Many of us can link a certain album to pivotal moments in our lives. Whether it’s the first record you bought with your own money, the chord you first learnt to play on guitar, the song that soundtracked your first kiss, the album that got you those awkward and painful pubescent years or the one that set off light bulbs in your brain and inspired you to take a big leap of faith into the unknown – music is often the catalyst for change in our lives and can even help shape who we become.
In this Love Letter To A Record series, Music Feeds asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share with us stories about the effect music has had on their lives.
Gretta Ray – Julia Michaels, Not In Chronological Order(2021)
I first listened to ‘Issues’ by Julia Michaels when it was released in 2017. Back then, I didn’t know too much about her as a songwriter. In fact, I didn’t know too much about pop songwriting at all, because I was yet to dabble in that genre as a writer myself. I was yet to learn about how
meticulous, particular, difficult and ultimately rewarding it is to write a great pop song. All that I knew was that ‘Issues’ was undeniably, indefinably catchy and captivating. I listened to it over and over, to the point where my younger sister had to tell me to “please stop listening to it in the
shower, the whole house can hear and it has played a thousand times now”.
Once I had started writing pop songs and collaborating with other writers for my artist project, I began to properly tune in to just how extraordinary and unique the work of Julia Michaels is. Her skill set as a seasoned songwriter is beyond measure, and it’s hard to believe that only now she is releasing her first full-length record. As a topliner, she ticks all the boxes when it comes to writing a ‘hit’, using repetition, enticing near rhyme schemes as well as underrated but extremely crucial ‘one-note melodies’. However, with her solo project, she seems to take more risks, not shying away from experimentation. This is consistently evident throughout her three EPs.
I first listened through Not In Chronological Order in its entirety in an Uber a few weeks ago. I had already played the opening track ‘All Your Exes’ dozens of times in advance, never growing tired of its brutally honest lyric and pop-rock production. I was on the edge of my seat listening to ‘Love Is Weird’, growing increasingly curious about what lyric I was going to hear next. What clever, unpredictable rhyme is she going to follow this intriguing, slightly weird line with? I’m talking specifically about Michaels’ reflection on her past relationships in the opening verse. “First one hit me hard, second was a feather. Playing operation trying to put me back together.” This is such a simple line, yet such a smart and authentic approach to songwriting. She follows this verse with a series of oxymorons, “closed off and exposed, salty and I’m seared, naked in my clothes, yeah.”
Again, there’s no way that anyone is going to turn away from this song now. It is no wonder Michels’ musical inspirations include writers like Fiona Apple, Laura Marling, and even Australian icons Missy Higgins and Lisa Mitchell. While her lyrics demanded my attention, it was Michaels’ choice of note on the lyric ‘weird’ throughout the choruses, a slightly discomforting, certainly ‘weird’ decision, that really sold me. Actually, scratch that, it was her sneakily resolving that melody to a major at the very end of the chorus that made me literally punch the air with satisfaction.
Michaels’ debut album is filled with gratifying moments like this. She comforts her listeners with inviting, sticky numbers ‘Lie Like This’ and ‘Undertone’, reminiscent of her song ‘Into You’ on Inner Monologue Pt. 1. She soothes her audience with sunny, sweetly romantic tracks like ‘Pessimist’ and ‘Orange Magic’, whilst songs like ‘Little Did I Know’ and ‘That’s The Kind Of Woman’ serve to unremittingly punch you in the gut. Fantasising about a better version of herself, the ‘kind of woman’ she would leave her current persona for, she paints a picture of a girl who gives all her attention to the people that are with her, she still loves to dance, she still loves her sister.
That lyric would be the moment at a Julia Michaels show where someone could interject her performance just for the sake of reintroducing her – “Ladies and Gentlemen …Julia Fucking Michaels”, and I would not be mad about it. It’s what she deserves for writing a line as brilliantly tragic as that.
I am in awe of so many decisions that Michaels and her collaborators made in the construction of Not In Chronological Order. I challenge anyone to write a better lyric than, “the summer before you I thought love was Shakespearean, more or less a painful experience, only ever real if you’re delirious.” Something tells me that the only artist who will do so is Michaels herself. Well, she or her collaborator, partner and the album’s central muse, JP Saxe, with whom she wrote the heartbreakingly evocative, bittersweet and suitable anthem of early 2020, ‘If The World Was Ending.’
Many argue that songwriters are at their best when writing from a place of heartbreak. There can be a preference for destructive, relatable, perfectly written breakup songs over deeply vulnerable yet more optimistic tracks like Michaels’ ‘Little Did I Know’. Although I have adored Michaels’ punchy, bitter lyrics about narcissistic ex-lovers on her past projects, it is so refreshing to hear a really great songwriter at work when they are happy. I remember that feeling of relief with Taylor Swift's ‘Call It What You Want’. Her chaotic love life was finally at peace, and it felt like an exhale as much as it did a return. Considering how extremely personal her songwriting is, you can’t help but grow attached to the human behind the storytelling, and you want that happy ending for them. I feel the same way about Julia Michaels, and the fulfilment so beautifully expressed in Not In Chronological Order.
I love this album and this artist. I will continue to wait on the edge of my seat to hear what
wonderfully alluring and quick-witted line she has to say next.
Gretta Ray’s debut album ‘Begin To Look Around’ will be released on August 27th. Today Ray unveiled the second double A-side single to be lifted from the debut album, ‘Human and Passion (Duology Two)’.