switched on pop

You’ll Always Know a Julia Michaels Song When You Hear One — Call It Her Superpower

“People overcomplicate songwriting sometimes. They think it has to have some brilliant metaphor, some interesting imagery. They don’t realize that they can come into a room and just talk about what they’re feeling.” Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

For nearly a decade, Julia Michaels has penned hit songs for the biggest acts in pop music. She is adept at turning people’s vulnerabilities into memorable hooks — think Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” or Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me.” There are countless others, but all of them share distinctive traits. Where many songwriters might turn to the simplest, almost nursery-rhyme-level lyrics to get the message across, Michaels does the opposite. She crams as many words as possible into each phrase. Her lyrics sound spoken. On her own hit song, her 2017 debut solo single “Issues,” she sings, “Bask in the glory, of all our problems / ’Cause we got the kind of love it takes to solve ’em”; it earned her a Song of the Year nomination at the 2018 Grammys, along with a Best New Artist nod. Her rhyming may sound accidental, but that’s the pop-song illusion. Michaels’s idiosyncratic phrasing has symmetry and her rhyming is indeed purposeful, all to illuminate her primary subject: the infinite recursions of human relationships. After releasing three EPs and countless singles of her own, Michaels has just released her first full-length album, Not in Chronological Order. On this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, co-host Charlie Harding spoke with Michaels about how the vagaries of the heart inspire an endless stream of songs.

Charlie: You’ve been in the songwriter game for a minute and have put out three EPs of your own, but Not in Chronological Order is your first full-length. Why now?  

Julia: I think I just wasn’t ready yet. With me, everything takes a little bit of time. It took me a long time to realize I wanted to be an artist. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with people potentially relating to things that I was talking about. And it took me a long time to fall in love with something super healthy and then to talk about it.

Charlie: Did you have an idea of what you wanted to communicate with this record?

Julia: With my past EPs I’ve always sort of glorified toxicity. And now that I’m in a relationship with somebody where it’s very different from what I’ve experienced before … I realized that for a long time, I thought toxicity was what I deserved. Like I wasn’t good enough for love or that I deserved a certain kind of love. And then someone comes in and you realize love is actually really easy and not complicated, and it can be passionate without the chaos. And I wanted to write about that. I’m 27 now, I have a different perspective on life and love and you grow with every day, hopefully. I feel like that’s what I’ve done with this album.

Charlie: I feel that evolvement come through on the latest single, “Love Is Weird.” 

Julia: Yeah, “Love Is Weird” is basically just about how it’s just really strange how you can go from loving a certain kind of person and a certain kind of love. You spend two, three months crying over this relationship and then all of a sudden, a year later, you’ve found yourself again. You’re healthier. You feel like you can go on and you’re in the park with somebody new and you’re asking really deep questions and you’re psychoanalyzing one another and you’re like, Oh, I actually think I could really fall for this person. You feel these butterflies.

Charlie: You wrote this song in just 30 minutes. How do you train to be able to write a song that quickly? Has this always been the case for you? 

Julia: No, but a good majority of my bigger songs have been written very fast. I think that’s because you’re not really focusing on the technical side of things. You’re just focusing on your subconscious. [I wanted it to be] very conversational for “Love Is Weird.” Billy Walsh and I wrote a song called “Wrapped Around,” and we had 30 minutes left in the studio, and I was talking to him about love just being really weird. And he was like, “That’s a song.” And then John Ryan picks up the guitar and starts singing. And then we all just, [each with our own perspective], wrote the song super quickly.

Charlie: What is it about the idea that you want to work from your gut, from your memory — why does that yield such positive results?

Julia: I think it’s just the most relatable. Even though you haven’t shared the same experience as somebody, you’ve experienced the same emotion. So even though my situation may be different from someone else’s, they’ve felt love so they can equate their situation to what I’m feeling and then blend it out, essentially.

Charlie: Over the many years I’ve listened to your music, it’s gotten to the point now where I can hear a song that you’ve written for somebody else and I know it’s a Julia Michaels song very quickly. Do you have a sense of what a Julia Michaels song sounds like, those things that come out of your subconscious? 

Julia: I don’t know if I have an identifiable sound, but I think I’m definitely quirky in my approach to lyrics, and I’m always trying to push boundaries and see what we can get away with that’s fun and interesting. I always am a bit comedic; I always try to throw fun words into songs. Ever since I heard Mary J. Blige put “percolate” in a song, I was like, my life goal now is just to put really large words into songs and people be like, What is that?

Charlie: You do have a way of rhyming that doesn’t always play by the rules.

Julia: I’ve always felt a little allergic to, like, moon/June rhymes things that you would expect people to rhyme with, like far and star. I always just want to see what we can get away with and usually my melodies are just me trying to fit as many words in a melody as possible. I think more about how to get the lyrics in there than I think about how to make the melodic structure interesting.

Charlie: You mentioned that a lot of your earlier music was about toxicity, and your other single, “All Your Exes,” is not not about toxicity, but it’s also a little bit tongue-in-cheek. What’s the story of how that song came together? 

Julia: I was nearing the end of my album and there were a couple of songs that I wanted to sort of take off. And I remember looking at JP [Saxe, her songwriting collaborator and romantic partner] and being like, “You’re one of my favorite writers. Do you want to spend a couple of days with me in the studio?”

And he was talking to me about how, you know, maybe one day in our future we’ll be able to talk openly about the people from our past that have shaped our present. And I was like, “No, I don’t give a fuck about anybody you’ve ever been with. I don’t give a shit.” And he was like, “Baby, you can’t just live in a world where all my exes are dead.” And I was like, “Yes, I fucking can.” And I sang the first two lines of the song in the car. And I was like, “We are writing this when we go to the studio tomorrow,” and that’s what we did. And yes, it’s satirical and comical and aggressive, but it’s really masked in insecurity.

Charlie: As both an artist and songwriter, why did you want to bring other people into the process?

Julia: My favorite part about what I do is collaborating. I always love that there could be a melody, lyric, or harmony, even, that you may not think of. Someone that you work with really well can complement that, and vice versa.

I think people overcomplicate songwriting sometimes. People think it has to have some brilliant metaphor, some interesting imagery. And I don’t think people realize that they can come into a room and they can talk about what they’re feeling. And then we can easily say that on paper. And I think a lot of people don’t do it because they’re scared of their feelings. And if they do do that, then it makes them extremely vulnerable. But I’m always one for vulnerability. Those are the best songs.

Charlie: In past interviews, you’ve talked about how fame was not the goal, that you are fundamentally an introvert and into music for the creative process. Do you think that being an introvert is sort of your songwriting superpower that helps pull out that vulnerability?

Julia: Growing up, I was always that way and I think it’s made me extremely observant and empathetic; it’s made me able to tap into other people’s emotions really quickly. I think that’s why when I’m writing with Gwen Stefani, for example, and she’s reading something in her journal and she says, “I don’t know why I cried, but I think it’s because I remembered for the first time, since I hated you, that I used to love you,” and she keeps reading down this journal entry, I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop. That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. If we don’t make that a song, I will hate us forever.” Someone will be saying something in a conversation and they’ll say one word or two lines. And I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, how have you not made this a song already? We have to make this a song.” I think also writing for as long as I have just makes you emotionally susceptible to everything, which I think is a superpower.

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You’ll Always Know a Julia Michaels Song When You Hear One