Julia Michaels: “In life, I always make myself feel small. And when I do music, I feel big”

Julia Michaels: “In life, I always make myself feel small. And when I do music, I feel big”

Julia Michaels‘ music video for ‘All Your Exes’ is an all-out gorefest. We find the star donning her best Suzy Homemaker get-up and inviting her squeeze’s ex over for dinner – but things take a dark turn when Michaels reveals herself as a serial slasher, whacking the woman over the head with a baseball bat and tying her up in the dining room, alongside the hacked corpses of the rest of Michaels’ beau’s former lovers.

The song that accompanies the horror-themed visual is a darkly humorous alt-pop belter that turns starry-eyed ideals of romance on their head, with Michaels proclaiming: “I want to live in a world where all your exes are dead”. Written with her boyfriend, the Grammy nominated singer-songwriter JP Saxe, it’s a taste of Michaels’ upcoming debut album ‘Not in Chronological Order’.

“JP and I were in the car leaving the studio,” she tells NME over Zoom from LA, “and he was like: ‘Maybe there’ll be a time in the future where we can healthily talk about the people from our past that have shaped our present.’” Michaels’ reply? “’Fuck that – I don’t want to know about your fucking ex-girlfriends!’”

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The record depicts all aspects of love – from break-ups on the nu-disco bop ‘Wrap Around’ to the head-over-heels dizziness of new romance on gooey ‘Orange Magic’. Work began last summer during socially distanced writing sessions. As Michaels puts it: “I refused to make an album on Zoom.”

This was a weird shift for the musician: “Normally, if I’m in a session with the people that I love, we start the day with a really big hug. We’re sitting really close to each other, because something us wonderfully insecure songwriters do is mumble everything under our breath, and if you’re not sitting close enough, you won’t catch it!”

Now 27, the Iowa-born singer’s break into the music industry happened a decade ago. She co-wrote library music (songs that are played in the background of films and TV shows) and was offered the chance to write a theme song for Disney Channel kids’ comedy Austin & Ally.

“I was in my Math class when I got the news,” she grins. “I basically mic dropped out of algebra, I was like: ‘Fuck this – bye!’” It was this gig that made her realise she could make a job out of music. After this, her songwriting career took off. Over the past 10 years she’s written for everyone from Demi Lovato and Gwen Stefani to Linkin Park, co-writing Billboard 100 toppers ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber and ‘Lose You to Love Me’ by Selena Gomez.

In 2017, she officially stepped into the spotlight in a big way with massive hit single ‘Issues’ – which has racked up 223 million YouTube views to date and reached Number 10 in the UK – but Michaels still considers herself a songwriter first and foremost.

“I’ve never done anything for fame,” she insists, and says of her handful of early solo EPs: “[They were] just a means of getting out things that I’ve always wanted to talk about, even with other artists, but I always felt like I was a little too shy to even bring it up in the room. These are just thoughts and feelings that I have on a daily basis. My music is a bit of an acquired taste, and I’m OK with that.”

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Plenty of would-be credible artists claim they’re not in it for the fame, of course, but in Michaels’ case, you’re inclined to believe her.

‘Issues’, for instance, is a wonky pop earworm filled with raw lyricism about Michaels’ own battle with anxiety: When I’m down, I get real down / When I’m high, I don’t come down.” On paper, it’s not exactly chart fodder, but the song has since gone Platinum in countries around the world and even was nominated for Song of the Year at the Grammys (but lost out to Bruno Mars‘ slinky ‘That’s What I Like’). After its release, Michaels soon found herself playing colossal venues and awards ceremonies – a whirlwind experience for a songwriter more accustomed to being behind the scenes.

“My music is an acquired taste – and I’m OK with that”

“I learned to sing in the studio,” she says. “I learned to sing in a booth where I could be by myself. I could turn off the lights. If I fucked it up, I could do it over and over and over ’til I got it right. And I had never really performed before.” This all changed when she received the call to perform the song at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards.

“[My team] called me and were like, ‘We got you the slot!’ I said, ‘Can I think about it…?’ And they’re like: ‘Absolutely not – you’re doing it’. If you watch the video of the performance, I’m having a full-on panic attack at the end of it because I was so terrified of everything that was happening.”

This stage fright followed at future shows. “I would even run away; I would hide in staircases so that I didn’t have to perform,” she says. While it was unbearable at the time, Michaels reflects today: “I look back at the trajectory and I’m fucking proud of everything that I’ve overcome. I did fucking stadium tours with severe anxiety. The whole process has made me realise how adaptable you can be and how brave you can be, even in the face of your deepest, darkest fears.

Due to the pandemic, there are no specific plans for touring ‘Not in Chronological Order’, but she’s attended a handful of rehearsals for these new songs with her touring band. “I still walked in heart fluttering, hands shaking, not being able to sing these songs because I was so nervous, I wouldn’t sing them good… I love these songs so much that I don’t want to fuck them up.” she says.

There’s a lot of pressure piled upon a debut album for any artist, let alone one who’s penned some of the biggest hits of the past decade. So why is now, 10 years into her glittering career, the right time for Julia Michaels’?

“I think I can mostly attribute it to being in love,” she says. “Now that I’ve experienced love in a very healthy way, I realised how pessimistic I’ve been in the past. And how bitter I’ve been and how in love with toxicity I was. The thing that I wanted to write about is… I think with love people think that there has to be this drama. And for a long time, I thought that too. I wanted to just really talk about this new healthy relationship I have with love.”

Credit: Vince Aung

Depicting the highs and lows of romance, ‘Not in Chronological Order’ is musically slick and  lyrically raw. Fusing Michaels’ pop sensibilities with moments of punk, R&B and – on The 1975-style ‘Undertone’ – even a brief instance of UK garage, each song is bolstered by the songwriter’s no-holds barred honesty.

“I take what I do really seriously,” Michaels says. “I love words. I love music. I love the way it makes people feel. I love that it’s a release for me, because I’m not a confrontational person; I don’t speak up. In my personal life, I always feel like I make myself feel small. And when I do music, I feel big.”

– Julia Michaels’ ‘Not In Chronological Order’ is out via Republic on April 30

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