The pair linked up in Los Angeles last summer and wrote "If the World Was Ending," an apocalyptic love song about a past relationship gone wrong. Saxe and Michaels then recruited Billie Eilish's main collaborator (and brother), Finneas, to produce the track that arrived last October.
Though the song was written months before the onset of COVID-19 and subsequent social distancing, it's now making its mark on Billboard charts. It debuted at No. 96 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated April 11, earning Saxe his first entry, and ranks at No. 73 in its third week. The duet is also scaling the top 20 of both the Adult Pop Songs and Adult Contemporary radio airplay charts.
Saxe and Michaels wrote "If the World Was Ending" after the Los Angeles earthquakes last July 4 and 5, the latter of which marked the biggest in the region in 20 years. However, the song has taken on new resonance as much of the world has been forced to stay indoors to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Listeners have begun uploading their own covers of the song or used it on TikTok, where it's been featured in over 300,000 videos.
Michaels muses that the song's lyrics have grown more meaningful amid mass quarantining. "I think now more than ever I want to be surrounded by the people that I love," she says.
"If the World Was Ending" is from Saxe's six-song EP Hold It Together (released Feb. 7), which he says previews a full album due this year, with tracks from it set to be released over the next few months. "It's me trying to get to the root of what it feels like to be me," he says.
Billboard chatted further with Saxe about the song's origin, how he and Michaels got Finneas on board to produce it and more.
How quickly did you and Julia write "If the World Was Ending" after her Instagram shout-out?
I tried to keep it cool, but was obviously very excited. Shortly after that, we met in the studio and wrote it the day we met.
What was it like being in the studio with her?
Magical. I think she's the best songwriter in the world. And sitting beside her at the piano was one of the most mystical, creative experiences of my life.
You and Julia wrote this song together before COVID-19 and social distancing. Where did the inspiration for the song come from?
After the earthquakes in Los Angeles, we were talking about how our decision-making would look if we were in a world-ending situation, what that would feel like, what we would want, who we would want to be with. The song itself is very much the kind of conversation we were having.
Why do you think the song is resonating with people?
Hopefully everyone is looking for their sense of compassion right now. My hope is that it's resonating because it connects people to the part of themselves that wants to put love first, that wants to reach out to that family member they haven't talked to in a while, or that friend.
I've heard stories about the song inspiring someone to reconnect with a family member that maybe they hadn't spoken to in a while. The fact that it's helping people connect to one another in a time like this means the world to me.
It's a silver lining during this period -- that there's a song about togetherness and connecting with one another. I think people need that right now.
I totally agree. As an artist, you hope for cultural relevance with your music, but this is not at all what I imagined or would have ever wanted. So, at first it was a little conflicting to see the song resonating during this time, because it is such a terrifying time for so many. I wasn't sure how to feel about it. But ultimately what I've realized is that the song is making people feel closer to themselves and closer to the people they love because of the emotion that's in the song.
How did Finneas become involved as the song's producer?
It was engineered by a producer/engineer named Benjamin Rice, who is unbelievable. He did the original demo, which is just Julia and my voices and the piano. Since we loved the demo so much, we wanted to find a producer who was going to take up the integrity and emotional contour of that demo and bring out what was already there. We put together our dream list of producers, and when we reached out to Finneas, he loved the song and told us he wanted to produce it.
We were very excited for him to be part of it because he has such unique instincts when it comes to production. And he wanted what we wanted, which was to take the feeling of the song that was there and bring it out and accentuate that emotional world.
The song is being used in so many TikTok videos. Do you have any favorites that you've seen?
One I saw was an appreciation for nurses who can't stay home from work during this time, and our song is on in the background. It was honestly one of the most moving things I've seen the song connected to because it's such an important element of the moment: recognizing the gratitude we need to have for the people in our society who are allowing us to continue to function and are keeping us alive.
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.