The Female Hitmaker Who Writes Justin Bieber’s Best Love Songs
Money Talks, and so should we. Here, powerful women get real about their spending and saving habits.
What do “Sorry” by Justin Bieber, “Bad Liar” by Selena Gomez, and “Love Myself” by Hailee Steinfeld have in common? In addition to their instant chart-topping status (and inclusion in my Spotify most-played), they’re also all co-written by Julia Michaels.
You probably learned the 24-year-old musician’s name last year, when she released her first single, “Issues,” a vulnerable and relatable pop ballad about a fight with her boyfriend that everyone who’s had a fight with their boyfriend still sings in the shower. But for the better part of a decade — which makes it easy to forget how young Michaels is — she’s been building her career behind the scenes, writing songs that have shaped the landscape contemporary pop. She was a teen when she worked on Gomez’s first solo album and Demi Lovato’s “Fire Starter,” and she’s since co-written three of Bieber’s love songs.
Michaels, who grew up in Santa Clarita, Calif., got into the hitmaking business through her older sister, a singer. “She used to do demos around [Los Angeles]. Sometimes songwriters will write a song for a specific artist and don’t have the proper tone to sing it themselves, so they’ll hire someone else to. My sister did that,” she says. Michaels would tag along, and at one of these demos met singer-songwriter Joleen Bell, who took the fledgling talent under her wing. Together, they created the theme song for the Disney show Austin & Ally, and in the years that followed, Michaels churned out hits that you’ve heard Ed Sheeran, Britney Spears, Keith Urban, John Legend, and Shakira sing.
“Issues” was originally intended to be another one of those, says Michaels, who suffers from anxiety and considers herself attention-shy. But “it felt weird to me that someone else would sing such a personal story,” she said at the time. “I knew it was mine.” She still taps her own experiences when writing for other artists. Does it feel weird to hear Bieber crooning songs spun of her love life? “Of course I put my own perspective on it,” she tells me. “But once they sing it, it's their perspective. It fully pertains to their experience and their love life.” And it's clear she's got a soft spot for the pop anthems her ideas have become; while headlining Amazon Music Prime Day Concert alongside Ariana Grande, Alessia Cara, and Kelsea Ballerini earlier this summer, she interspersed her own material with medleys of Bieber and Gomez fan favorites.
Here, Michaels get candid about making money as a tween, financial bad habits that run in her family, and who all those love songs are really about.
On having a career as a teen… When I was doing it then, I didn't think I was going to do this forever. I was like, "Oh, this is fun. I'm home schooled, don't have much to do." It wasn't until I did a theme songs for Disney when I was 17 that I was like, "I love this, I want to do this forever."
On her first-ever paid gig… I was 14. I did concessions for a big swap meet on a racetrack, almost like a farmers market but full of miscellaneous stuff. I got a job doing that on the weekends, selling nachos to people. Give the people what they want!
On the first songs she wrote… I used to do library music, songs that are for the background of television and films. So, any time that you hears a commercial and there’s music playing in the background, I used to do that stuff. I was about 16 or 17 years old.
On the earliest money lesson she learned… I surrounded myself with older people, people who have been in the music industry. They were always giving me advice. The one piece of advice that I remember is, "Save your money, because this industry can be very fleeting." Sometimes, when people see a certain amount of money, they spend it frivolously, thinking it was always going to be there and it's not.
On her spending philosophy… There are moments where I'm like, 'Hmmm, do I need this? No. But do I want this? Yes.' And I buy it because I want it. But I'm not crazy. I don't tend to spend money on things unless it's experiences. I save up for those and will set aside what's needed.
On who her love songs are about… I write majority of my songs about one person, and they know. Trust me, they know. And then, every time I write a song about somebody, I tell them. Whether it's good or bad. I'm not a very confrontational person, and I guess this is my way of confronting it. Sometimes they like the content. Other times they don't.
On where the best love songs come from… I think it depends on the type of person you are. For me, it's mostly tension. Which can be good or bad. And also heartbreak. I kind of write about it all. I like it all, so I write about it all.
On her work schedule… I usually work in the afternoon. I like having my morning to do my routine and feel some structure, and having my nights to be with my animals, my little babies. I kind of write whenever. A lot of the time, it's scheduled. I don't just write when I feel it. I go there and have to think of things on the spot.
On her biggest splurges… I like to splurge on moments. I don't really like splurging on material things. If one of my friend says something like, "Hey, let's go on a boat for the 4th of July!" I'm the person that's like, "That's a great idea!" And then have all of our friends there, and have a couple drinks, and just have a good time. Or if I say, "Hey, lets go to Mexico for the weekend," and if my friend is in, then we go! I like that kind of stuff. Luckily, a lot of my friends do an array of things and are able to carve their own schedules as well, and so they can take the time to do those things with me. It's fun. I like to spurge on spontaneous moments.
On the hardest part of the music biz… Sometimes you can be making a lot of money, and two years later you could be making barely any. A lot of people think it'll be around forever, and it won't.
On what she learned about money from her parents… My mom is not very great with money. If anything it's a like a reverse type of thing, where you learn what not to do. I love me mom, but she has never been good with money. She gets it and is like, "I'm going shopping!" And we're like, "No mom! No."
On her “Kiss Here” tattoo on the nape of her neck… That's my favorite spot. I have a lot of tattoos about intimacy, but I don't have any about physical connection so I got the "Kiss Here," and I got [a drawing of] hands as well. Have you heard of the love languages? Physical touch is my love language. So that's why I have that.