Pop star Julia Michaels has collaborated and co-written with a host of stars from Ed Sheeran and Selena Gomez to Britney and Kelly Clarkson. She talks to Louise Bruton about her anxiety, her approach to songwriting and her love of Dublin
As a songwriter to the stars (Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, Ed Sheeran, Janelle Monáe, Clean Bandit), Julia Michaels has proven to be an expert at handling subjects like anxiety, sex positivity, self love and regular old love love, but her own experiences with anxiety almost prevented her from fully embracing her status as a pop star.
This time last year, she was supporting Niall Horan on his debut solo tour, opening for him across Europe. Now with the release of Inner Monologue Part One, her second EP since her critically-acclaimed 2017 debut Nervous System, she’s in the early days of her first headlining tour.
Phoning from Kansas City, she reflects on the changes that have made this leap possible. “I think I was really scared of myself. Scared that I wasn’t good enough for a really long time,” she explains, referring to the anxiety that would flare up before or during a live performance.
“Of course, I always have those moments but they’re few and far between a little bit more now. I’m trying to learn to control it rather than control me.”
The first time she ever performed her debut solo single Issues live was for the televised broadcast of 2017’s Billboard Music Awards. She had a panic attack onstage. In a piece she wrote for Glamour in January, she explained what we saw versus what she experienced that night.
“At the end of the performance, everyone commended me for being so open. But in reality I had a massive panic attack onstage. The hug you see me go in for to my keyboard player was actually me turning to her saying, ‘I can’t breathe!’ I walked offstage and crumbled into a ball in a backstage hallway,” she wrote.
Her fear of not being good enough was all-consuming, even if she was on a stage big enough that proves just how loved she is. But now when she’s faced with a large audience, she has learned how to use the theatres full of fans to her advantage. “I’ve always told everybody that the thing that makes me the least amount of nervous on stage is when people sing with me,” she says.
“I think having people sing with me every night, so I’m not up there and feeling all alone, I think that really helps me a lot. Knowing that I’m in a crowd of like-minded people that all think the same and feel the same… I think that makes me feel a lot more calmer.”
Not one to do anything by halves, while she’s doing her own tour, she’s also opening up for Pink on the American leg of her Beautiful Trauma tour. How does she manage this heavy workload?
“I tour with basically… I call them my family, I tour with them, and they’re all super fun and really positive and really bright and any time somebody is in a bad mood, there’s always somebody in the crew cheering everybody on and everybody up,” she says. “It’s always really nice to have that camaraderie.”
By creating this support system, if she ever has a wobbly moment, she can turn to any member of her team or just pick out a face in the crowd to see her through. “There are definitely days where you’re really tired and you don’t want to do anything, but there’s always one or two people in each crowd and you’ll see their faces. They’re so excited and you’re just like ‘yes, this is why I do this. This is why I’m tired! This is why I work so hard!’ But it’s worth it. It’s so worth it.”
In this wonderful era of music, the recent trend in the charts sees our pop stars letting down their guard while taking firmer control of their careers. Instead of taking a factory approach to songwriting, where one song can fit a number of artists, songs are now catered to the individual pop star and they address what’s going on in the artist’s personal life, while giving us a decent bop to dance to.
By getting to Bieber to say Sorry for previous bad behaviours in 2015 and by helping Gomez work through her anxieties and her break up with the aforementioned on her 2015 album Revival, Michaels can be credited with helping to popularise the confessional form of upbeat pop that’s currently infiltrating the charts.
Does she think that there’s something about her that makes people want to open up?
“I don’t know if there’s something about me in particular, but I try to make a comfortable environment where people can feel like they can express whatever they want to think or say,” she says, downplaying the soothing effect she has on people.
“I hope that they would trust me to keep it confidential. Whatever happens in the room, stays in the room and [I would hope they] trust that I’m gonna take what they say and help them turn it into something really beautiful with them.”
She plays her vulnerabilities as a strength and always speaks her mind. Singing in hushed tones, she sings what others can’t put into words. Her songs shoot pastel-coloured bullets so when she aims, she kills with kindness. So no wonder other artists want her to help them process their emotions.
Michaels maintains an open dialogue with her fans on social media, often asking them therapy-styled questions like “What’s the one thing you like about yourself?” and “What are you drawn to most when it comes to someone else?”.
Even though she says that social media is not her “favourite place”, she still uses it keep fans in the loop of her private life. On January 4th, she announced her split from the singer Lauv by posting an Instagram story that stated: “No more dating narcissists”.
Clear and succinct, there is no doubt that she is now single.
The title of Inner Monologues Part One is indicative of a part two and her new relationship status could change the direction of this series. “Part One is more internal break up songs and Inner Monologues Part Two being more, like, love songs. Like being where I was versus where I am not but then…” – she pauses to build up to a comedic delivery – “I was in love with someone and he broke my f*cking heart, so now it’s just all over the place.”
Laughing freely, but remaining nicely tight-lipped, this is a break-up that’s definitely fuelling new songs.
Are you putting that feeling into music now?
“Yup! Pretty much.”
How’s that going?
“Great! Very cathartic.”
Does it feel like liberation?
“It just feels like a nice, big breath. A nice, deep exhale.”
The fact that Michaels opens the European leg of her Inner Monologue tour in Ireland later this year is no accident and we have Niall Horan to thank for that. She met Horan two years ago at the iHeart Radio Much Music Video Awards, where he asked her to join him on his Flicker tour.
“That was the first place [Dublin] that we got to perform – which was incredible – and I’m going back there in September.” she says. They pair have formed a solid friendship since then and he features on her EP on the love-blind ballad What a Time. “We’re actually going to open our tour in Dublin just to sort of pay homage to him for… almost like a thank you for even opening this door for us.”
“Now we get to do it ourselves, it’s just so crazy and so amazing. So we’re going to start in Dublin and we’re really excited. We love it there.”
A lot can change in a year and Michaels has proved that from finding ways to manage her anxiety and performing headline shows so that she be all-round pop star that she’s meant to be.
Julia Michaels plays Dublin’s The Olympia Theatre on September 12th, 2019. Tickets are €24.90 and they are on sale now from Ticketmaster.
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