Julia Michaels’ backstory is well-known within the pop world by now: the 25-year-old penned hits for Selena Gomez, Hailee Steinfeld, Nick Jonas and Fifth Harmony before pivoting to a solo career and scoring a smash on her own with “Issues” in 2017. Yet as Michaels continued writing for others as well as releasing her own music — her second project of the year, Inner Monologue Part 2, is out today — she has quietly become a more discerning storyteller.
She’s long treated pop as a confessional medium, piling stray thoughts and self-observations on top of each other while favoring production that doesn’t obscure her narratives. It worked for “Issues,” which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned Michaels a song of the year Grammy nod, as well as for songs she co-wrote for other stars, like Gomez’s “Bad Liar” and Shawn Mendes’ “Nervous.”
Michaels has not returned to the Hot 100 as a lead artist since “Issues” became her breakthrough two years ago. Speaking to Billboard the day before Inner Monologue Part 2 is released, and hours before she performs new track “Hurt Again” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Michaels says that this fact does not bother her.
“You know, I don’t really think about it,” she says. “I make music because I love it. I like to say that music is an acquired taste, and people will either like it or hate it. And I try to focus on the ones that do, and know that I do it for them.”
To that end, Michaels’ new release trades in the pointedly accessible meditations on mental health issues of Inner Monologue Part 1 — its lead track was titled “Anxiety,” and featured Gomez — for reflections on love, friendship, her career and her self-esteem. On “Work Too Much,” Michaels admits that she wants to forgo the adult responsibilities associated with a music career: “I wanna get fucked up in a new way, yeah, okay / Make love in a park, even when it’s light out, forget consequence.” The following track, “Body,” is an unflinching look at her opinion of herself: “I don’t see what you see, but I want to… love my body, like I love your body.”
Meanwhile, “Hurt Again” utilizes all of Michaels’ songwriting tools: the wry humor of admitting that her new guy’s mother will probably hate how opinionated she is, the too-raw details of her damaged past, the rapid-fire pre-chorus leading to an extended hook, the central conflict of leaping into a doomed relationship built around a succinct chorus (“I’m looking in your eyes, I’m ready to be hurt again”). The song blossoms into one of the smartest and most affecting pop songs of the year by the time Michaels unfurls its longing outro.
Michaels says that the earliest songs in this new collection were written at the end of last year, after she had spent weeks on the road opening for Maroon 5’s arena tour. “Some songs came after being heartbroken, some came when I was in love with somebody,” she explains. “Some came when I was in a dark place, just with myself.
“Lyrically,” she continues, “I tried to just be purely, authentically me — four songs were written by myself, which is the most songs written by myself on a release that I’ve done, which is pretty scary. … There’s nothing scarier than putting out a song that’s close to your heart and people not liking it, because it’s almost like they’re saying that they don’t like a part of you. That’s super scary. But this is why I do what I do.”
Instead of releasing a traditional full-length, Michaels has opted to keep her projects clipped and steady: seven songs on 2017’s Nervous System, six on Inner Monologue Part 1, eight on Part 2. She’s already working on Inner Monologue Part 3, and will be touring on her own in the fall after supporting P!nk’s North American trek of her Beautiful Trauma World Tour earlier this year.
“I’ll [typically] spend two weeks at home or three weeks at home,” she explains, “and any chance I get to be home, I’m in the studio. I don’t write on the road — it’s too hard for me.” As for other songwriting projects, Michaels says, “I try to manage everything in my life as best as I can — sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. I tour a lot, so I don’t really get to be in the studio very often, and when I do I’m working on [Inner Monologue] Part 1 or 2 or 3.”
As satisfying as it is for Michaels to have this latest batch of music released, she says it was equally gratifying to hear from fans who connected with Part 1’s open discussion of anxiety and depression over the past six months. Michaels has long been open about her own mental health issues, and wants her fans to know how much she appreciates their candor.
“I get to meet a lot of them at my shows and really talk to them,” she says. “They just want a place to have good experiences and feel free and be happy. And that’s what I want, too.”