The brazen honesty of Hollywood's hottest hitmaker...

What did you do in the past 30 minutes? Got it? OK. It took Julia Michaels 30 minutes to write the world-smashing ‘Sorry’ for Justin Bieber.

The day ‘Sorry’ was unleashed, Lena Dunham, self-identified feminist, attacked it via Twitter. “Let’s do away with pop songs where a girl nods yes when she means no and vice versa, k?” she tweeted. She must have felt like an idiot when she found out that 23-year-old Julia - everything Dunham should champion - wrote ‘Sorry’. A self-motivated success story who is representing women behind-the-scenes of the music industry, Julia has ensured that all your favourite radio smashes are written from the perspective of the female gaze. And she’s doing it in the time it takes you to make mashed potato.

Today is the morning after the 59th Grammy Awards and Julia is uncannily zen. Awaiting Clash in an oversized vintage Selena T-shirt, she sits in a serene outdoors patio in Hollywood, her bright eyes belying any late-night partying. “I’m so tired,” she says, tying her jacket around her waist. “My skirt’s so short, everybody can see my pussy.”

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Already in demand, Julia’s name is on the lips of every producer, songwriter, and vocalist in LA. Everything she touches turns to platinum discs that hang on the walls of major labels. Beyond ‘Sorry’, in the past two years alone (together with writing partner Justin Tranter) she’s penned eight songs for Selena Gomez’s ‘Revival’, seven songs for Britney Spears’ ‘Glory’, ‘Make Me Like You’ for Gwen Stefani, and ‘Close’ for Nick Jonas, among many more.

She spent last night’s Grammys in a box with her manager. “We got to talk shit about everything,” she laughs. Brazen honesty is as important as breathing to Julia. It’s what makes you feel disarmed in her company. Once your barriers are down, Julia pounces. She’s as keen to know where you grew up and how you feel about the guacamole on the table as she is answering similar questions. When you ask if she remembers the first thing she wrote, she shakes her head and flips it. “I couldn't even tell you. When did you start writing articles? See? It’s just kind of in you.”

One of Julia’s earliest mentors, songwriter Lindy Robbins, imparted an important piece of advice upon her about songwriting sessions: Don’t be so prepared. “I used to think you’d have to have concepts ready to go. When I started working with her we’d just talk. We’d have a conversation just like this. I’d say something then she’d go, ‘Oh, that’s a great song, you should write that.’”

So is there anything we’ve talked about today that you would write a song about? “Lots,” she giggles. “Lots and lots.”

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One place songwriting has yet to take Julia is Australia. She’s just returned from Sydney for the first time. The occasion? Promo. At the start of January, Julia released ‘Issues’, her first single as a recording artist. No more hiding behind massive popstars. No more reducing herself to another name in the liner notes. In 2017, Julia is the main event. “I’ve never had to do this before,” she says of the interview process. “I’m in the studio for eight hours a damn day, go home, cuddle my puppy, go to sleep. Now it’s a different mental muscle. It’s a transition and I’d say I’m a good 50% there.”

‘Julia Michaels’ is a stage name. Born Julia Carin Cavazos, she began life living in the shadow of a different idol - her elder sister, Lauren, who was the original songwriter in the family. “She used to sing demos around the city. I would just watch her,” she says, recalling her experience studio stalking. “I loved music, being in the studio, watching them figure out how to piece it all together. I still do.”

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It’s a transition and I’d say I’m a good 50% there.

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Originally from Iowa, Julia moved to Santa Clarita, California, when she was 10. Her parents divorced, she lived by below-average means. “We were living in a bedroom in someone’s house, me, my sister and my mom.” As a home-schooled kid, she found more freedom to learn her craft during the day. At 16 she started writing seriously on a Baby Grand that her mother bartered for with her wedding ring after spotting it on the street. “We had no money but my mom worked to make sure we never felt like we had nothing.” Four years ago, the piano was lying dormant in a neighbour’s garage. Julia was forced to give it up. “I was crying on the asphalt while this company took my piano away. That was one of the only things I’ve ever had that was sentimental.”

Although distressing, it’s memories like these that Julia draws upon to write songs. “I’ve felt every emotion: being lonely, heartbroken, happy.” Even where she hasn’t shared an experience with her subject, she can transfer a feeling from her own past. “Take fear,” she offers. “You’re about to bungee jump or you’re about to get on stage - those are different experiences but they’re the same emotion. I’m such an introverted person. It’s up to me to really pay attention and listen to people.”

Foregoing college, Julia began hustling in LA’s competitive songwriting community. Soon enough her work was appearing on MTV’s The Hills. She’d become utterly prolific (over the last seven years she’s been writing up to three songs per day). So much so she can’t even remember her first break, guessing that it was ‘Miss Movin’ On’ for Fifth Harmony (2013) when she was 19.

“I remember hearing it for the first time on [LA station] KISS FM, sitting in my car, balling my eyes out. You hear a hundred no’s before you get a yes. You work so fucking hard thinking it’s never gonna happen. Nobody wants to give you a shot because you're 19.” She still has “shitty experiences” now. “People take advantage of me. They give me less of a split [in songwriter’s credits] because I’m a woman, because they think they’re more experienced than me. It happens constantly.”

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Nobody wants to give you a shot because you're 19.

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What her doubters fail to realise is that being young and female is what’s brought the best out of her subjects. When working on Gomez’s ‘Revival’ album (2015), their friendship played out to the world via Instagram. “There was something kindred,” says Julia. “I understood her, she understood me.”

You wonder if in the studio she ever feels starstruck. Especially when the likes of Britney walk in. “I’m the biggest fan of her as a person,” she says. “I never see somebody as famous. We bleed the same, we cry the same. When I walk in I say, ‘Hi, how are you? What’s going on?’ Then we write the song. It’s only when they get on the mic that I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’s Britney Spears.’ Then I lie on the floor in shock.”

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The day ‘Sorry’ hit the top of the Billboard charts was a big one for Julia for reasons she hasn’t had time to realise. “We had champagne in the studio because we had a session that day...” She pauses. “Wait, I think I wrote ‘Issues’ that day! Oh my god, yes! Not even kidding. That’s so weird. I totally didn’t even think about that.” For some reason, that was the day Julia and her boyfriend of three years - Nolan Lambroza (aka producer/songwriter Sir Nolan) - got into a fight. “I was like, ‘You’re being an asshole,’ and he was like, ‘You’re so right, I’m sorry, I love you.’ Then I wrote that song.”

‘Issues’ is a zingy acoustic number about how madly in love they both are despite their mutual craziness. It must be intense working in the studio together, no? “It’s definitely intense!” she laughs. “Because we’re so close, we take things way more personal. If he doesn’t like something and says, ‘I think you can do better,’ I’m like, ‘Well, you write the lyric!’ We both have power trips.” Julia puts the impetus to release the song herself down to just how personal the nature of ‘Issues’ was - too personal for it to be sung by anyone other than her.

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I think it was fear holding me back...

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She does, however, admit that the writing of it came after she gave a song away to someone and realised for the first time that she should have kept it for herself. She, of course, won’t tell which song. “I think it was fear holding me back,” she says. “I’ve always had this mentality that I’m not good enough in every aspect of my life. I always thought I wasn’t good enough to be a singer so I just suppressed it. Maybe I wrote ‘Issues’ subconsciously to tell myself that I wanted something more.”

At the moment, Julia’s working on following up ‘Issues’ with a full EP but can’t spare many details. Clash hears one additional song - ‘Are You?’ - which is dangerously catchy and percussion-driven. Before any more moves towards bona fide popstar status, however, Julia has to get through some other issues of her own. First, she’s having to sacrifice studio time writing for others (“my first love”) to crossover in the way that former writers-for-hire Tove Lo, Charli XCX and Sia have done before. The process has lent Julia a newfound understanding for artists.

“Gwen [Stefani, no less] texted me a picture of my song on the radio the other day. I said, ‘I respected you so much before but now you're my fucking hero’ - the fact that she’s been doing promo for this long and she’s still sane?!” Unlike her manufactured counterparts, however, Julia possesses that Sia-like candidness. “I’m an open book, I don’t care,” she laughs. “They put me through media training once and I sounded like a robot so I threw that out the door! I’m just me: a fucking mess, and I’ve been hiding for too long. I’m excited for people to see what I can do.”

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I’m an open book, I don’t care...

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The second of her issues is live performing, which she hasn’t done much of yet. “I have really bad performance anxiety,” she says. Last Friday, she was too scared to leave her car before a gig in front of 150 friends. “I’m nuts. I was so nervous. But when I saw Adele at the Grammys [the singer had to stop-start her performance] I thought, ‘OK, even fucking Adele gets nervous, thank God.’”

You wonder how she got through her performance of ‘Carry Me’, her collaboration with Kygo, at the closing ceremony of the Olympics in Rio last summer. “I fucking blacked out, dude. I remember getting onstage. Kygo’s looking at me like, ‘Are you ready?’ And I go, ‘Fuck no.’ They counted me down: 5-4-3-2… Then I woke up eating pizza.”

Later this week, Julia goes to New York, then onto more promo in Europe. Before she does though, what’s her studio secret? “I just talk a lot,” she offers. Indeed, an hour of talking later and you realise, Julia Michaels could have written two more ‘Sorry’s right there.

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Words: Eve Barlow
Photography: Daria Kobayashi Ritch
Fashion: Sean Knight

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