Rising Pop Songwriter Julia Michaels Co-Writes Big Hits for Justin Bieber (“Sorry”) and Selena Gomez (“Good For You”)

Julia Michaels
Julia Michaels

Update: Here is our interview with Julia Michaels in 2015. She had already co-written hit songs for Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, but hadn’t started her artist career yet,

Julia Michaels has quickly emerged as one of the hot pop songwriters on the Billboard charts. The Los Angeles-based songwriter, who is just 21, co-wrote Justin Bieber’s current hit, “Sorry,” and Selena Gomez’s hit, “Good For You.” In addition, she co-wrote the current chart singles “Love Myself” by Hailee Steinfeld and “Used To Love You” by Gwen Stefani.

It was only a couple years ago that Michaels landed her first placements as a songwriter. Now, she’s an in-demand songwriter, frequently co-writing with hot pop songwriter Justin Tranter and collaborating with several top artists. Remarkably, Michaels co-wrote eight songs on Selena Gomez’s acclaimed new album, Revival, which debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart, and received a four-star review in Rolling Stone magazine.

Michaels was born in Davenport, Iowa, and then moved with her family to Santa Clarita, CA (north of Los Angeles). In her late teens, she began writing with songwriters Joleen Belle and Lindy Robbins, and soon after she got a placement with Demi Lovato (her song “Fire Starter”) and a single with Fifth Harmony (“Miss Movin’ On”). She also co-wrote two songs for Selena Gomez’s 2013 album, Stars Dance.

In 2014 Michaels co-wrote a song called “Run” for Nicole Scherzinger, but it was in early 2015 that a flurry of cuts started to happen. She co-wrote three songs with EDM producer Zedd for his album True Colors, plus cuts with Kelly Clarkson (“War Paint”), Rita Ora (“Poison,” which has a hit overseas) and Jason Derulo (“Trade Hearts”).

Now in November (2015), Michaels has co-written many songs which have just been released. She co-wrote eight songs for Selena Gomez’s album Revival, two songs for Justin Bieber’s album Purpose, two songs for Demi Lovato’s album Confident, four songs for singer/actress Haillee Steinfeld’s debut EP Haiz, plus the single “Used To Love You” for Gwen Stefani, and a cut with U.K. female group, Little Mix.

For the past three years Michaels has been managed by Beka Tischker of AAM, and last December (2014) she signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music and works with Katie Vinten (Vice President of A&R). Both execs have played important roles in building Michaels’ success.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Julia Michaels. She tells how she got started as a songwriter, she talks about her some of her hit songs, and she discusses her collaborations with her main writing partner, Justin Tranter.

DK: How did you get started as a songwriter?

Michaels: I started writing poetry first, and when I was 12 I began to play piano…very poorly (she laughs), and I would put my poetry to songs. When I was 15, my sister was doing demos around the city, and she went to do a demo session in the valley. My mom also came, and she made me sing for this woman, a songwriter named Joleen Belle. For some reason, Joleen was impressed with me. She asked, “Do you write songs?” I said I’d like to. And so we started writing together and doing sync stuff, (pitching) for certain commercial promos or cues for shows. When I was 17, we really tried hard to write the theme song for the Disney show Austin & Ally, and we got it.

DK: I read that you also worked with (hit songwriter) Lindy Robbins early on.

Michaels: I did. I met Lindy when I went to do a demo for her. She liked my voice. Lindy was good friends with Joleen, and she asked Joleen if I was a good writer. Joleen said, “Yes, I’ve been working with her for the last three years—go for it.” Lindy said “Cool,” so we wrote our first song together and it was awesome. Things happened right away. Literally, our second song was “Fire Starter” which was cut by Demi (Lovato), and the third and fourth songs were “Slow Down and “Undercover” which were on Selena (Gomez’s) last album. Our fifth song was “Miss Movin’ On” which was for Fifth Harmony. It was crazy—things happened so fast.

Justin Tranter, Selena Gomez and Julia Michaels.
Pictured (l-r): Justin Tranter, Selena Gomez and Julia Michaels.


DK: Do you mostly write the topline—lyrics and melody?

Michaels: I mostly write topline and melody, but sometimes I’ll have an idea at home where I’ll sing it and play it on the piano (and record it) and take it to the session. I did the song called “Run” by Nicole Scherzinger—that one I started on piano, and then I brought in Justin (Tranter) and Felix Snow, and it kind of became what it is now. Sometimes I’ll start with the chords on the piano, but most of the time it’s just topline and melody.

DK: When you go to a writing session, do you have ideas in a journal with titles that you bring?

Michaels: It varies from day-to-day. Sometimes I’ll have a concept, like when we did “Hands To Myself” (recorded by Selena Gomez). I was singing it in my car…”can’t keep my hands to myself.” Then I brought it to Justin and Robin (Fredriksson) and asked them, “Is this stupid? This could be really cool, I think.” And then it just kind of happened. Or sometimes we’ll hear a track and just be instantly inspired by it—something will come to our minds out of thin air and we’ll just do what we feel.

DK: You and Justin have teamed up to write several hits. Do you mostly write with Justin now?

Michaels: We’re not exclusively partners but we’re pretty much joined at the hip at this point. We used to say that we wrote at least 70% of our songs together…now it’s like 92% (laughs). I see him pretty much every single day…we’re working later today.

DK: It’s interesting how you and Justin are both topliners, and that you work together so well, to make the best song possible.

Michaels: Yes, that’s kind of the whole thing with co-writing. You usually have two in a room, and then you have a producer or two producers…sometimes as a team. It’s so much easier and so much more fun…all the pressure is off of you. Sometimes there are melodies which you wouldn’t think of but they do, or with lyrics you can go back and forth. It’s beautiful and amazing. And when you meet the people that you gel with really really well, it’s like angels are singing! (laughs)

DK: This year it seems that it all came together for you—you’ve had several big hits. How did it happen this year?

Michaels: Honestly, I don’t even know…I can’t answer that for you. There are so many ebbs and flows in this industry. Sometimes it just happens and sometimes it doesn’t. I think when you work just really, really hard, and you want it as much as Justin and I want it, then things just happen because you’ve really worked for it.

Lindy Robbins, Demi Lovato and Julia Michaels.
Pictured (l-r): Lindy Robbins, Demi Lovato and Julia Michaels.

DK: What’s your typical work schedule? Are you writing most days?

Michaels: Justin and I pretty much work Monday through Saturday. Everyday we have a writing session, sometimes two in a day. We also might have meetings after a session, or sometimes dinner after.

DK: Two writing sessions in the same day—does that happen often?

Michaels: It’s pretty common. I try not to do them, because one session a day—every day—is already overwhelming. It can be very stressful, with a lot of pressure. So I try not to do two in a day. But if we feel it’s an opportunity that’s worth it, then we jump on it.

DK: You have a big hit now with “Sorry” for Justin Bieber. How did you and Justin Tranter hook up with Bieber?

Michaels: We were in a session, and we were asked to go write with (writer/producer) Blood Diamonds late one night. So we went to this session. Sometimes you hear a track, and you instantly know what you want to do on it. For some reason, the word “sorry” popped out of my head—we were in a (vocal ) booth and Justin Tranter and I just hashed it out from there. Then we sent [the demo] in, and Chelsea Avery, who works with (Bieber’s manager) Scooter Braun, loved the song and sent it to Justin Bieber. {Bieber] loved the song and he changed a couple things to make it feel more like him, because it’s his song he wanted to make it feel specific to him. It was crazy…we wrote the song in about 40 minutes. We finished it and said, “Oh that’s really fun, let’s go to dinner,” and three weeks later (after Bieber recorded & released it), the song was everywhere!

DK: That’s amazing that you wrote the song just a few weeks ago, and that it came out so quickly.

Michaels: Yes, usually it could take years for it to come out. It’s kind of crazy because when I had my first run of songs come out, with Demi and Selena, that happened incredibly fast. And then there was a year-and-a-half with almost nothing—just holds but not much happening. I’d ask myself, “What is happening?” I realized that the first set of cuts doesn’t usually happen that fast. It ebbs and flows. You have this amazing run for six months, and then it’s like nothing for a year. And now all of these things are happening at once. It’s like, Whoa…this is crazy!

DK: You co-wrote an impressive eight songs for Selena’s album. What clicked with you, Selena and Justin Tranter?

Michaels: I think Selena is a lot like Justin and I, in the way that…when you find something that you feel connected to, and it’s real and it’s honest, you don’t let it go. You see where it can lead you. Me and Justin have stuck together so long—if it’s not broken, why try to fix it?

I did a song for Selena called “Nobody.” [By now] I’d done a couple songs for her. On the day that she came in to rewrite “Nobody” with us, she said, “I feel like I know you, I feel like you’re going through the same stuff that I am, because everything that I hear from you sounds exactly like my life…it’s crazy. We said, “great” (laughter). And then we did the song “Mexico,” and from there we did “Hands To Myself”  and “Me & the Rhythm” and then “Revival.” It just kind of happened naturally and perfectly. Nobody stuck us together—everything just happened the way it supposed to happen.

DK: You just co-wrote with Gwen Stefani her new single “Used To Love You.” How did you hook up with her?

Michaels: Aaron Bay-Schuck (President of A&R at Interscope Records) asked me to work with Gwen and Justin, who were already writing together. Aaron is also Selena’s A&R exec and he knew the work I had done with her. He knew that I was a very emotional writer. The first day I wrote with her was the day we wrote “Used To Love You.” Gwen was telling me a little bit about her life…what she was going through, and she has these notebooks and little spurts of thought, little stream of consciousness typings on her computer. She was reading this to us, saying, “I don’t know why I cried, but I think it’s ’cause I remembered for the first time that I hated you but I used to love you.” She kept reading after that, and it just stood out to me because it was so relatable and it so real. Everybody has felt that in their life at one point. So I said, “That the song—guys, that’s amazing.” And Gwen said “Cool, let’s fit it to a melody.” And we say, “Gosh, this is so crazy and complicated but we’re going to do this, and we’ll make it work!” (laughter)

DK: You’re having such great success as a songwriter. Are you also interested in being an artist?

Michaels: I’ve never been the type of person to write a song and say “Holy shit, this is me…I want to put this out.” I’ve always loved writing. I’ve always loved getting to meet my idols and writing with them, getting to know them, and being able to write about their lives with them. I always get way more joy hearing somebody else sing my songs, than myself. So right now, I think songwriting is where my heart is. But the future’s weird and you never know.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima