‘I’m pro-self love – literally. It’s still taboo for women to say that’
Singer Julia Michaels on why after writing huge, pop-changing hits for Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, she has hit the road to perform her songs herself
Julia Michaels: 'My family has always been super open about sex'
As Niall Horan is soundchecking for his first solo gig at 3Arena in Dublin, Julia Michaels is sitting cross-legged backstage, and she is brutally jet-lagged. But her excitement outweighs her exhaustion: even though songs she has written have toured the world twice over on other artists’ set lists, this is her first time touring in Europe. Using Horan’s Flicker world tour as a platform, she has finally hit the road to sing her songs herself.
Michaels’s songs have changed how pop music works. When, as a reformed bad boy, Justin Bieber needed forgiveness from the public, Michaels cowrote his apology, in the shape of his 2015 single Sorry. And instead of publicly commenting on her break-up with Bieber, Selena Gomez released Sober, which Michaels also wrote, as a statement. “You don’t know how to love me when you’re sober,” she sang. “When the bottle’s done you pull me closer.”
Michaels tells clear stories in her songs without undermining the emotional complications of love, heartbreak or sex. When she writes about sex it’s real – and it doesn’t get realer than Hailee Steinfeld’s Love Myself, a glorified masturbation anthem – yes, you read that right – or Pink, her own song about her boyfriend’s favourite colour: “There’s no innuendos, it’s exactly what you think. Believe me when I tell you that he loves the colour pink.”
Like most great pop, Michaels’s songs are innocent enough for younger ears but give enough of a nudge and a wink to appeal more widely. “I’m super pro-self-love, and I think for a lot of people, especially women, it’s still taboo to say something like that, but I just don’t see the problem in being in touch with yourself – literally,” she says, with a cackle.
Such sexual candour would be looked down on at any Catholic school, but Michaels approaches the topic much more healthily, as just a regular part of life. “My family has always been super open about sex. Anytime we wanted to talk about something we were always very open about it, and I carried that into my adult life.”
Julia Michaels: Issues
Michaels has been a professional songwriter since she was 16. At the age of 24, she has seen changes in the music industry, particularly in the past six months. “I think this #MeToo movement has sparked a lot of women to speak up, essentially, and be bold, and be braver than they once were,” she says carefully. At this year’s Grammy awards, in January, Michaels stood alongside Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Bebe Rexha and Andra Day to back Kesha as she sang Praying. After Kesha’s legal battle with her former producer Dr Luke, who allegedly sexually, verbally and emotionally abused the singer, this performance was a protest.
“Kesha, I think, was at the forefront of that movement but didn’t have the support that she needed at the time, because it was such a . . . new revolution. I think, for her, having us on stage with her that day was the support that she needed, and it was the support that everyone needed to see. That we are in it together, and doing this together.”
As Kesha’s voice cracked during the final chorus, the singers, all dressed in white, moved closer, so that they could hold her hand and then hold her. How does a performance like that leave you? “It was really intense. All of us were super vulnerable and shaky, her especially. I mean, even during soundcheck she was having a hard time, and we just assured her that we were there for her and that this is her place to take her power back.”
And how does it look from inside the industry? Are changes being made? “I think there’s still a lot of progress to be made, and there’s a lot of things that still need to change, but it’s on a good path.”
Michaels uses her astute emotional intelligence to turn her own experiences into accessible, relatable songs – and there’s no filter when it comes to who is on her mind. “I don’t know how to hide how I feel,” she says with a shrug. “Most of the time, when I write I go on the mic and I just blurt out everything that I remember in a span of 20 or 30 minutes, and I go, ‘That’s good! We should probably keep that,’ not thinking that that person is probably going to hear that.”
That’s exactly what happened when she wrote I Miss You for Clean Bandit, which she also sang on. “Two months later Jack from Clean Bandit called me and said, ‘Hey! We’re putting this out,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Noooo!’ But I am happy it came out. It’s one of my favourite songs to come out.”
Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and Britney Spears, all of whom Michaels has written for, grew up in the spotlight, and suffered under it, which must make her question whether the music industry is a good place for a teenager. Nervous System, her mini album from 2017, focuses on the insecurities and thrills of romantic relationships, but for her debut album she’s hoping to shine a light on mental health. “I’m going to be more open about anxiety and depression. A lot of people struggle with it and nobody talks about it,” she says. “I struggle with it a lot, but it’s something I’m not ashamed of. It’s something that I am proud to call my own, and it’s something that I can take power in myself.”
Onstage at 3Arena Michaels is left speechless when thousands of young girls outsing her, at what is probably their first concert, during her performances of I Miss You and Issues. When she sings a medley of hits she has written it dawns on this preteen audience that Michaels is a bit of a genius. With songs that promote self-care without glossing over the difficulties shape and form people into who they will grow up to be, she’s a perfect pop idol for this age. For years Michaels has been giving other singers a voice. Now, through her own singing career, she can help a younger audience find theirs.
- Julia Michaels returns to support Niall Horan at 3Arena in Dublin on March 29th