Aretha Franklin

Julia Michaels on Grammys Possibility and 2017 Success: 'I Had No Expectations Going In'

 Catie Laffoon
Julia Michaels

In the past two weeks, Julia Michaels has released her debut “mini-album,” Nervous System; unveiled the music video for new single “Uh Huh,” which has over 2 million YouTube views; performed on Today and The Late Late Show with James Corden; and received a nomination for Best New Artist at the MTV Video Music Awards. Meanwhile, her breakout single “Issues” is still in the Top 40 of the Hot 100 chart after peaking at No. 11, and Michaels’ name is a popular one within the industry when prognosticating the early front-runners for the Best New Artist category at the 2018 Grammys.

Michaels -- who started as a songwriter on hits like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself” and Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself” -- released “Issues” 13 days into 2017, after spending months preparing for her debut as a solo artist. She tells Billboard that her recent success has exceeded her most extreme hopes.

“Honestly, I had no expectations going in,” says the 23-year-old. "I was like, 'Oh I’ll put out “Issues" and maybe six or seven people will hear it and love it and connect to it.' We had absolutely no idea that months later, the whole world was going to hear it and accept it and love it, and that I would be putting out my very own mini-album.”

Released last Friday, Nervous System spreads the acute, highly specific lyricism of “Issues” across seven songs, presenting Michaels as a pronounced voice unafraid of prodding at her most vulnerable characteristics. “Pink” and “Uh Huh” let Michaels rock out a bit, with heavy guitars placed underneath her whisper-pop, but it’s the muted, piano-led “Worst in Me” — an internal back-and-forth on whether to try and fix a damaged romance, or let it fall into the past — that cuts the deepest. "It's almost like I've gotten so used to resentment/ That every annoying little thing you say has lost its effect,” Michaels sings on the track, her voice stunned and sorrowful instead of cynical.

"All of these songs are true stories — 'Worst in Me' especially is about my last relationship,” Michaels notes. “It's basically every reason why we couldn’t work. There’s nothing on there that’s false.” Did that verisimilitude make it tough to put the words on paper? "Of course. There are some things that you don’t want to keep… reopening the wound, and every time I sing them, I do that. But every time that I do, it makes me stronger, and it makes me grow.”

Michaels’ schedule has filled up since “Issues” was embraced by Top 40: along with promoting Nervous System, she’s bolstering her stage show while preparing to tour with Shawn Mendes in Australia and New Zealand in the fall. "I see him from time to time when we are at events,” she says of Mendes, "and he’ll text me and be like, 'Ahh, I loved the "Uh Huh" music video, it’s so rad,' and I’m like, ‘Thanks bro, I love your new song!'”

She’s also preparing new material for a proper full-length to follow Nervous System. Michaels says that she’s written “a couple songs” for her next project, and while she’s much busier now than when she was cranking out co-writes for other artists, the singer-songwriter says that she’s efficient within the little downtime that she has.

"I write a lot in the shower,” she explains. "I don’t know if it’s because I’m not thinking about anything else —  I’m just there, and the water’s washing over me and I feel like I can breathe and feel okay. Then I start to get really introspective… This is all very new to me and so much is happening so quickly. I’m just trying to take it step by step.”

As the VMAs nomination for Best New Artist affirms, Michaels should be on the shortlist for the same category at the 2018 Grammys (nominees will be announced Nov. 28). Michaels didn’t foresee the mainstream success of “Issues,” and is remaining cautious when it comes to stating her Grammy aspirations.

"I think every artist hopes to have a Grammy someday,” Michaels says carefully. “I don’t like to get my hopes up for things, because then I get really excited and then really torn up. So I like to keep it in the back of my mind."

2018 Grammy Awards