Music

On The Record | Inside The Vulnerable World Of Julia Michaels

By James Shackell
3rd Sep 2019

Julia Michaels

Songwriting genius Julia Michaels started young—like most prodigies. She composed her own tracks at the age of 12. By 14, she was co-writing theme tunes for Disney. She cracked LA at 19, penning hits for Demi Lovato and Fifth Harmony. Collaborations with Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes and Britney Spears soon tumbled one after the other. 

But prior to 2017, Julia had made a career writing for other people. She was a hit-maker with no hits. Then came the song that changed everything. “Every once in a while you’ll write a song that’s too personal to give away,” she tells me down the phone from Los Angeles, “and for me that was ‘Issues’.”

Issues nabbed Julia two Grammy Awards (Best New Artist and Song of the Year in 2018) and stamped her name on the global music scene. Now she writes and tours for herself as a bona fide international star, stepping out of the shadows, supporting artists like Shawn Mendes and Maroon 5. 

We caught up with Julia ahead of her first Australian headline tour to chat music, writing, and learning to love your body.

What’s it like being a songwriter and seeing other people sing your words? Is there a stab of resentment? 

Not at all. As a songwriter that’s your job. You give away your babies, and you have no qualms about it. I didn’t have any moments of doubt before Issues. I wasn’t one of those people that took my songs back from other singers. I like helping other people figure out what they want to say, being part of that process. I’m grateful for that.

What made you want to record ‘Issues’ yourself? 

When I wrote Issues, I didn’t know I’d be keeping it. But it was just one of those songs that I kept listening to over and over again. It was about something so personal, and I just thought, ‘I don’t know if I can give this to someone else.’ And ever since then my life has completely changed. 

Do you like living in the spotlight now? 

It has its ups and downs, like everything in life. There’s definitely a mental adjustment when you’re saying goodbye to your old life. But after you get over that mental lull, you’re just in it and excited, and you get to go to these new places and see different cultures and eat new food and meet new people, and the shows are so much fun. I love touring now. 

Do you like the Australian crowds? 

They’re amazing. This is my first headline tour here in Australia, but seeing them with Shawn [Mendes], and now with Keith [Urban], you guys are such positive crowds. It’s great. 

Got a favourite Australian city? 

I don’t know if I have a favourite, but I had a lot of fun in Melbourne last time. It’s such a lively city, such a fun-things-to-do kind of city.  

You’ve spoken about Lisa Mitchell as an inspiration. Aussie fans will love that link. 

She is amazing. I remember I was like 14 and I stumbled onto her. I loved her voice and I just thought she was so cool. She had this song Coin Laundry where she’s singing inside a washing machine, and I thought, ‘How fucking cool is this?’ She’s definitely an inspiration, but I’m inspired by all sorts of things. 

What’s inspiring you at the moment? 

Conversations, mostly. I get inspired by conversations. Words more than anything sonically. Conversations and listening is just so much fun. You pick up so much. I have a boyfriend too, and he inspires me every day. 

Let’s talk ‘17’. Is that song about your past or your present?

17 is about my present. It’s about wanting to be in love and be reckless, like you are when you’re 17. But it’s also reminiscing that time in your life: you’re almost legal, you sneak into places, you take risks, you do things that are dangerous, and it’s just fun and exciting. And wanting to still be able to do that when you’re in love, and not have to worry about any of the bullshit or dark things that plague a relationship. Wanting to still live inside a dream. That’s what the song’s really about. 

Is there a deliberate Truman Show reference in that video clip?

It’s not! That wasn’t deliberate. But hey, it could be there. Everyone has their own perception, I guess.

What about ‘Body’? That obviously comes from a vulnerable place. Did that change how you see yourself? 

Not really, no. Just because you sing about something, doesn’t mean you’re cured. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have anxiety anymore. There’s still good days and bad days, and sometimes I feel really sucky and I overanalyse everything about myself, physically and mentally, and then other days I feel confident. And that’s everybody, right? It’s not a destination, it’s a journey.

You’ve said you actually feel most comfortable on stage? For someone with anxiety, how does that work? 

I used to have really bad stage fright. It used to be terrible. But when you realise you’re in a room of 1500 like-minded people, your mind-set changes. You’re no longer thinking, ‘I’m up here alone and it’s horrifying’, you’re thinking, ‘We’re all in this together. We’re all singing together. If I’m writing about this and feeling this way, you must be feeling this too.’ We all want to let go and have these cathartic experiences. That changed a lot of my perspective.

Any advice for young songwriters out there?

I guess my only advice would be keep going. I know that sounds fucking cliché, but you never know. I was writing in my bedroom at 16, and now we’re doing a world tour, and following your dreams and reaching your potential is fucking terrifying, but you just never know. You never know until you try. 

Julia Michaels’ Inner Monologue tour is playing in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in September. You can find out more here

We also took five with Aussie music legends Boy & Bear on their epic comeback tour

Image Credit: Clare Gillen

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