Julia Michaels writes pop songs for stars like Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani, and Justin Bieber.
Julia Michaels started writing music by accident. She was often the tagalong to her big sister's auditions, but one day her mother urged her to sing too.
Rather than running out of the room, Michaels went against her shy instincts and showcased her talent for songwriter Joleen Belle. The two started writing music together when Michaels was just 15. By the time she was 18, Michaels had co-written chart-topping singles for Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Take a peek at the current Billboard charts and Michaels is all over it. She co-wrote Gomez's no. 1 single, "Good for You," Gwen Stefani's tearjerker, "Used to Love You," and Justin Bieber's new single, "Sorry."
Now 21, Michaels talks about what inspires her heartfelt lyrics, her hopes for women in music, and the comfort in letting other people sing about her most intimate emotions.
I grew up in Davenport, Iowa, but I moved to Santa Clarita, California, when I was 6. My older sister used to sing all the time. My mom would take her to vocal lessons, dance classes, and she'd do demos around the city. Demos are when songwriters have someone like my sister come in to sing a reference of how a song should sound for the artist. I would just sit there and watch, taking it all in.
I never thought about being an artist. I used to write poetry as a kid. Once I heard how deep music could touch people and what it can make you feel and all of these emotions it could bring out, I was really fascinated with it all. I thought, This is what I need to do! I started turning my poetry into songs. I would sing alone in my room and write songs on the piano. I was a closeted singer, so I would give the songs to my sister to sing. I never thought this could be — or would be — my career.
When I was about 15, my sister went to do a demo one day for this woman named Joleen Belle. My mom had a plan to showcase me too. As soon as we walked through the door, my mom goes, "Sing for her!" I was like, "Nooo!" So I sang a song on the piano in the four chords that I knew. I was sitting at the piano for a while after I was done singing and Joleen asked if I wrote music too. She must have seen something in me that I didn't see in myself. So we started writing songs together. Joleen taught me a lot about structure, and she let me be myself and never alpha'd me.
We'd write songs and submit them to the companies that used them for background music on TV shows and commercial promos. We had some songs on The Hills and in commercial promos for The View. Then, when I was 17, we tried for our first theme song for the Disney show Austin & Ally. And we got it.
I was homeschooled, but I went to a charter school to be tutored. I was in my math class, and I got the phone call that they chose our song. There were about eight or nine other people in the class, and I was like, "Hold on, guys. I need to freak out here for a few minutes, then we can get back to algebra two."
After I did the theme song, I sang a demo for a woman named Lindy Robbins. She's been writing since '97 and she's still a badass. She was friends with Joleen, so she knew I could write. And she liked my voice. So Lindy and I started writing together. The first couple songs we did together got placed instantly. We did "Fire Starter" that went on Demi Lovato's Demi album. Then we did "Slow Down," which was Selena Gomez's second single on Stars Dance. We also did "Undercover" for that record. The fifth song we ever wrote together was "Miss Movin On," which was Fifth Harmony's first single.
It all happened so fast. My dad used to bug me about going to college, but once all this started happening, he was like, "OK, I support you." I pretty much knew when I was 16 that this was what I wanted to do.
It's so interesting how there are ebbs and flows in the industry. I had all these singles come out within a two-month period, and then nothing for almost two years. You start to feel a little irrelevant. You realize how many people there are trying to be songwriters and how competitive it is and how political things can be. Artists had songs for two years that they held on to and then decided not to use. And it's like, "Ahh, my heart!"
I just kind of worked as hard as I could. I started to work with a bunch of other people. It's like songwriter boot camp. You work with everybody and anybody just to see what it's like and if you have a connection. It can be really exhausting. I was doing about three sessions a day. My manager at the time didn't quite understand what it meant to be a songwriter and put out that much creative and mental energy all the time. And I was afraid to say no. The pressure was so insane that I had panic attacks almost every day. Then Lindy introduced me to her manager, Beka Tischker, and she changed my life. She was like, "Julia, you can say no. If you feel you can't write one day, just go to a movie. You're a creative person. You have to have time and experience life to be creative." And she's actually from Dubuque, Iowa, which is a neighbor to my hometown. I was like, "Where's the pen? I'm signing now."
Working with new people can be really hard and nerve-wracking. When you don't know the person, it's like being on a blind date. You walk in there and you're practically getting naked for someone you just met. You're baring your entire soul for a stranger. Sometimes I'll go in a session with new people, and I'll feel incredibly insecure and have so much self-doubt. I can't get it to happen. I'm like, Do I even know what I'm doing? Am I even a songwriter? And I'll spend the next two days super sad. It's rough. But when it happens, when it's really pure and it happens, it's amazing. Everybody feels it.
About 90 percent of the time I write with Justin Tranter, who is one of my favorite people in the world. I met Justin at a session at Felix Snow's house about 2.5 years ago. When I got there, they were like, "Let's do something like '90s En Vogue." I was like, This is so not what I do. I tried to dodge the situation. I was like, "Guys, should we get food?" So we ate, and then we came back and listened to this track Felix had produced, which I thought was really great. I was so nervous that I shut myself in the hall closet of the living room to listen to the track for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Justin was out there thinking, Should we go in? Is she fucking crazy? And then they open the door, and I said, "What if we do it like this?" I came out singing the chorus, with Justin's idea of "sick of this," which is like, Once you make love to me, you'll never get sick of this. And Justin loved my idea. He said, "OK, you can be as crazy as you want." And we've been working together ever since.
I love co-writing. I love that there are ideas or melodies or lyrics that you don't think of on your own, and vice versa. When you've been working with someone for so long, you start to think like them. You start to sing the same melodies and say the same lyrics. You just become so in tune with their instincts and who they are because you've spent so much time with their emotions. Justin and I can go from writing a really beautiful ballad, like this song, "Run," we wrote for Nicole Scherzinger, to "Hands to Myself," for Selena Gomez, which is kind of Prince-y.
It's different every time. Sometimes we'll go in and I'll have an idea I started on the piano, and we'll go from there and turn it into a song. Or we'll work with chords and I'll sing something on the mic. Sometimes we'll write to tracks. I think first instinct is always the right instinct. If you doubt yourself and you have to work it out too much, it gets over-complicated and then you don't feel it anymore.
Working with Selena on her new album, Revival, was the first time I actually collaborated with an artist, as opposed to just writing the song and pitching it. I had written songs that were sent to her through her label. And she asked to meet me. She came in and was like, "I feel like you're going through the same things I am because everything you write, I feel, and it's so much a part of my life that it's almost scary." I was eating hot Cheetos at the time and she was like, "Oh my gosh, can we get the lime ones too?" I don't know anyone else who eats hot Cheetos in a session. I saw her about a week later, and she asked me to come to Mexico with her to work on Revival. I ended up co-writing eight songs on that album.
Aaron Bay-Schuck, who is the [president of] A&R at Interscope, called me and said, "I'd really love for you and Justin to come in to work with Gwen Stefani. We have really great songs, but we need the single." I was like, "Yeah, cool, I'm in." The first session we ever did together, which was about a month ago, we wrote "Used to Love You." Gwen had written down of all of these things she was feeling at that moment. There was this one phrase that read, "I don't know why I cry but I think it's because I remembered for the first time since I hated you that I used to love you." I said, "Whoa, what a crazy line that is." She just goes, "Cool, make it a melody. Let's go."
If you really listen to the songs that I've done, they're pretty much my story. A good example is "Good for You," which I wrote for Selena. My boyfriend was like, "Julia, you never write any happy songs for me. It's kind of sad." I was like, "Fine, I'll write a good song about you, shut up!" So I wrote the lyrics to "Good for You." I get so much more joy out of other people singing what I've written than I do singing them myself. I don't mind being anonymous. I don't want the responsibility of being an artist and people knowing everything about my life. Being a writer, there is some pressure, but it's not even close to what some of the artists deal with.
This last January, I signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music. Signing a publishing deal means they will help pitch your songs, and they collect money for you and do the business stuff, so you can be an artist. Since then, I've done "Good for You" with Selena, "Used to Love You" with Gwen, and "Sorry" for Justin Bieber.
I love to listen to people. It's something you have to be really good at as a songwriter to take everything in and make it your own. Even someone just talking to you can inspire so much lyrical content. My favorites are the people who are not afraid to tell you everything about themselves. It's awkward and scary and amazing.
Looking back, I feel like I've accomplished a lot for being 21. If you would have told me when I was 15 years old writing in my room on the piano that I would be here, I would have laughed in your face. My goal is to just be an incredible female songwriter. We're a rare breed. I just think it's really awesome to make music people love.
By Heather Wood Rudulph | Cosmopolitan