At just 23 years old, Julia Michaels has established herself in the music industry as one of its most preeminent songwriters. To date, Michaels has contributed to more than 10 billion streams worldwide with her work on chart dominators like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Good for You” and “Bad Liar,” and Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself.” But back in January, Michaels dropped “Issues,” her first single as a solo artist that marks her transition from just a songwriter to a performer as well.
“It has been equal parts terrifying and exciting,” Michaels says. “I’m used to baring my soul to everybody but nobody really knows about it. So to be at the forefront of it all is crazy, but I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable in front of everybody.”
Since “Issues,” Michaels has released her follow-up single “Uh Huh” and has been making her rounds on the live performance circuit with appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the iHeartRadio Much Music Video Awards, and the Billboard Music Awards–all of which is leading up to the July 28 debut of her “mini-album” Nervous System.
“Honestly, this is all still so new to me,” Michaels says. “I am such an anxious person, and of course I want everybody to be happy and feel fulfilled–but I’m trying to take it step-by-step and day-by-day, so I think [this] is the way to go for me right now.”
Michaels acclimation to that front-facing vulnerability of stepping out from behind her lyrics and commanding them as her own is certainly a work in progress, but it’s one that Charlie Walk, president of The Republic Group, is entirely invested in.
Back in 2015, Walk stopped by a studio session in Los Angeles for Hailee Steinfeld, who he had just signed. Michaels and her writing partner of four years Justin Tranter were workshopping lyrics when Walk immediately took notice of Michaels.
“I’m listening to her voice and words and I’m like who is this girl?” Walk says. “There was like a force of nature attracting me to this type of artist. I went up to her in the studio and I said, you’re not a writer–you’re an artist.”
Michaels initially dismissed Walk until a year later when he took her to see the Broadway play Beautiful about the life of singer/songwriter Carole King.
“I wanted her to absorb the story of Carole King because at the end I knew I could look at her and say that’s you,” Walk says. “At the end of the play we actually held hands and she looked at me and I looked at her, and she knew that I knew and I knew that she knew–and that was the beginning of the transformation of a writer into the artist phase.”
“The interesting and beautiful thing about this whole story is sometimes the greatest artists need to be told they are,” Walk continues. “They’re living in their own vortex of writing and sometimes people like me who are on the outside have a different point of view in seeing something that is a diamond in the rough and that can become a global force in music and in pop culture.”
What makes Michaels unique has as much to do with her distinctive vocals (airy yet powerful, raspy but sweet) as her lyrics. The emotional simplicity of Michaels’ work has become something of a signature. In “Issues,” she lays out her state of mind plain as day:
I’m jealous, I’m overzealous
When I’m down, I get real down
When I’m high, I don’t come down
I get angry, baby, believe me
I could love you just like that
And I could leave you just as fast
The same goes for “Uh Huh,” which she describes as that euphoric wave that comes right before kissing someone.
“When it comes to relationships, I love intimacy–it’s my favorite part. And that first initial breath right before you’re about to kiss somebody that you’re incredibly infatuated with is one of the most beautiful feelings in the world,” Michaels says. “It’s such a universal feeling and I was just like, how is there not a song about this moment? It’s such an incredible moment.”
Michaels is quick to admit that she’s an emotional person, which is exactly why she’s attained the level of success she has in a relatively short amount of time. For a new artist to go double platinum with her debut single (making it the best-selling song by a new artist in 2017) and to rack up more than 20 million Spotify streams for her follow-up track that was released just a month ago, something has to be connecting with an audience.
“When it comes to songwriting, I try to try to keep it as honest to myself as possible. I used to write songs for what I thought people wanted, and when you do that it’s not the same,” Michaels says. “I wear my heart on my sleeve–I really do. I’m the kind of person where if I ask how are you, I’m expecting an in-depth response. I don’t like shallow things or surface things. I get deep with people really quick because I really want to know who a person is when I meet them. I trust everybody until I don’t, and I love everybody until I don’t.”
“She has this infectious connectivity as a person and artist that, to me, screams superstar,” Walk says. “We know that she writes songs that people care about. We know that she writes melodies that people hum to. We now know that when she puts music out it cuts through the clutter. She’s created her own lane of sound and music, and she’s doing it on her own terms. The goal isn’t to hit chart bullseyes every time with her. The goal is to build her musical brand as a singer/songwriter over the years to come.”
And that brand for Michaels ties back to a creative output that may not be prolific but is emotionally raw and all her own.
“I love when people try to push boundaries and not follow trends. I think what’s missing [in the music industry] sometimes is a lack of creativity. Really, it’s fear–I think people are scared to be different sometimes,” Michaels says. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t want people to know my story. I don’t want to put out anything that’s vague. It’s important for me as an artist and for people listening to know who I am.”