“I can be kind of closed off with people that I first meet,” Julia Michaels tells me when I meet her in a London hotel for our interview.
She’s recalling her first meeting with Justin Tranter, the man she has written a string of global smashes with, including Justin Bieber’s Sorry and Selena Gomez’s Good For You/Hands To Myself. The short version of it is that she hid in a cupboard when she didn’t like how the song writing session was going, but they eventually bonded when Justin coaxed her out and encouraged her “to be as crazy as I want to be. We’ve been inseparable ever since.”
The advice clearly worked, as Julia is nothing but friendly and open for our first meeting, even revealing she'd split up with her boyfriend the previous week (“I mean it hurts, but I’m fine”).She’s also applied the rule to her own burgeoning pop career. Her debut single Issues was a wonky-but-catchy slow burner that tested the boundaries of US pop radio. The follow-up, Uh Huh, goes even further; she describes the song to us as "genre-less and all over the place".
Last Friday she released her first of two mini albums this year (“I don’t like to call it an EP”), called Nervous System. Given that she’s pretty adept at writing a hit or two, we asked her for some tips.
What makes a Julia Michaels song a Julia Michaels song?
“I hear similarities in the songs that I put out in terms of emotions. I tend to write everything from a very honest perspective and about personal experiences. If there’s anything that binds it all together it’d be my emotional disposition! I feel what I feel and write what I write. I don’t think about the stats and data s**t.
"I’ve never really been one to want to do what everyone else is doing. I like fusing things together and seeing what happens. I guess I don’t really know how to do ‘trendy’, I just like to write songs that are unique and different. I don’t go for the mathematic, algorithm-type pop songs. Those songs can totally work, but I think my brain is too emotional for that.”
Are there any specific traits that make for a good songwriter?
"I know songwriters who are incredible that can’t sing and ones who aren’t emotional people. They tend to be the ones who write those big summer hits. I don’t think songwriters have any one trait, it just comes down to talent. If you have the ability to write and structure a song well, that’s it.”
On average, how long does it take you to write a song?
"It depends on the day and who I’m with. All of my best songs have been written in about 30 minutes. Issues, Uh Huh [Justin Bieber’s] Sorry. It’s that moment when you’re not really thinking and your heart takes over, as cliché as that sounds.
“It depends though, if I’m with an artist or a producer – I pretty much always write with Justin Tranter - it can range from 30 minutes to several hours.”
You’re very in demand as a songwriter. How do you stop yourself from giving all your best songs away?
“It’s kind of unexplainable. You just know when a song is yours and when it can be for someone else. Issues is so much like ‘me’ that it would be weird to give that away.”
How do you know when a song is finished?
“I’m a perfectionist - I think most songwriters are. The last song you wrote is always your favourite. The label was pushing me to finish this mini album but I’m always like, ‘Just let me write four more!’. I wrote about 20 songs for it, and my boyfriend broke up with me last week, so I have loads of voice notes of things I want to write as soon as I get home.”
Julia co-wrote Selena Gomez's hit single Hands To Myself
Do you store of all these melodies and lyrics you come up with in some sort of database?
“I’m not efficient at all! If things aren’t going the way I want them to in a session, I’ll be like, ‘What voice notes do I have? Where’s that lyric I wrote down?’ That happened with Uh Huh – it was something that started while I was waiting for an artist to arrive for a session. That day it just happened to pop back into my head, and it turned out better than I could have hoped for.”
What’s the best song you’ve written so far?
“Honestly, I don’t have one! I’m grateful for every opportunity that I’ve gotten. Every song that’s come out, successful or not, they’re all special moments. There are so many songwriters who are trying to make it, so to get into this position I’m in, I don’t take it for granted."
Julia Michaels' Nervous System mini album is out now.