“One time when I was in a session, someone said that if you write a love song about beer or a candy bar, then it almost always sounds like a love song.”
Turns out, Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Julia Michaels doesn’t drink beer or eat a lot of candy. But in a phone interview with the Houston Press the morning her Inner Monologue Tour is set to launch its U.S. Leg, she admits to eating a lot of Hot Cheetos, squeezing lime on them, and letting her exes call her in a fit of rage once they’ve learned she wrote a song about them.
“Other times I’ll call them and say ‘Hey, I wrote this song about you, but um…congrats,'” she says giggling. “They’re usually pretty nice about it. And at that point, what can they really do about it?”
The 25-year old found her start in the industry crafting ear-worms for pop music titans Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani, and Britney Spears (to name a few), quietly shaping the pop music landscape in the process. A songwriter’s songwriter, her songs quickly built their reputation around hallmark traits of vulnerability, honesty, humor, and impossibly memorable hooks that feel familiar upon first listen. In 2017, Michaels began her own transition from songwriter to recording artist with her breakthrough hit “Issues.” Since then she’s released multiple projects under her own name, including this year’s Inner Monologue Parts 1 & 2, while continuing to collaborate with other artists. Despite the duality of writing for herself and for others, Michaels knows exactly where to draw a line.
“Normally if I’m writing for someone else, I’m with the artist in the room. So if I’m with the artist in the room I’m not going to be a dick and be like, ‘This song’s mine.’ That’s like Songwriter Etiquette 101 – you don’t do that shit. So if I’m just writing by myself, then usually it’s for me.”
When Michaels plays at House of Blues this Sunday night, she’ll undoubtedly perform her radio staple “Issues,” the unexpected hit that earned her a Song of the Year Grammy nod in 2018. When asked about the song’s impact on her creative output after its release, she says the song’s success created a bit of pressure for her.
“It definitely makes you overthink things a little bit more than you would normally, I think. But luckily I have really amazing fans and I can talk about things like anxiety, and depression, and self-image, and my love-hate relationship with myself, and my past relationships, and my love-hate relationship with love. And my fans are so wonderful and loving and love it regardless of how well it does on the radio station,” she says with an endearing tone of voice when speaking of her fans.
When she first started incorporating themes of mental illness into her work, she says it was to help herself talk about it.
“I tend to be a non-confrontational person including non-confrontational with myself. So it started as me just sort of talking about my problems and getting my problems out and in turn it’s helped a lot of people and in turn it’s helped me also,” noting that the conversation on mental health has become more acceptable, though there is still room for growth.
“I think it’s great having outlets like social media and stuff where everybody can really talk about it. And I think, too, we’re becoming a generation of – we’re not suppressing things, and people aren’t told to suck it up and hide your feelings. You know, we’re able to be vulnerable and we have an entire community through social media that allows us to do so without feeling like we’re crazy or there’s something really wrong with us. So I think it’s great. I think we’re breaking the stigma every single day, but everything takes time and not everything is where we want it to be yet, but it will be.”
When asked how music affects her, she says it’s one of the only things that can "alter your mood."
“If you’re sad and you’re going through a breakup, you put on fuckin’ Big Sean’s ‘I Don’t Fuck with You’ and you’re like ‘I feel so much better, I want to go out with all my friends and do stupid things for a night!’ Or you could be really happy and you could put on a singer-songwriter song like 'I Come Home' by Catherine Feeny and instantly want to cry. So I think music impacts me in all kinds of different ways. You know, I think music is the most beautiful thing – one of the most beautiful things, and the most universal language that I know. I’m so grateful that I get to do it and that I get to perform it and I get to have these experiences with people every night.”
Michaels’ most recent single, “If You Need Me,” tackles another heavy hitter: grief. After Facebook reached out to Michaels to write a song for its series Sorry for Your Loss, she met with a few women who met each other through the Facebook community through the show; each of them had lost their husband.
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“It was a pretty scary task for me. It’s a lot of pressure to put a subject into a song that I have never experienced before and do these women justice,” she says, recalling the experience as “heavy, but really beautiful.”
“I just sort of crossed my fingers and bit my nails for a little while just hoping that they’d like it. And I played it for them and they loved it, they cried and then I felt like I had done something right because you know, it’s a big task. And so for them to like it made me feel like I had done them justice.”
You can catch Julia Michaels in concert with Rhys Lewis this Sunday, October 20 at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. For information, visit houseofblues.com/houston $25.