Julia Michaels has co-written some of this decade’s most indelible hits, exploring every angle of intimacy, from first flush of lust (Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself”) to loss and regret (Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”) to erotic solo sessions (Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself”). Now the 24-year-old songwriter wants to bring something new to the Top 40: radical honesty.
Last year, when Michaels swallowed her stage fright and stepped out as a solo artist, the title of her first single, “Issues,” offered a clue. It was a play on the age-old trope of love as a form of madness, but for Michaels it was something more: a coded confession of the anxiety that had shadowed her since she signed her first music publishing deal at 18. Thoughts echoed ceaselessly in her brain; sometimes her breath wouldn’t come; other times, she couldn’t get out of the fetal position. And the spotlight left no place to hide. During a live TV performance of “Issues” at the Billboard Music Awards, she had a panic attack, collapsing backstage afterwards in a ball. Her manager sat with her until she was able to stand up again.
So Michaels is fighting back by talking about it — in therapy, in interviews — and singing about it. “Julia, calm down,” she tells herself on the intro to her debut LP, due out this fall. “Breathe. It’s gonna be okay. And Julia, hold on.” It’s more Plastic Ono Band than popping bottles, and on a track entitled simply “Anxiety,” she lays her problems bare: “I try my best to be just social,” she sings. “I make all these plans with friends and hope they call and cancel/Then I overthink about the things I’m missing.” On a demo cut this spring, the song is a campfire strum supported by a heartbeat bassline, as Michaels talks about being unable to sleep through the night, being told she could fix herself with medication (“I wish it was that simple”), and hearing from all her exes that she’s hard to deal with.
Michaels — who has a tattoo on her throat that reads “Speak Now” and another on her back that instructs “Kiss Here” — is no stranger to turning her real life into music. She titled the EP she released last year Nervous System, but joked that its songs of coming together and parting could be better called Post-Breakup. “I kept things, as personal as they were, pretty vague,” she says now. “And I just want to be as transparent as possible on this next record.”
That means her new songs draw not just on feelings, but details, from her life, with minimal alteration. On the stuttering stunner “Cartier Spike,” she walks into a jewelry store and is overwhelmed by the memory of an ex who gave her a bracelet. In reality, she says, it was a ring: “I didn’t want to use ‘ring,’ because that sounds very adult, like I was married,” she says, then laughs. “And that’s not the case, obviously.”
Two other songs about break-ups — “Shouldn’t Have Said It” (which lifts off into a trancy groove from a blunt “Well fuck you, I’m leaving”) and “What the Fck Just Happened” — capture the blend of pop smarts and personal testimony that Michaels is now after, songs that are at once specific and universal. “I want to make something that people could relate to and something that is very me,” Michaels says. “Very personal and in-depth.”
Michaels was born in Davenport, Iowa, but her family moved Santa Clarita, outside of Los Angeles, when she was young, and her parents split when she was six. She grew up home-schooled, and describes herself as a “self-expressive” teenager, with all kinds of colors in her hair and, at one point, a mohawk. She remembers always writing songs of one sort or another, and though she sometimes put up clips of herself singing covers on her YouTube page, she’d actually started her channel to post piercing tutorials. “I used to have my ears stretched, and I would make plugs out of sprinkles and show people how to do it,” she says.
Her songwriting career began by accident, after her mom pushed her to sing at a demo session that her older sister was doing. Her anxiety descended three years later, as her accomplishments grew. In 2015, after she and frequent collaborator Justin Tranter worked on Bieber’s “Sorry” and co-wrote the majority of cuts on Gomez’s breakthrough album Revival, all the success had a trigger effect. Things “were popping, and the pressure to perform was so overwhelming that I started to not even be able to go to session,” she says.
When Michaels started therapy two years ago, she spent her first sessions crying. She’s come a long way in a short time. “I find rationalizing with myself helps a lot,” she says. “If I start to feel really anxious, I just talk myself through it.” In April, she found herself back on live TV, dueting with Keith Urban at the ACMs on “Coming Home,” a song she’d co-written. The venue was a ten-minute walk from the one where she’d had a panic attack the year before, singing “Issues.” “I was so nervous my palms were sweating,” she says. But Urban gave her some simple advice — just think of it as a show for your fans — and it worked.
“I just want to face my fears,” she says. “I don’t want to be scared of everything. From last year to now, I don’t go up there feeling like I’m going to freak out, and like my throat is going to close up, as much as I used to. I think that’s because I’m controlling my anxiety instead of it controlling me.”
On her latest single, “Jump,” she faces her fears about getting back into the love game. Michaels — who describes herself as an “all-or-nothing kind of person” — wrote the song after meeting someone she was interested in. “He had wanted to just dive right in. I was like, ‘I’m not ready for this. I just had my heart broken.’ And then he would come over and I’d be like, ‘Just kidding! Let’s make out, and hold hands, never not touch each other like ever again.’”
As she says all this, she’s in a car on her way to the airport to fly from Los Angeles to Seattle to begin a stint opening for Maroon 5. Touring would seem to involve the sort of things that Michaels says still provoke her anxiety – feeling like there’s too much going on, not sleeping or eating properly – but reminded of this, she laughs. “Looks like another mountain I gotta climb,” she says. And then she’s gone, off to stare down another set of fears.