of the others. But it’s not not happening.