Welcome to Kind of a Big Deal, a series dedicated to introducing powerful women who are breaking boundaries in their fields. You’ll meet the rising stars and get the inside scoop on how they made it, what they’re working on now, and what’s up next.
She’s the songwriter who’s been behind hit singles for A-list celebrities (like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar”) since she was a teenager. Now, with more than 300 million streams of her first single “Issues” on Spotify alone, Julia Michaels’s own voice is quickly becoming the sound of summer.
VIDEO: Julia Michaels's "Issues" Music Video
As she gears up for the release of her EP (or mini album as she prefers to call it), Michaels has been traveling the globe promoting her second hit single “Uh Huh.” We hopped on a call with the small town Iowa native turned mega-watt music star to talk writing, fame, and what’s up next.
What inspired you to get into music?
I started writing really young about anything and everything—I was writing about love in the fourth grade, and I didn’t really even know what that meant yet. When I was 12, I got a piano and that’s when I started putting all of my poetry to music—even though I played like shit. I still can only play basic chords.
But those basic chords were enough to impress songwriter Joleen Belle, who helped kickstart your career. You co-wrote the theme music for Disney’s Austin & Ally series.
Yeah. I met Joleen when I was about 15. My sister went to go sing a song for her and my mom, kind of a stage mom, told her "You know my other daughter sings too and she wants to be a writer." She had me play something on the piano and Joleen said, "Well, you and I should write sometime." She took me under her wing and mentored me.
And then you met Lindy Robins, another songwriter with whom you co-wrote Demi Lovato’s “Firestarter” and Selena Gomez’s “Slow Down.”
I met Lindy Robins about three years after Joleen. Both women have hugely impacted my songwriting career.
Now you often co-write with Justin Tranter.
I met him almost four years ago. I was so nervous to work with new people at the time that I actually hid inside a hall closet in this producer’s apartment and—it was absolutely ridiculous. Meanwhile, Justin stood out there being like Should we call the cops? Should we do something? Is she crazy? But then I came out and sang a melody with this song title that Justin had come up with. He was like Oh that’s actually not terrible. Cool. You can be as crazy as you want.
You both seem very close.
We’ve been pretty much inseparable ever since that day. He’s my best friend. I’m actually getting his name tattooed on my body, on September 25th—that’s our anniversary.
You've described your writing sessions, before you went solo, as therapy sessions. Has that process changed at all now that you’re writing for yourself?
One of the best things about being a songwriter is going into the room with no expectations, no concepts ready, and just talking to somebody—learning their personalities, learning about what they’re going through. It’s just the most beautiful connection because two strangers have to really, fully trust each other right away so you can help them articulate their thoughts into a complete song. A lot of my sessions are just getting people to open up. I was so used to doing all these things for other people that songwriting for myself was weird. But I feel like I’m finding out more things about myself in this process, more than ever.
What have you learned so far?
I’ve learned I’m more emotional than I thought, more playful, and that I’m not perfect but I’m okay with that. I’ve become very self-aware, like more aware of my surroundings and where my place is in the universe.
Do you remember the very first time you performed “Issues”?
The first time I played “Issues” was at a showcase Grammy weekend in February. It was a showcase for 200 other people that I work with. I was so terrified—you have no idea. I got up there and my hands were sweating, I couldn’t sing most of the words because I was so panicked.
How did you calm your nerves from that?
I cried a lot after. Performance anxiety—it’s crippling! I can’t shake it yet.
Still working on it?
Still working on it every day.
What do you usually do to relax and get yourself in a space where you can be creative?
I am really big on breaks. If I start to feel burnt out or exhausted, I’m the kind of person that has no problem taking a day off to go see a movie, get a massage, or sit in a bathtub. One of my favorite things to do when I’m really overwhelmed is to take a shower. I feel like the water falling on my skin is washing away all of the anxiety and the blocks and the tension and the stress that I have in me.
What’s your inspiration for “Uh Huh”?
“Uh huh” was written about that breath before the kiss in any scenario. No matter how old you are, that feeling of being that close to somebody for the first time is one of the most incredible, most pure feelings on the planet. So, of course, I had to write about it.
Do you have any idea about release dates for the rest of the mini album?
No, I’m such a perfectionist that I keep putting everything off until the last minute, until I know that all the songs are perfect.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Well, I’m not sure how I would describe myself an as artist, but I could tell you how I would describe myself as a person. I tend to be more on the insecure, anxious, more emotional side until I’m really close with somebody. Then, I tend to be more playful, goofy, and intimate. I think that’s what the album is going to be like (or the mini album as I like to call it because I don’t want to call it an EP). It’s going to portray my insecure side, my playful side, my sexual side, and my heart-broken side—all of the things that I know most about myself that everybody else is going to know about me.
It’s really you breaking out.
You’ve been in writing sessions with A-list celebrities. You’re not a stranger to fame in a sense. But what surprised you most about the transition to being in the spotlight?
When I’m with an artist in the studio, I’m shielded from all of the other details. When you make the transition, you don’t realize that you have to do promo days, photoshoots, interviews, merch designs, figure out what all of the creative is going to be for all your shows, and what you’re going to wear. It all becomes very task-oriented.
What have you enjoyed the most?
I think the most special thing that I’ve gotten to do is see fans sing my songs back to me. You know they feel so connected to you and you feel so connected to all of these people that you’ve never met—it’s one of the most incredible feelings on the planet. I’d never really experienced that because I was always in the background. And now that I have, I understand why people do this every day for a living. There’s really nothing to describe it. It’s amazing.
So, this is genuinely not about the fame for you.
I could give two shits about fame. I’m sitting in my hotel room right now in a sweater and jeans with my hair in a braid just chilling. That’s how I’ll do all my interviews today, even in person. I don’t feel like I need to be dolled up to be a human being.
What is it all about then?
I think nowadays, with technology being what it is, you get so used to your phone being the only thing you hold. People are so desperate for human connection, myself included. That’s really all I’m searching for when I’m making music is for people to feel like they’re loved and wanted—that they can cry and be sexy and they can see themselves in my songs and not only confide in a metal device.
VIDEO: Watch the Lyric Video for Julia Michaels's "Uh Huh"
What do you want people to know about the industry right now?
More now than ever it’s become incredibly diverse. There are so many young, talented women in all the sessions, more LGBTQ in our sessions. And there’s so many more women becoming executives. To be surrounded by these women makes me want to be a strong woman and influence other people to be strong as well.
Would you still consider songwriting for other people?
Definitely. I haven’t been able to do that lately just because I’ve been working on the mini album and I’ve been touring promoting “Uh Huh” for the last couple months. But I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do that soon.
Is there someone that you haven’t worked with yet that you would love to?
I’ve always really wanted to work with David Byrne, but I kind of technically got to work with him on a song that I was a part of recently called “Bad Liar.”
You have two hit singles under your belt and a slew of top songs you’ve co-written. What are your goals now?
I mean, I never really set goals. I take it day-by-day, step-by-step because thinking about the future makes me a little anxious. I just want my fans listening to my music to feel like they can accept themselves in every form that they are: emotional, sexual, playful, and everything else that comes with being a human.