History, a song on Julia Michaels’ forthcoming debut album, is a conversation between two new lovers, asking each other a range of getting-to-know-you questions as they embark on what they hope will be something that lasts. It sounds like it would also work as a list of helpful interview queries, so I decide to try a few out on her.
Have you ever broken a bone? “No.” Me neither. Great start.
What was your teacher’s name in third grade? “Miss Hall.” I don’t feel like we’re really bonding so far.
How about this one: have you ever had an existential crisis? “Oh, all the time! I definitely at least twice a week have a very big existential crisis about dying. Nothing specific, just a vague, ‘It’s gonna happen someday and that’s horrifying,’ kind of vibe.”
In which case this self-professed introvert - and, by the way, one of pop’s pre-eminent songwriters for hire, with songs for Britney Spears, Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber and Gwen Stefani under her belt, among many others - has had plenty to feed her fears this past year, but strangely, it’s actually been pretty great. The 27-year-old has spent her pandemic between her LA home – which looks appealingly sunny and spacious in the background of our video call – and extended family in her Iowa birthplace, as well as immersing herself in a relationship with fellow musician JP Saxe, who she met the day they wrote what must be a strong contender for Song of the Whole Bloody Mess (the Grammys nominated it for Song of the Year, which is close enough).
It’s called If the World Was Ending and is a cute duet in which a former couple get back together for reasons of imminent apocalypse. Michaels and Saxe wrote it in July 2019, inspired by what was California’s worst earthquake for 20 years that month, and it was released that October, but it was in March 2020 that it hit the top five in the US charts, by which time the context was rather different.
“Obviously we had no idea what was gonna happen when we wrote the song, so it was really weird,” she tells me. “But then seeing so many people connect to it in such a dark time was a really beautiful situation.”
That’s her chief goal with her own material and that which she creates for others: to create something to which listeners can relate. She’s adamant that no one goes to her looking for guaranteed hits, though she’s written plenty, including Sorry for Bieber and Lose You to Love Me by Selena Gomez (both US number ones) as well as songs recorded by Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran, Demi Lovato, Pink and Lady Gaga.
“I think people come to me because they know that I write in a very specific way,” she says. “I write very conversationally and very honestly. People make music because they want to feel something, and they want to make other people feel things. I’m grateful that they feel comfortable enough to come to me with intimate things about their lives.”
She won’t be drawn on specifics about what it’s like being in that room with her, especially when it comes to Lovato, whose recent album contains four Michaels co-writes and tackles the singer’s traumatic battle with addictions and eating disorders in bleak detail. “It’s her story. And if someone wants me to be around for their story, I’m happy to be there.”
She bristles a little here, and when I ask about the trend for modern pop songs to have seemingly excessive numbers of co-writer credits. Lovato’s The Kind of Lover I Am, for example, has seven writers, including Michaels. Which part would typically be hers?
“What do you think?” she asks, and I burble something complimentary about how distinctive her lyrics are. “If I’m on a song, it’s because I’ve written it.” She doesn’t produce, though, so it’s all the people who fiddle around with the way a song sounds that are bulking up the numbers.
Her frequent collaborator Justin Tranter is one of the most notable names in The Pact, a collective of songwriters who last month published an open letter criticising the practice of artists taking a cut of the songwriting credit for songs to which they made no meaningful contribution. “Change a word, take a third,” is the industry phrase for it. “The business is definitely still broken and songwriters are definitely the least respected people in our industry, no matter how big of a songwriter you become,” he said.
Earlier this month ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, a man who knows a thing or two about writing a hit, was the spokesperson for a new report titled Rebalancing the Song Economy, which identified an imbalance in the sharing out of money made from music. “I firmly believe that the song fuels the whole music industry, and more than ever... Yet the songwriter is on the periphery, earning six to ten per cent perhaps of the whole cake,” he told the Times.
Michaels didn’t sign The Pact’s letter, but not because she believes the system to be hunky dory. It sounds like her issue is more with producers than those who actually sing the songs. “We wouldn’t be anything without artists. They’re going to sing it, and promote it, and that’s awesome. A lot of songs will be written by one or two songwriters and the artist, and when there are like, 10 writers, that’s production. The producer might bring in someone else to do drums, someone else to do this and that, and they all want a percentage. We’re not bringing in six other songwriters to finish our song and then asking for more of their cut. Nothing feels equal for anybody in this situation and livelihoods in music are being devastated right now. There’s got to be some sort of balance for everybody.”
On her own album, she’s firmly in control, as she should be. It’s her story. “I write specific details about my personality which can make people uncomfortable,” she says. “It makes me a bit of an acquired taste because I talk about anxiety and depression and my body insecurities and insecurities in general. But that’s why I make music. Why would I make music if I wasn’t going to be open and vulnerable?”
It’s called Not in Chronological Order, a strangely unpoetic title for someone who says she puts lyrics first when writing. It simply means that the 10 songs tell her current love story out of sync. “This album is about being in love, with a bit of heartbreak, and I’ve still got some insecurities sprinkled in there. Just because I’m in love and I’m happy doesn’t mean I’m not f***ed up.”
Will her fanbase (who call themselves “gems” because she’s “Jules”) relate? Definitely. That’s the goal, even if the songs, which range in style from swishy dance-pop to darker indie rock, don’t end up as big as her work for others. “Since I was about 12, I’ve been into female singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, Lauryn Hill, Ani DiFranco. I’ve always incorporated that into my records: the honesty, the authenticity, the sincerity. Just being yourself – unapologetically.”
Not in Chronological Order is released on April 30 on Polydor