julia michaels, the songwriter behind bieber's 'sorry,' is stepping into the spotlight

Having crafted hit compositions for Bieber, Spears, and Gomez, Iowa’s Julia Michaels is about to become a pop star in her own right.

by Peter Robinson
13 January 2017, 4:46pm

If you need a hit song, you get Julia Michaels on the phone — but don't be surprised if you get an engaged tone. Over the last three years the 23-year-old Iowa-born, LA-raised, studio-dwelling tune alchemist has become one of the planet's most in-demand songwriters. Two of her songs, Justin Bieber's "Sorry" and DNCE's "Cake by the Ocean," have over a billion Spotify streams between them, and that's before you get to hits for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Rita Ora, Hailee Steinfeld, and Fifth Harmony. Oh, and Little Mix, Selena Gomez, Kelly Clarkson, Zedd, and Nick Jonas.

You might not recognize Julia's face right now, but that's set to change in 2017 because — you've already guessed, haven't you? — Julia's decided to step into the spotlight herself. She's kicking things off with exquisitely understated lead single "Issues," produced by Stargate with Benny Blanco and written by Julia (obviously) and longterm writing partner, Justin Tranter, ahead of an EP in the spring. She's the popstar 2017 needs, and here are ten things you need to know about her.

1. She totally lost the plot when Britney Spears cut one of her songs.
"I'm not the kind of person who gets starstruck — we all bleed the same, we all cry the same. It's only when singers go on the mic, and sing my words and melodies, that I can't contain myself. When Britney did it I was on the floor, freaking out. Literally lying there, screaming 'what is happening?' It was an awesome experience. We had an entire bag of Hot Cheetos together afterwards — they're my favorite snack and she loves them too."

2. She's not exactly lazy on the old songwriting front.
"I write between one and three songs every single day. It's mentally draining but also thrilling and riveting. When I listen to music I don't just hear it; I can feel it. When I hear a certain chord or lyric, I can just feel it in my whole body. It starts here [clutches chest] then I can feel it everywhere. It's strange."

3. Her mom sort of bought her a piano.
"We were pretty broke growing up, and we didn't have a lot of anything. My sister, my mom, and I were living in a bedroom in someone's house. My mom found this piano, a Kimball baby grand, on the side of a road — someone was selling it. The man came out and my mom gave him her wedding ring and said: 'Keep this, we'll come back with the money.' We never went back. I had it until I was 20; I was storing it in my boyfriend's garage, but his sister-in-law made me get rid of it. I remember sitting on the pavement crying."

4. "Issues" was written about her boyfriend, while her boyfriend was in the same building.
"I was at a writing camp for another artist — there were a bunch of different rooms and my boyfriend, who's a producer, was in a different room. We'd got in a fight that morning and I remember having the word 'issues' written in my notepad. It was very 'of the moment.' Justin and I wrote the song, Stargate and Benny left the room so we could write it. We sang it, and cut it, and it was the song that made me think I could have a solo career."

5. She's a popstar whisperer.
"When I'm writing with an artist, we just talk. A lot of the time artists are very vulnerable people and they're open books. They don't care — they'll tell you anything if it means getting lyrical content out of it. Songwriting is such an intimate thing. It's unbelievable. You sit there with someone you don't know, for hours, baring your soul, practically naked in front of someone. You have to play therapy with someone you don't know and tell them your deepest darkest secrets. You become very close very fast. After a while you trained yourself to be so emotionally intelligent that intimacy is an easy thing to find in a session."

6. When writing for other artists, she gives them what they don't want.
"I remember getting a pitch saying, 'we want 'Beautiful' by Christina Aguilera meets 'Toxic' by Britney Spears, meets Jessie J's 'Price Tag'.' So I'm like, 'you want hit songs?' But a hit song can sound like anything. These songs sound nothing alike. Actually, I almost always do the opposite of what they ask for. I just don't care. This is my little secret — every single writer out there gets the exact same pitches, so everyone does that exact same thing. If I do the opposite, it means my songs stand out."

7. She had trouble getting her head around success.
"I started therapy in January. It's saved my life. I was having panic attacks every single day — it was around the time 'Good For You' was happening, and 'Sorry' and 'Hands to Myself.' All those songs were coming up. It was my first real taste of success. It was all happening so fast that I don't think I could fully grasp what was going on. I was having panic attacks every day because I was so overwhelmed, and I started going to therapy because of that. I do therapy every week. Thank God!"

8. Being lyrically vulnerable isn't something she's very worried about.
"We're afraid to show we're weak and emotional. But you can be weak, and you don't have to be strong all the time just because you're worried about a stereotype."

9. She lives in fear of accidentally plagiarizing someone.
"I had a friend who'd written a song, and someone in, like, Nebraska had written the same melody in a song about their DOG! And because the melodies were so similar, he sued and won. It could happen to anyone. At any time. You never know. I definitely live in fear of that."

10. She reckons she stands a decent chance of making it where other writers-turned-artists haven't.
"A lot of the time songwriters put their sound and energy into one artist. Their whole sound is one act. So that artist is essentially taking that songwriter's sound — their inflections, their sound, their energy, their soul, it all goes into that one artist. I don't do that. I spread myself everywhere. Like a whore. I'm a songwriting whore! Actually don't quote me on that. Alright, do."


Text Peter Robinson

Julia Michaels
music interviews