From her featured role as the vocalist on a song she co-wrote––“Surrender” by the New Jersey-based EDM trio Cash Cash––it is clear that 21-year-old Julia Michaels is a stunningly expressive interpreter. But as she explains, she much prefers the relative anonymity of being the songwriter, “Because I can show up to the studio in slippers.”
Seated in her management company’s industrial chic offices for what she reveals is her first interview, Michaels is animated, authentic and unfiltered. She also seems somewhat surprised that MC readers would be interested in her story. “I’m not that cool folks,” she laughs.
Michaels’ rapidly expanding resume proves otherwise. In addition to “Surrender,” her co-writing credits include “Slow Down” by Selena Gomez, “Run” by Nicole Scherzinger and “Invincible” by Borgeous. Michaels has recently formalized a deal with music publishing powerhouse Warner-Chappell and is anticipating the release of “War Paint” from Kelly Clarkson’s newest collection, Piece by Piece.
Born in Davenport, IA, Michaels relocated with her family to Santa Clarita, just north of Los Angeles. “My sister was the singer,” Michaels remembers. “My mom would take her everywhere and I would follow along to watch her dance classes and vocal lessons. I started writing poetry. When I was 11 my mom saw a baby grand piano for sale on the street. She didn’t have any money with her, so she handed her diamond ring to the guy who was selling it and said, ‘I’ll be back for this.’”
From writing what she characterizes as “super depressing emo songs,” (and expressing her individuality adorned in a Mohawk and a tutu) she recorded promising indie projects. “I thought that being an artist was the way to get into the rooms and write with everybody. I didn’t know that you could just be a songwriter,” says Michaels.
The possibilities became clearer through Joleen Belle, a songwriter for whom her sister had been hired to sing a demo. “Joleen and I started doing library sync and promo stuff. When I was 16, I would hear my songs on The Hills and promos for The View––it was awesome.” Michaels and Belle also wrote a song with Mike McGarity, titled “Can’t Do It Without You.” While sitting in math class in a charter high school, she received the news that this song had been selected as the theme for the television show Austin & Ally.
“I don’t know how people write songs solely by themselves,” muses Michaels. “I love working with people and I love to learn.” Among her prolific partners is hit songwriter Lindy Robbins (One Direction, 5 Seconds of Summer, David Guetta). “I met Lindy when I was 18. The first song we ever did together was called ‘Love Back.’ From there we did the song ‘Fire Starter’ for Demi Lovato and a dance record for Fifth Harmony, ‘Miss Movin’ On.’ It happened so fast.”
From Robbins, Michaels learned that sometimes inspiration, not preparation, is key to a hit song. “She taught me to not be so calculated, to be free and write from the heart. From this stream of consciousness the song could birth itself.”
Among her collaborators are songwriter/producer Felix Snow and Jason Tranter, of Semi-Precious Weapons. Michaels displays a photo on from a session that shows Snow adorned in a mask and Tranter in a big black dress. “I have so much fun writing with them,” Michaels enthuses. “I surround myself with beautiful people who do it for the love of music.”
To chronicle her ideas, thoughts, drawings and dreams, Michaels uses handmade fabric-covered note pads with tea-soaked pages. “I bought a computer for writing, but it is distracting. I would end up on Facebook or shopping! I always go back to the notepad and the pencil. This is just the way I was supposed to be.”
Julia Michaels ponders what advice she would share with someone who aspires to be a professional songwriter. “Don’t write for what you think other people might want. Once it turns into work, it’s not fun. Write what you want to write and the song will come into itself.”