Julia Michaels writes songs for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Britney Spears and herself. The songs are good and people like them.
You've probably heard her talking about songwriting quite a lot, because it's all she's ever asked about, so it seemed like a good opportunity to wheel out the same idea Popjustice threw at Ryan Tedder last year, which means an entire interview without asking Julia a single question about songwriting.
We met a few weeks ago while Julia was in London, and here's what happened.
What sort of woman are you?
I'm transparent. I'm emotional and anxious. I'm the sort of person who loves someone too hard and doesn't know how to let go. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I write everything down that I feel.
Taking a step back, are you as transparent as you think you are, or do people sometimes still have trouble reading you?
I'm a terrible liar. I am. I think anybody who's in a room with me for two minutes can tell I'm not going to be a fake person. I think I'm super-transparent. I share everything. I really don't care. (Notes facially-expressed scepticism) I don't! I feel people are going to find out who I am eventually, so why not be in control of it? I'd rather be in control of when people find out things about me, than have them find out from someone else.
Are you a kind person?
Maybe ask people I work with. The dark side comes out when I perform or if I feel like I'm being taken advantage of or taken for granted. In relationships it's different to work — I have some pretty big jealousy problems which come from trust issues, which in turn come from my childhood. I've always struggled with jealousy problems. But lately if my aggro-ness comes out it's because I'm terrified to perform and I tend to take it out on people.
What in your childhood led to trust issues?
It was my parents splitting up, and it was a couple of other things that happened. I mean I have both mummy and daddy issues. The whole package! Yes, I'm a really, really great person. But thank God for therapy and it helping you realise where it all comes from and why, and for then having the tools to realise why you think a certain way. It's good to have someone in the room who's non-biased. So if I talk about my breakup 1 all my friends will be like: "HE'S SUCH AN ASSHOLE!" But I'll mention it to my therapist and she'll say: "well, you know you were at fault too."
Do you enjoy therapy?
Do you worry that you enjoy it too much?
I'm not one of those people who has to go six times a week! I go once a week to cleanse the brain a bit, then I say goodbye and don't speak to her until I see her the next week.
If all jobs were capped at an annual salary of $18K, is it likely you'd being doing something else?
I'd still be doing this for sure. I don't think I could do anything else. I don't know if my brain and my heart could be capable of doing something else.
What are your thoughts on the James Bond franchise?
I haven't dived into that very much. I would feel differently if all action movies were only male-based. But since Charlize Theron is in the new Atomic Blonde film, and there's Wonder Woman, and there's Jason Bourne where the woman was strong and taken very seriously by the people around her… Well, if just James Bond existed I'd probably have a problem with it, but because all the others ones exist, I don't.
Why do people keep pets? Isn't it just a big power-trip?
Are pets a power trip? NO!
"I'm in charge of this dog, look at me."
It's a way of feeling unconditional love. I have a cat and a dog. I have the best dog. He's called Sampson. We cuddle every night. When he lies next to me we're the same size. We'll wake in the morning and he'll have his face right next to mine. He's the most special creature on the planet. Dogs look at you like: "I love you, I'm going to be here for you." It's good.
Is there anything in your house that needs fixing?
EVERYTHING. It's falling apart. The doorknob on my front door is getting wobbly. Sometimes my AC goes out in the summer. My house was built in 1928 so it's very old. My wooden floor panels sink when you walk on them. 2
Do you buy things to alter the way people think of you?
Not to alter the way they think about me, no. I'm wearing a sweater and jeans right now. I buy things a lot though — I have kind of a shopping problem. Retail therapy is probably my best friend right now.
Do you feel that what you're wearing now still, in its own way, directs people? Because you might want people to think—
— I'm human. I don't feel like I need to be super glammed-up in order to have people take me seriously or look at me a certain way. Of course when I'm on stage it's different, I have a full outfit, but I don't feel like I need to change who I am now I'm in the spotlight.
If you'd been alive in America during the 1870s, what line of work would you have been in?
Could I have been a poet? I probably would have been a poet. I've always loved poetry. If 'past lives' is a thing 3 I think I've always done something with words. So if I was alive in 1870 I would have been a poet.
What do you think about poetry that doesn't rhyme? Isn't that just cheating?
That's my favourite!
It's just a load of words though.
It's freeform and stream of consciousness, which I think is the best poetry. I think when you're trying to make poetry rhyme it loses the feeling. When it feels more like a diary entry it's more personal. I could read that kind of poetry all day. In fact I do. I love RH Sin because I love seeing a male's perspective in poetry and seeing how a man's brain works through relationships and heartbreak. As a woman you rarely see that side because men aren't as vocal as women are sometimes. I love other people's perspectives on how they experience love.
Have you ever left a negative review for something you've bought online?
Never! Although… No, I can't say that. I'll tell you off the record. Basically, I wanted to leave one for the [ARTIST NAME REDACTED FOR THE SAFETY OF ALL CONCERNED] record.
What are you putting off?
I'm putting off crying at every second because of this ache in my chest. And I'm putting off performing because it makes me panic.
Which life event is most responsible for the person you are today?
We were really broke when I was a kid. My mum was living paycheck to paycheck; one time she was living in a car and I was living with my dad. There are so many things in my life that have made me who I am, personally or career-wise. I've always been resilient in terms of taking a negative situation and finding the positive in it. When I was 13 my sister went to this pop academy, a sort of music school. They let her in on scholarship and they wouldn't let me in because they said I wasn't good enough, but then they eventually let me in. I always use the feeling of not being good enough as my driver to be good enough.
How do you convert that initial feeling into its total opposite?
It's more me being spiteful, really. (Laughs) I don't think it's okay to shatter someone who's 13 years old like that. There was a man running it, telling all these young girls they weren't good enough. He would have a chart of best to worst. That was so disgusting. Part of me was: "no. You're not going to win this." Even at 13 I knew that was not right.
Your family relocated to LA because your dad wanted to be an actor — was he any good or was that a fantasy?
I don't think he was given as many opportunities as he should have been. I don't think he had the right outlets to be able to pursue it — he moved and didn't know anybody, so didn't know how to get into the industry. He did security for Warner Bros in LA for 16 years. So he was around entertainment. He always says that he originally went to LA for himself, but he thinks he was ultimately supposed to be there for me. I think he'll get back into it; it was always something he loved and I don't want to see anyone I love not go after their dreams. I can't imagine what that would feel like; I'd be devastated if I couldn't do what I love every day.
Do you enjoy carrots?
I LOVE CARROTS. I love fruits and vegetables. I've been vegetarian for ten years, and pescetarian for two years. When I was 13, back when MySpace was really relevant and you could code things into your page, my friend coded this video called Meet Your Meat. I was like, "ooh, what's this?" And it was just a ten minute video of animals being slaughtered. I was so traumatised. My parents are from the mid-west and they're a very meat-and-potatoes family; that night we sat down to have steak, corn and mashed potatoes. I just couldn't eat it. My dad, for three years, was so pissed. "You're going to get a job, you're paying for your own food, I won't support this." So when I was 14 I got my first job so I could buy my own groceries. Then on my 16th birthday he made me a vegan chocolate cake and ever since then has just been the best dad ever. We live four blocks away from each other now; he's my best friend.
How do you feel when you walk into a room full of people you don't know?
At first I'm nervous, and I'm a little guarded because I am such an open person, but then I realise, like with people I work with, that we're all human, we all bleed and cry and laugh, we've all experienced the same shit. Once I've realised that I can be, like, "HI! HOW ARE YOU?" If I don't know or work with someone I can be awkward at first, but I try to find common ground with people. Music they love, television shows, something light and entertainment-based.
What TV shows could we bond over now?
Recently I watched The OA, which was phenomenal.
I thought the end was a bit sh—
I thought the ending was incredible. 4 The feeling they portrayed, and the passion that was in them in those movements and the feeling they could save people's lives. That really got me. When I watched it I did one of those cries that wasn't even a cry. Everything that was in my body was coming out of my eyes. When you're crying but don't realise it. Do you do that?
No. Who was your most significant non-family-member role model?
Well it happened later, when I was 18 or 19, but it was when I met Lindy Robbins, then when I met my manager Beka. I try to surround myself with really beautiful people — not only on the outside, on the inside too — and I try to surround myself with strong women because it makes me feel like I can be a strong woman. My manager, my publisher, my lawyer, they're all women. When I met Lindy and Beka they became my role models instantly. I think being a woman in a mostly male-dominated industry, well, not a lot of women make it to those positions. Just seeing them and how they've come through and ageism and misogyny, and seeing how they got there for all the right reasons, I just felt: "I trust you, I respect you, I love you, I'm with you."
Do you ever think you might explode?
Sometimes. Crying is really helpful.
Hey, do you want to know something really weird? So one of the things you'll know if you've read a few interviews with Julia is that when she starts a songwriting session with an artist, whether it's Britney or Selena or Gwen or whoever, she has a way of creating a strangely immediate, scarily deep sense of intimacy. And obviously that's great for pulling out emotions and thoughts for lyrics and song concepts.
"You have to play therapy with someone you don't know," is how she's described it, "and tell them your deepest darkest secrets. After a while you train yourself to be so emotionally intelligent that intimacy is an easy thing to find in a session."
So we finished doing this interview, or rather the interview seemed to naturally evolve into a general chat. Except, did it naturally evolve, or did Julia push it that way? Anyway this chat turned into a 15-minute conversation during which Julia turned the notoriously ludicrous structure of The Popstar Interview on its head. Because tradition dictates that in an interview, it's the popstar who has to answer every single question they're asked by a journalist who is not just a stranger, but a stranger who'll tell everyone what's been said.
Except in the conversation we had after the interview, Julia was asking the questions. She was asking questions about things you'd rarely talk about with someone you knew quite well, let alone a virtual stranger. Perceptive questions, and very direct ones. And as the questions continued, it felt more and more natural to answer them freely. She was listening, and she seemed interested, and she offered her thoughts as a way of leading in to other questions, but she wasn't really putting forward her opinion.
While it was happening it felt a bit like therapy but it was only afterwards that the truth hit: this is what it must feel like to be in a songwriting session with Julia Michaels. More precisely: THIS IS WHAT IT MUST FEEL LIKE TO BE BRITNEY SPEARS. In case you're wondering, it feels pretty good.
Julia's mini-album 'Nervous System' is out now.