I feel bad for reminding Julia Michaels that she’s making another stadium appearance tomorrow. The LA pop songwriter turned singer will be playing Issues, the biggest-selling song by a new artist in 2017, at Capital FM’s annual Wembley pop parade, the Summertime Ball. Last summer, in what was only her second ever live performance, she sang with dance producer Kygo at the Rio Olympics closing ceremony. It doesn’t sound like it’s getting any easier.
“Performing will get better the more I do it, but right now it terrifies me,” she says. “I still get really panicky every time I see a stage. I guess the only time when I feel… not confident, but comfortable, is when I’m writing.”
It’s her writing that has got her here – not belatedly, as she’s still only 23, but by a more circuitous route than some. She was expecting to stay in the studio, using her gifts for melody and empathy to continue crafting smashes for pop’s real A-listers such as Justin Bieber (Sorry), Selena Gomez (Hands to Myself), Ed Sheeran (Dive) and Britney Spears (Do You Wanna Come Over?). She had made a handful of guest appearances on songs she’d co-written – Kygo’s Carry Me, Zedd’s Daisy and the Jason Derulo duet Trade Hearts. But they were only cases of her singing the demo and the stars deciding to keep her voice on the songs, not deliberate early steps towards a solo career. Then she wrote Issues, and found that it was the first one that she couldn’t give away.
“I knew that I really loved the song and I really wanted it to be me singing, because it’s my story from my perspective,” she tells me. She wrote it on the same day Bieber’s Sorry went to number one, after an argument with her boyfriend. He’s called Nolan Lambroza, but trades as Sir Nolan, and is an in-demand songwriter too. They created Rita Ora’s hit single Poison together. Issues is an unusual song for the pop charts – catchy, of course, but slow, and built on little more than some plucked strings and some remarkably vulnerable lyrics. While Katy Perry wants you to hear her Roar, Adele is sad but confident that she’ll find Someone Like You, and even Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance sounds pretty good really, it’s strange to find someone on daytime radio admitting that: “I’m jealous, I’m overzealous/When I’m down, I get real down.”
“It’s one of those songs that kind of breaks my heart every time I sing it, and it makes me feel really good when people sing it back to me, because I know in some way they’ve experienced something like that too,” says Michaels.
The song unflinchingly details her personal shortcomings, and also illustrates the reasons why, despite being young, pretty and artfully tattooed, she never felt like the spotlight was for her. “I definitely took some coaxing from people. I needed a lot of convincing,” she says. “I tend to be pretty introverted and I’m not really great with attention. I’ve never wanted to be famous. That wasn’t the goal. I just want to be creative and feel connected to people who are a lot like me.”
I was under the impression that it’s most common for musicians to move into the songwriting shadows after their career as the star has finished, like an actor getting into directing or a footballer becoming a coach. Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes, Gregg Alexander from The New Radicals, and even Phil Spector, are notable examples. Often they’ve tasted stardom first and didn’t care for it much, or it didn’t work out. “I think for the most part, songwriters are content,” says Michaels. “They like the fact that they can go home at 7pm and relax and not have to worry about all the other things that come with being an artist.”
However, although her regular songwriting partner Justin Tranter is another such case – he toured the world supporting Lady Gaga in his band Semi Precious Weapons before doing even better as a hired gun – Michaels says there are more younger people starting out in backroom songwriting than you might think. “Most of the songwriters I know are my age. Some are younger and are doing really well.” The likes of Charli XCX, Frank Ocean and Bruno Mars have also stepped forwards after writing for others first.
Having moved to California from Iowa at 10, the girl born Julia Cavazos played a bit of piano from the age of 12 but these days just sings the melodies in her head to create a song. When she was 15, her older sister Lauren, who is also a singer, took her to a demo session with a songwriter called Joleen Belle. Michaels and Belle ended up writing together, landing the theme song to a Disney Channel sitcom called Austin & Ally. Belle introduced her to another writer, Lindy Robbins. The second song Michaels wrote with her was recorded by Demi Lovato, and on she went.
So she’s good at this because she’s been doing it for some time, but is also still young enough to be on the same wavelength as 24-year-olds Lovato and Selena Gomez, and 19-year-old Zara Larsson. “I’m like a therapist. I just like to talk to people, figure out what’s going on in their lives,” she says of her first steps towards writing a song. “A lot of the time they’ll just talk and I’ll listen and I’ll pull things out from what they say.”
It’s still very early days for the pop star thing, though. A second single, Uh Huh, was released a week ago. Like Issues, which is currently enjoying its third month inside the UK top 40, it’s another wide stride away from what else is currently in the charts, with prominent guitars and an awkward rhythm. It sounds ever so slightly like the Pixies. She says that an EP is coming, but there won’t be a full album or any proper concerts for some time yet. It sounds as though she still needs some convincing that this is for her.
“My self-belief is kind of non-existent,” she says with a small laugh. “I have really got it in my head that I’m not good enough, in pretty much every aspect of my life.” But at this point, can’t she just look at the huge listening and sales figures for Issues, or Bieber’s Sorry, as concrete proof that she has real talent? “No – still waiting for that to happen!”
So she wasn’t using creative licence in her hit single. She definitely has issues. But even if nerves force her to vanish from the frontline again, I expect that in some windowless LA studio in the years to come, there are going to be many more gold discs lining the walls.