Julia Michaels is the “coconut water” of music, she tells me. Which I can kind of understand. Anyone who’s listened to her music – and even if you don’t think you have, you have – knows that it has a certain, sweet potency. And her lyrics, vivid and real (Michaels has no capacity for bullshit) – are refreshing.
Michaels came up with my favourite metaphor of the year not as a humble-brag, but instead, to illustrate how polarising her work can be. She doesn’t believe her brand of pop is for everyone. “My music is weird, I am an acquired taste. I think that's why I'm still around is because I'm not afraid to try weird things and, you know, those weird cadences, different lyrical situations ...”
There’s no question that Julia’s songwriting is unique, though I would lightly push back on the notion that she’s an acquired taste. In her decade-long career, Michaels raw and uncompromising take on pop music has culminated in ubiquitous worldwide smashes like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar”. She’s also masterminded defining critical favourites like Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel”. For me, the consensus on Julia Michaels seems pretty clear: weird or otherwise, she’s for everyone.
Julia Michaels brings her best songwriting to her debut album, Not In Chronological Order, which was released late last week. “I feel like I've said everything that I've been feeling within these last few months,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of vulnerability, a lot of honesty, a lot of openness, a lot of songs about love and heartbreak and self-reflection [on this album].”
“There's songs for if you're feeling introspective, if you're feeling sassy, you're feeling sexy, you're feeling revengeful, spiteful, heartbroken, in love, super in love. I think there's a song for everything.”
Listening to Not In Chronological Order, I have to agree. “All My Exes” is anchored in tender, though murderous, hyperbole, and there’s the just-catchy-enough thumper, “Lie Like This”. “Wrapped Around”, a chart-topping hit in waiting, is disco-infused with a venom-tipped vengeance, while the gorgeous closer, “That’s The Kind Of Woman”, sees a metaphorical Michaels wander into the horizon with vulnerability and introspection, yet an unwavering sense of self.
It's that sense of self that comes through clearest on the album. It probably helps that, despite a career built on collaboration, Not In Chronological Order has no features. “I've been a songwriter for 10 years of my life, I have been so grateful to help people get their emotions out and say what they feel,” she said. “And in that, I've definitely hidden behind people. And I think, just in my personal opinion, having some of my friends on this album would still feel like me hiding from myself in a weird way. So I wanted this album to just be me. I wanted people to hear my voice.”
Michaels worked with a tight-knit group of producers and songwriters, including production team The Monsterz & Strangers, to bring Not In Chronological Order to life. A few tracks – including “All My Exes” – were even written alongside Michaels’ boyfriend, JP Saxe. Fresh off the back of a joint Grammy nomination for ‘Song Of The Year’ for ‘“If The World Was Ending”, the dizzying, fairytale love Michaels feels for Saxe, and surely vice-versa, seems to have shaped how she crafted Not In Chronological Order.
“This is the first time I've ever been in a very healthy, loving, supportive, ‘Meet me halfway and wait for me when I'm not there,’ kind of relationship,” Julia tells me. It’s a far cry from Julia Michaels’ relationships of years past, where spats with partners served as prime writing material. Picking fights so she has something to write about even became somewhat of a habit, Julia says. “I used to be like that a lot. A lot. I used to think that I could only write a great love song if it was derived from something toxic or chaotic,” she admits.
She speaks of “Little Did I Know”, which was written just by her and Saxe, where she reveals she once thought of love as “Shakespearean”, destined for heartbreak and tragedy, and filled with drama until the bitter end. “And that song changed a lot for me because it was like, ‘Oh, I can write a love song based out of love and communication and something beautiful and not rooted in toxicity’."
Speaking with Michaels, it’s clear this relationship gives her far more than just great songwriting material. “I have anxiety, I have depression, I have severely low self-esteem, I am super fucking insecure. I always thought that that was the kind of love that I deserved. I always thought that I wasn't good enough for love, or that if I was, that I deserved a certain type of love.”
“And then somebody comes in and changes all that for you, and you realize, ‘No, I am good enough for love and I do deserve a beautiful type of love in spite of what I may think of myself’.”
Not all songs Julia writes are about love, obviously. A good example is her writing a good chunk of the tracks on Demi Lovato’s heartbreakingly autobiographical 2021 album, Dancing with the Devil... the Art of Starting Over. That body of work contains stories of very intense, very specific and very public trauma. It would be hard not to absorb the heavier themes her collaborators want to sing about, but Michaels insists on not “tak[ing] myself out of a situation lyrically”, doing so would come at the expense of the work.
Michaels is similarly magnanimous with her fans, who often share deeply personal stories with her. Michaels recalls the days of touring, where “some nights you hear 60 people tell you stories and sometimes they're really heavy and you don't really have a place to put them … I am very empathic and I do take on people's emotions and I care very deeply about people. Sometimes it can be overwhelming.” Michaels stresses to me that being entrusted with these stories is always worth it.
“I love my fans, I love getting to hear their stories, I love their love, when they come to the meet and greet and they're hugging me and they're holding me really tight, that's such a beautiful moment for me.”
And now, in return, those fans have a body of work built on a decade of hit-making and heartbreak. Whether Not In Chronological Order is going to be the chart-smashing record it has the potential to be remains to be seen, but after our chat, I can safely say I don’t think Julia Michaels cares all that much.
At this moment, Julia Michaels is in love with herself, her partner and her debut album. And as she basks in the glow of finally having it out into the world, the world in turn looks on and feels that love as well.
Julia Michaels debut album, Not In Chronological Order, is out now.