She’s written songs for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Ed Sheeran; dueted with Keith Urban; performed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil; and spent much of her spring on the road with Niall Horan. “That was an amazing tour,” Julia Michaels says of joining the former One Direction heartthrob on his recent U.K./Europe jaunt. “We would eat in catering together, hang out in each other’s dressing rooms, meet each other’s families. One night we all went out to dinner and drank so much it was ridiculous, but so much fun!”
Now back in the U.S., the 24-year-old GRAMMY nominee is in between legs of opening for Maroon 5 on their Red Pill Blues tour — her last date was June 17 before rejoining the band in September — and busy promoting her single “Jump,” featuring rapper Trippie Redd, as well as collaborations with Shawn Mendes (“Like to Be You,” from his self-titled third album) and Christina Aguilera (Michaels wrote two songs on her comeback album Liberation).
Now, as she prepares to release her first full-length album (following three EPs, including Nervous System), the singer/songwriter is opening up to ET about the deeply personal “issues” — heartache, anxiety and depression — behind her new music.
It’s only natural that such personal hurdles would fuel the stories behind Michaels’ first album, given that it was the struggles of her youth that first led the musician to start writing music. At the age of 11, Michaels’ recalls writing as a way of coping with loneliness.
“I actually started with poetry, then started turning my poems into music,” Michaels says. “I was homeschooled, so spent a lot of time by myself and was a bit of a lonely kid, so I found a lot of solace in music and writing. I think I was going through some sort of emo phase at that point, so it was all very dark, moody and heartbreak-inspired. Teenage things!”
After meeting songwriter Joleen Belle when Michaels was about 15 years old, the two wrote a track that became the theme song for the Disney Channel’s Austin & Ally, and soon, their music was heard on The Hills and The View. Michaels’ foray into chart-topping territory came when she started writing for the likes of Demi Lovato (“Fire Starter”) and Fifth Harmony (“Miss Movin’ On” — her first song to land on the Billboard Hot 100).
“[Fifth Harmony] were performing it live on KIIS FM and someone told me it was going to be on at 9 p.m., so I got in my car and drove around, then when it came on I had to pull over,” Michaels recalls. “I just started crying — I couldn’t believe it!”
Since then, she has continued to climb higher on the charts with songs for Selena Gomez, Spears’ 2016 album Glory, and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” a song she co-wrote with the singer and Skrillex that spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 . Michaels has also worked with the late Chester Bennington on Linkin Park’s “Heavy” and explored Stefani’s divorce while working with the singer on her album This Is What the Truth Feels Like.
But when it came to sharing her song “Issues” with the world, Michaels felt the track was so personal she needed to record it herself. Co-written with longtime writing partner Justin Tranter, the 2017 record reached No. 11 on the Hot 100 and enjoyed international success, eventually earning GRAMMY nominations for Song of the Year and Best New Artist. The triple platinum hit also triggered a natural progression for Michaels to step further into the limelight.
Transitioning into the spotlight as a performer, not just a songwriter, has been both challenging and fulfilling. “I’m used to being in the studio every single day, and now I’m starting to become used to being on the road every single day,” Michaels says. “It’s just different, but the fans are amazing. I get to sing my words and have people judge me and not judge me for it, and the people that don’t — I feel so much unconditional love from them, so it’s been special.”
The biggest challenge in becoming accustomed to the limelight, perhaps, has been losing the ability to hide behind anything, she says. “Being behind the scenes, you get to mask your vulnerability through someone else, and when you’re doing it yourself, you’re just out there in the open. You’re standing there baring your entire soul to everybody who’s willing to listen. That’s been the scariest thing, but also the most rewarding part.”
Added vulnerability comes through Michaels’ continuing battle to deal with her inner demons. The singer confesses that she suffers from depression as a “tie-in” to her ongoing struggle with anxiety, which varies day to day. “Some days it’s really bad and some days it’s not,” she says. “I had a really horrible day in Phoenix right before I went on stage on the Red Pill Blues tour and had to go out there, and let’s just say singing after you hysterically cry is a really interesting thing to do. So, some days it hits me more than others, but I’m learning and growing and constantly trying to change parts of me that are ruled by fear.”
But working on her new album has helped Michaels deal with such obstacles, as well as other hard times, like breaking up with her boyfriend. “There’ll be a lot of stuff about that [breakup] and also about new love and new feelings and about anxiety and depression and all of the things that pertain to my life on a very personal level,” she says.
“Writing for me is super-therapeutic,” she adds. “If I don’t do it, I start to feel even more anxious. It’s definitely my outlet. It just helps me be more confrontational and confront things that I don’t confront on a daily basis. My subconscious takes over, then all of a sudden there’s a song about something I’ve been suppressing, so it’s kinda nice.”
Due out in the fall, Michaels is still completing the record, admitting she’s a “perfectionist.” She says she won’t put the album out until she feels it’s 100 percent ready to be heard. And while having the title of GRAMMY nominee comes with pressure, she avoids thinking about whether her latest musical creations will be deemed worthy of such accolades. “If you think about it too much, it will consume you, and I think sometimes that can affect people’s art,” she says. “If it happens again, awesome. If not, then I’m still making music and doing what I love.”
At 24, her biggest lesson on staying grounded as her star rises has been not surrounding herself with people who “say yes to everything.” She modestly muses that she doesn’t see herself as “famous,” and has taken inspiration from Urban when it comes to remaining humble regardless of success or longevity in the music industry.
“What I learned from Keith is that you can be in this industry for a really long time and not be an a**hole!” she says of the New Zealand-born country crooner, who causally gifted her a piano as a housewarming gift. “You can be a real humble, incredible human being and treat everybody — no matter who they are — as equals. That’s a really special quality and something that I strive for, so to see somebody who’s been doing it [as long as] he has and is still an incredible person just makes me really happy.”
Having worked closely with Urban and many of music’s biggest stars, there’s still one artist on Michael’s collaboration bucket list.
“I’d love to work with Abel/The Weeknd,” she says. “I think that would be really fun to try combine our universes!”