Julia Michaels — Pop Music's Secret Weapon — Opens Up About Writing Hits for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and More
"I'm not good at being center of attention," the songwriter-turned-pop star says of stepping into the spotlight
Born in Davenport, Iowa, and raised in L.A., the rising star began writing songs at age 12, when she started backing her poems at the piano. By 15, she found a mentor in the industry. Fast forward 10 years, and Michaels is responsible for cowriting some of the biggest hits in music, from Justin Bieber‘s “Sorry” to Selena Gomez‘s “Hands to Myself.”
And now her solo pursuit of superstardom is looking even more promising with her impressive debut EP, Nervous System, out now.
“I’ve never really been a confident person — I’m super fidgety, I bite my nails, and I’m not good at being center of attention — so it was actually a really big transition for me,” the 23-year-old says of deciding to step into the spotlight after writing (and not wanting to share) “Issues” last year. “My favorite part about being an artist is that I get to have a voice. I’ve never really felt like I have had one of those before: It’s pretty cool.”
Nervous System — Michaels’ synthy, hook-filled seven-song set — showcases her songwriting strengths: from her super-specific-yet-completely-relatable lyricism (“Worst in Me,” “Make It Up to You”) to a knack for making lascivious subject matter sound down-right playful (“There’s no innuendos, it’s exactly what you think / Believe me when I tell you that he loves the color pink,” she whispers on the quirky standout “Pink”).
Of course, Michaels has flexed her hitmaking muscle for years.
Her first big breath-through was cowriting “Fire Starter,” an empowerment anthem from Demi Lovato‘s self-titled 2013 album. The same year, she found her name listed in the credits of Fifth Harmony‘s breakout single “Miss Movin’ On,” then the title track of Slow Down, Gomez’s first album sans The Scene. Ever since, she’s collaborated with pop’s cool kids, including Nick Jonas (“Close”), Kelly Clarkson (“War Paint”), Hailee Steinfeld (“Love Myself”) and Jack Antonoff‘s indie act Bleachers (“Hate That You Know Me”).
“It honestly depends on the artist and how involved in the writing process they want to be,” says of her cowriting method. “Sometimes an artist will come in with an idea or a concept or something and we’ll help them figure it all out, or sometimes they’ll just talk and we’ll hear something that they say and are like, ‘Ah, that would make a great song!’ and we’ll just kinda mold the song around our conversation. It all depends on who we’re with that day.”
Below, Michaels opens up about some of her favorite collaborations.
Songs She Wrote/Cowrote: “Just Luv Me,” “Invitation,” “Do You Wanna Come Over?,” “Just Like Me,” “Slumber Party,” “Better” and “Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortés)” from Glory (2016)
“The most surprising was probably Britney; I don’t think people realize how active she is in the studio,” says Michaels. “A lot of the songs that her, Justin [Tranter, writing partner] and I did together were her concepts, melodies and lyrics. I think the pop melody sensibility is so engrained in her brain that she just sounds like pop music.”
Adds Michaels: “She is exactly what you think she’s like. She is really down to earth, really humble, just wants to make music and have fun. She’s no different from anybody else.”
Songs She Wrote/Cowrote: “Asking 4 It,” “Getting Warmer,” “Make Me Like You,” “Me Without You,” “Misery” and “Rare” from This Is What the Truth Feels Like (2016)
“Everything that we’d written with her was her point of view: If it wasn’t her words and her point of view, it wasn’t happening,” Michaels says of the album, which was inspired by her divorce from Gavin Rossdale and new relationship with Blake Shelton.
“We mostly waited until she felt like she was comfortable enough to talk about certain things or until she had the lyric or melody down, and we just helped her tweak things from there. That whole album is everything she wanted to say and more.”
Songs She Wrote/Cowrote: Unreleased project.
“She’s so down to earth and lovely, and I’m kinda like her in the sense that we just will talk about anything and everything; we’re both complete open-books. We’ll talk about the darkest s— super quick, and I love that,” says Michaels. “I love people who don’t want to talk small talk right away and they wanna get into really deep subjects — I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ She was one of my favorites.”
Julia Michaels’ Nervous System EP is out now.