Artists to Watch In 2017: Julia Michaels, the Bieber & Selena Songwriter Who Reluctantly Went Solo

Brigitte Sire
“Finding my voice this year has been really crucial for me,” says Michaels, photographed on Nov. 8, 2016, at Break Room 86 in Los Angeles. 

Predictions 2017: Billboard forecasts the year's breakthrough artists, key shot-callers and industry innovators.

Julia Michaels' tattoos tell a very particular story. There's a treble clef on one of her knuckles; a piano, a microphone and a quill scattered up and down her arms. Her right bicep bears the image of a ­typewriter. And then there's the figure of a faceless woman. "Yeah, I know," she says with a wry smile. "I definitely always thought of myself as a ­songwriter before a singer. I've been the person who hides behind people and lets everyone else do their thing, and I've been content there."

In slightly more than three years, Michaels has ­established ­herself as a charts force, ­logging 12 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, eight of which reached the top 40 -- and none of which featured her voice. But after co-writing Selena Gomez's "Good for You" and Justin Bieber's "Sorry," Michaels is at long last striking out as a singer. Republic Records signed her in October, and she'll release her first single, "Issues" -- a raw ode to her own ­anxieties -- on Jan. 13, with an EP planned for the spring.

"I'm a very stimulated person," says Michaels, 23, between sips of (decaf) coffee at a quiet Manhattan cafe. "I have, like, sensory overload problems." She's in town with her writing partner Justin Tranter and their frequent ­collaborators, the Swedish ­hitmakers Mattman and Robin, for a week of writing.

Today, Michaels looks like an off-duty art student, in a T-shirt covered with kittens and a drapey coat that engulfs her spritely frame. But back in August, at the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she offered a glimpse of what she might look like as a pop star: Wearing a ­skintight ­sparkly green suit and ­stilettos, she sang "Carry Me" with Kygo. "It was only my second time ­performing," she recalls with a laugh. "I remember the countdown, and then, after that, I feel like I blacked out and I woke up eating pizza."

Since then, Tranter, who worked with Michaels on her new music, says he sees "more drive in her than I've ever seen before," ­predicting that her songs will resonate ­especially "with young girls, queer people and underdogs -- the empowerment she's going to give them will be so cool to watch."

"I'm excited fans will get to connect with her ­personally," says Hailee Steinfeld, who worked with Michaels and Tranter on her Haiz EP. "She's real, raw, honest, and she does not hold back."

"Women often don't want to be typecast as the girl that's sad," says Michaels. "On the radio now, it's all men who are doing emotional songs. But I think being emotional is really strong." Her ­ambitions as an artist are simple: "I just want to write fun, ­interesting music that pushes ­boundaries and is still true to myself. I want people to feel something."

Growing up in Santa Clarita, Calif., Michaels was exposed to an eclectic mix of music, from Talking Heads and Depeche Mode to 'N Sync and Christina Aguilera. "I just remember really ­loving words and ­writing about anything I could," she says, "and the way I'd ­remember things, like my library card ­number, was to make a melody." Tagging along with her older sister, who sang demos around Los Angeles, eventually led Michaels to professional songwriting, but not ­performing. "My sister was the singer," she says, "and I always had the ­mentality there could only be one in the family."

As Michaels' profile grew, her own voice became harder to ignore (for one thing, she demos the majority of the songs she writes with Tranter). Republic Group president Charlie Walk noticed Michaels during the demo sessions for Steinfeld's "Love Myself." "I just thought, 'Who's that girl?' " he recalls. "Everyone said, 'She only wants to write.' But I wouldn't accept that. Deep down inside, I think she knew she was an artist."

Walk encouraged Michaels, but at first she didn't pay him any heed. "I'm so not good with the center-of-attention situation," she says. "I was like, 'No! Leave it to the people who know what they're doing!' "

Around the same time, Michaels got a phone call from Jason Derulo, who was interested in a song she had written, "Trade Hearts." "I get this call -- 'Hello? This is Jason. Derulo. I want to cut this song, but I want to make it a duet,' " recalls Michaels. At 2 a.m., she went to Derulo's studio and recorded a demo, thinking he intended to give the part to another singer. "Then, three days later, I'm in Mexico working with Selena Gomez and Justin, and I get an email saying Jason wanted me to do it," she says. "I remember running to the beach, screaming, 'I got my first feature with my name on it!' When you do something like that and it doesn't go wrong, you're like, 'OK, I can do this. I'm good.' "

Michaels and Tranter penned "Issues" at a ­songwriting camp run by Stargate and Benny Blanco, and a few ­artists (whom the duo decline to name) ­immediately laid claim to it. But for the first time, Michaels realized she couldn't give it away -- and fought, ­successfully, to get it back. "I thought, 'This song is too much my story to give to someone else,' " she says. " 'Maybe this is a sign. Maybe I want something different.' "

Watch Julia Michaels talk about her favorite food, childhood crush and first performance in the video interview below:


VITALS

Big break - Writing hits for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Hailee Steinfeld and others.

Sounds like - A millennial Sia, minus the wig.

Childhood crush - “Justin Timberlake. Let’s be honest.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 14 issue of Billboard.