Out of the spotlight, singer-songwriter Julia Michaels has helped shape the face of pop music over the last decade. The Grammy-nominated wordsmith has penned hits for the likes of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and, our lord and saviour, Britney Spears. But the Iowa-gone-Cali girl is finally wielding her razor-sharp wit and lyrical chops to tell her own story on the debut album Not In Chronological Order.
Years after releasing her 2017 EP Nervous System, the pandemic presented the 27-year-old with the perfect opportunity to finally dedicate her energy to a body of work that she can call her own. With an intimate trust circle of collaborators (including her boyfriend JP Saxe) around her, Michaels spent months threading together defining moments of her life through music.
Inspired by songstresses of the nineties, she writes with the meticulous and unabashed sincerity of an open book over the 10 tracks. It’s not a breakup album, a new romance record or a declaration of self-discovery. It’s actually all of the above. She sings of identity on ‘That’s The Kind of Woman’, insecurity and fiery jealousy on ‘All Your Exes’ and a blossoming love on ‘Little Did I Know’.
Through the lens of a healthy relationship and a new understanding of romance, it’s a non-linear chronicle of the moments that moulded her twenties and the woman she is today. The record has also given Michaels more creative control over her songs beyond the lyrics. The tracks ebb and flow between electro-pop and acoustic slow jams to reflect her sonic influences.
She flashes her sense of humour in music videos like ‘All Your Exes’, where she slays her lover’s past dalliances with a chainsaw in a campy ode to ’80s slasher films. And on social media, she encourages fans to share their own remixes and recreations. Michaels is finally riding solo in the driver’s seat and it suits her well.
On the eve of the album’s release, Music Feeds caught up with Julia Michaels over Zoom to chat about the record, the power of writing for herself and being present in 2021.
Music Feeds: Your first record is almost here! How are you feeling ahead of the release?
Julia Michaels: I’m feeling good. Now I’m 90% really excited. And then 9% nervous and then 1% really nervous, but overall very excited.
MF: After such a long time writing for others, what was it like creating a full-length record for yourself?
JM: It was pretty surreal. It was surreal too because I made most of it in 2020 in quarantine, socially distanced. I was going to do a couple of sessions on Zoom. And I did one and I was like, “I’m never doing this again.” Like literally fuck this box [points to Zoom window]. I got a group of people together that I really loved, that have known me for a really long time and that I trusted with the whole journey and process. And they were gracious enough to lend me their time and it’s a scary time. We got to make this album together in the room together, but you know, six feet apart. That was so, so weird. But yeah, it’s my first album. I put out my first single four years ago. You’d think I’d have an album by now but I don’t (laughs). My fans have been waiting a really long time. And I’m excited that they’re gonna hear one finally.
MF: How have the fans been reacting to the tracks you’ve dropped from the album already?
JM: They’ve been so wonderful and so supportive. I mean from Twitter, to Instagram to TikTok, the videos and all the comments and all the pictures that they’re posting. When I put out ‘All Your Exes’, there were so many people posing with fake chainsaws and stuff. It was so funny.
MF: That music video is everything! You must have had the best time working on that?
JM: So much fun. It was the first time I really got to collaborate on a music video. I think I always thought of that phrase “you have one job”. Like stay in your lane kind of vibe. I was like, “Oh, I’m the songwriter. I’m not a director. I’m not allowed to have input on my own music video”. 2020 was a time for self reflection and a time to be like “no, I should be able to talk about things with somebody”. I met this wonderful woman named Blythe Thomas, who directed the video and I told her my ideas. And she just enhanced them entirely and put her own really cool spin on the whole music video and it was just awesome. JP says he’s pretty sure I wasn’t acting. I think he might be right. I think that might have been like an undercover true form.
MF: You can just send him the link to the music video any time he steps out of line.
JM: Yeah, absolutely (laughs).
MF: You have so much songwriting experience, but is a little bit more daunting or liberating writing these songs under your own name?
JM: When it comes to writing for myself, I have a lot of wonderful people that worked on this album with me but the core is my memories, my thoughts, my feelings, my perspective, and I can get as specific with it as I want. I really don’t give a fuck. And I’ve never been shy to talk about anxiety, depression, how I feel about my body, how I feel in love, how I feel heartbroken, how I feel just in any certain situation. I’m grateful that I even have that outlet to do it. It’s awesome.
MF: The album is called ‘Not In Chronological Order’. Can you talk about the significance of that title, the tracklist and how it tells your story?
JM: It’s funny you say that because it kind of had the opposite effect with the album title. I think because I’m a songwriter, people always expect me to have some deep, hidden meaning behind everything. And when it came time to do the tracklisting, the feeling just felt better. The feeling felt better in chronological order than the story did to me. I didn’t want to put all my heartbreak songs at the top. I didn’t want to put all my love songs at the bottom, I didn’t want to put my insecurities at the beginning. I wanted it to space out, and I wanted you to feel everything as sort of situational. So that’s what it is, it really is not in chronological order. Just in terms of life events.
MF: I love it because it takes you on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, just like in real life.
JM: Thanks! That’s what I’m going for. Cuz I am an emotional roller coaster. Let’s go [laughs].
MF: Was that something you were really deliberate in channeling when you were writing the songs or was it a bit of a happy accident that you realised in retrospect when it started to come together?
JM: Honestly, with me, and songwriting, it varies. Some days, I’ll go in, and I won’t know what I want to talk about. And I’ll hear chord progression. And sometimes when I hear a chord progression, certain chords will resonate with me differently. And I’ll see a word in my head, or a memory will pop up and I’m like, “Okay, do I have enough information and inspiration to make a song out of that memory?” and sort of go from there. Or if it’s something that’s happening currently, in my life, I’ll talk about it. Or, for instance, I was in the bathtub when I got the idea for ‘That’s The Kind of Woman’. I was sitting in my thoughts, thinking about the kind of woman that I am and if there was anything about me, I could change what would that be? And just making the list and then again, I think that would be the kind of woman that I could see myself leaving myself for, you know? So it depends. Much like the songs are situational, the way that I write is situational.
MF: Are there any songs that you or that you’re especially proud of, like “I did that. That’s a banger”?
JM: I don’t have that kind of confidence (laughs). So no. But I think one of my favourite songs to write was ‘Little Did I Know’. I wrote that with my boyfriend JP and it’s a really beautiful love song. I think for me in the past, I’ve always thought that I had to create some sort of melodramatic situation to have this beautiful song, and I was so wrong. And being with him and writing with him has changed that and I’m really proud of that song.
MF: Yeah, it’s beautiful. What was it like writing with JP on this record? You’ve written together before but what was it like working on your debut album with him?
JM: Well, we figured if the first time we ever wrote together got us a Grammy nomination, we should probably not NOT write together (laughs). So he was very gracious with his time. And I’m grateful that we still can write together and not take things personally. I can be kind of aggressive and very intentional in the studio. And sometimes if you don’t understand me or my personality, it can be like, “whoa”. So I am just so happy that he has not stormed out or taken anything to heart too much (laughs). And that he listens to me. I’m like, “I have this idea of this idea”. And he’s like, “Okay, cool. Let’s figure this out”. We write really well together. And I hope we can continue doing that in the future because it has been very fun. I get to have sex with a man that I write songs with. It’s fucking great (laughs).
MF: It’s the best of both worlds. You’re living the dream.
JM: (Laughs) Exactly! It really is the best of both worlds.
MF: The record is a really interesting balance of songs made for the dancefloor and tender, acoustic moments. Who or what were your sonic influences for the album?
JM: Well, I’ve always been very inspired by 90’s music. And 90’s female singer-songwriters in particular. I think it’s where I get my honesty, my true to myself, unapologetic, write what she wants, speak up for yourself songwriting mentality. And I’ve always just loved the rawness and the edginess of the lyrics and the music in it. It feels put together, but it also feels a bit blurred, and a bit distorted. And I’ve always found that so, so nice. That beautiful chaos. And I really wanted to incorporate that feeling in this album.
MF: There’s a song for every moment and emotion.
JM: Yeah, if you want to be sad, sassy and sexy or spiteful and revengeful. There’s a song for that.
MF: If and when the world gets its shit together, do you have any plans to tour the album?
JM: I don’t right now. I want to, but I’m really nervous. I’m nervous to know what it’s gonna be like. I kind of watch what other people do to do it, so I know what it’s gonna be like. I’m mentally preparing myself for it. Because if it’s gonna be all boxed out, and everyone’s gonna be seated and stuff like that, it is going to be such a weird transition for me because I’m so used to being in there. Literally in my show, I get in the crowd, and I sing in the middle of everybody. So having those elements taken out of my show are going to be really weird, because those are so important to me. So not yet, but I hope soon.
MF: Yes, fingers crossed. I mean, you should just come down to Australia, gal. Things are starting to open up down here.
JM: I heard! It’s incredible. I’m so happy for you guys. Someone’s doing it fucking right.
MF: It has already been a wild 2021 for you, but what else do you have planned for the rest of the year?
JM: To be honest, I’m just super focused on this album. These days, we’re so used to moving from one thing to the other. And I am too. I’m so guilty of that. And I just think, with the perspective and self-reflection of 2020, I really want to be present in this album. It’s my first album. You only do your first once and I really want to enjoy every single second of it.
Julia Michaels’ debut album, ‘Not in Chronological Order’, is out now.