Selena Gomez‘s “Good For You.” Justin Bieber‘s “Sorry.” Britney‘s “Slumber Party.”
That’s about one-twentieth of the legitimately incredible pop smashes that Julia Michaels, along with her songwriting partner Justin Tranter, penned for us in the past three or four years, at a time when pop has felt otherwise, well…lacking.
Simply put, Justin & Julia are having a moment.
Next to Sia and Ed Sheeran, they’re two of the most in-demand songwriters in the industry: Selena Gomez‘s Revival was largely all Justin and Julia, Gwen Stefani snagged them for the bulk of This Is What the Truth Feels Like, and everyone from Fifth Harmony to Nick Jonas to Demi Lovato boasts tracks by the two on their records. (Hell, even Nicole Scherzinger recorded the Justin and Julia-penned “Run.”)
But for plenty of pop songwriters — from Cathy Dennis to Keri Hilson to Bonnie McKee — it isn’t fulfilling enough to write just for others. Some songs are just too personal to give away.
Justin already knows about that: if you went to Lady Gaga‘s Monster Ball Tour, you probably saw him opening as part of glam-rock troupe Semi-Precious Weapons. (“Aviation High” is still great.)
But Julia, barring a feature on Kygo‘s “Carry Me” last year, hasn’t had own real artist moment yet. She wasn’t going to do the whole artist thing either, until she was forced to give away a song last year that she truly loved.
“When I found out someone was recording it, I cried in the bathroom for an hour-and-a-half. I didn’t want to admit it to myself. I had shunned the thought of actually being an artist for so long. I only thought I could be a writer, but I just realized how much that particular song felt like me. I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something missing.’ I had to make a change,” she says.
Fast-forward to a newly inked label deal with Republic Records (which was surely a bidding war behind-the-scenes), and that brings us here at the start of 2017, and the beginning of Julia Michaels, The Pop Star.
“Issues” is her debut single, and it is — wait for it — about issues.
“My boyfriend and I like to fight a lot. I have a lot of problems. He has a lot of problems. Somehow, we always work them out and find a way back to each other. ‘Issues’ is knowing and accepting you have problems and your partner has problems and when shit gets hard, you don’t just walk away, you make it work—no matter how fucked up you are. You’re there for each other.”
Not too surprisingly, the song feels just as personal as the first single from a songwriter bursting at the seams to tell her own story should.
“I’m jealous, I’m overzealous / When I’m down, I get real down / When I’m high, I don’t come down,” she tenderly sings.
“I got issues, but you got ’em too / So give them all to me and I’ll give mine to you / Bask in the glory of all our problems / ‘Cause we got the kind of love it takes to solve ’em.”
Julia’s delivery is breathy and intimate — it’s no wonder Selena Gomez felt so at home slinking into a Michaels-penned production — and the songwriting style feels personal and refreshingly relatable and heart-on-sleeve, like Marina + The Diamonds spilling her nervous guts out on early cuts like “Obsessions.”
The other great thing about “Issues”? There’s nowhere to hide: the sparse, finger-snapping production takes a backseat to the singer’s voice, which almost surely was the intention.
It’s better with each play (and, conveniently, replay-friendly), and a promising beginning for someone who already knows what it feels like to be at the top — only this time, it’s all her.
Like Sia, if she catapults to superstardom, there’s no need for her to stop the songwriting thing, either: in an ideal world, Julia Michaels can write their hits and have her own, too.
“Issues” was released on January 13. (Apple Music / Spotify)