J.The music video by ulia Michaels for ‘All Your Exes’ is an absolute gorefest. We find the star donning her best Suzy Homemaker outfit and taking her Squeeze’s ex to dinner – but things take a dark turn when Michaels shows himself as a serial slasher, hits the woman over the head with a baseball bat, and her captivates in the dining room next to the hacked corpses of the other former lovers of Michaels’ Beau.
The song that accompanies the horror visual is a gloomy, humorous alt-pop belter that turns starry ideals of romanticism upside down. Michaels proclaims: “I want to live in a world where all your exes are dead”. Written with her boyfriend, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter JP Saxe, it’s a foretaste of Michael’s upcoming debut album, Not in Chronological Order.
“JP and I were in the car and left the studio,” she tells NME about Zoom from LA, “and he said,“ Maybe there will be a time in the future when we can talk about people from our past in a healthy way shaped our present. ‘”Michaels’ answer? “‘Fuck it – I don’t want to know about your damn ex-girlfriends!'”
The record shows all aspects of love – from breakups in the Nu-Disco-Bop ‘Wrap Around’ to the head-and-neck dizziness of new romance on ‘Orange Magic’. Work began last summer during socially distant writing sessions. As Michaels puts it, “I refused to make an album on Zoom.”
It was a strange change for the musician: “We usually start the day with a really big hug when I’m with the people I love. We sit very close together because one thing we wonderfully insecure songwriters do is mumble everything to us and if you don’t sit close enough you won’t understand! “
N.After 27 years, the Iowa-born singer broke into the music industry a decade ago. She co-wrote library music (songs that are played in the background of movies and TV shows) and was given the opportunity to write a theme song for the Disney Channel children’s comedy Austin & Ally.
“I was in my math class when I got the message,” she grins. “I basically broke off the algebra, I thought, ‘Fuck this – bye!'” It was this gig that made it clear to her that she can turn music into a job. After that, her career as a songwriter began. For the past 10 years she has written for everyone from Demi Lovato and Gwen Stefani to Linkin Park. She co-wrote the Billboard 100 toppers ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber and ‘Lose You to Love Me’ by Selena Gomez.
It officially stepped into the limelight in 2017 with the massive hit single “Issues”, which has had 223 million YouTube views and reached number 10 in the UK. Michaels still sees herself primarily as a songwriter.
“I’ve never done anything for fame,” she says, referring to her handful of early solo EPs: “[They were] Just a means of getting things out that I’ve always wanted to talk about, including with other artists, but I always felt a bit too shy to even bring them up in the room. These are just thoughts and feelings that I have every day. My music is a bit of an acquired taste, and I’m fine with that. “
Many credible artists, of course, claim that they’re not in for the fame, but in Michaels’ case, you tend to believe her.
‘Issues’, for example, is a shaky pop catchy tune full of raw lyrics about Michaels’ own fight against fear: “When I’m down, I get really knocked down / When I’m up, I don’t come down.” It’s not exactly chart fodder on paper, but the song has since gone platinum in countries around the world and was even nominated for Song of the Year at the Grammys (but lost to Bruno Mars’ creeping ‘That’s What I Like’ ). Soon after its release, Michaels was playing colossal venues and award shows – a whirlwind for a songwriter more used to being behind the scenes.
“My music is an acquired taste – and I agree with that.”
“I learned to sing in the studio,” she says. “I learned to sing in a booth where I could be alone. I could turn off the light. If I screwed up, I could do it over and over until I got it right. And I had never actually performed before. “That all changed when she got the call to perform the song at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards.
“[My team] called me and said: “We have the slot for you!” I said, “Can I think about it …?” And they say, “Absolutely not – you do it”. If you watch the video of the performance, I end up having a panic attack because I was so scared of everything that was happening. “
This stage fright followed on future shows. “I would even run away; I hid in stairs so I wouldn’t have to step on, ”she says. While it was unbearable back then, Michaels thinks today: “I look back at the trajectory and am damn proud of everything I have overcome. I did fucking stadium tours with great fear. The whole process made me realize how adaptable you can be and how brave you can be, even in the face of your deepest, darkest fears.
Due to the pandemic, there are no concrete plans for a ‘Not in Chronological Order’ tour, but she has attended a handful of rehearsals for these new songs with her touring band. “I was still walking in my heart, flapping my hands trembling and not being able to sing these songs because I was so nervous that I wouldn’t sing them well … I love these songs so much that I don’t want to screw them up.” She says.
There’s a lot of pressure on a debut album for any artist, let alone one who wrote some of the biggest hits of the last decade. Why is now, 10 years after her brilliant career, the right time for Julia Michaels?
“I think I can mainly attribute it to being in love,” she says. “After experiencing love in a very healthy way, I realized how pessimistic I was about the past. And how bitter I was and how in love with toxicity I was. What I wanted to write about is … I think, with love, people think that this drama has to exist. And that’s what I thought for a long time. I just really wanted to talk about this new healthy relationship I have with love. “
Photo credit: Vince Aung
‘Not in Chronological Order’ shows the ups and downs of romanticism and is musically refined and lyrically raw. Any song that blends Michaels’ pop sensibility with moments of punk, R&B and – in 1975-style The Undertone – even a brief instance of the UK garage is bolstered by the songwriter’s unconditional honesty.
“I take what I do really seriously,” says Michaels. “I love words. I like music. I like the way people feel. I love that it is a release for me because I am not a confrontational person; I’m not talking. In my personal life, I always feel that I feel small. And when I make music I feel big. “
– Julia Michaels ” Not In Chronological Order ” was published on April 30th via Republic