Amid the hustle and bustle of Miami Art Week, on Saturday night Julia Michaels, the singer-songwriter and co-writer for the stars, staged her first live set. It was her first live performance not only since 2019, but since the release of her debut album Not In Chronological Order. While the party scene during the week is notoriously raucous, Michaels’s set provided some much needed respite. She was, after all, performing at the Mark Levinson Vinyl Lounge in front of guests like Adriana Lima and The Bachelor’s Tyler Cameron at a party celebrating the impending release of the high-end audio brand’s first bluetooth headphones, which are perfect for intimate listening.
The release of her debut album, also known to fans as NICO, and a forced break from touring weren’t the only major developments in Michaels’s life over the past few years. She’s also found love with fellow musician JP Saxe (their duet “If The World Was Ending,” written on the first day they met, was inescapable last year), and has continued to co-write songs with hitmakers like Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa, and Demi Lovato. Here, Michaels talks to W about writing material that mentions her boyfriend’s exes, returning to the stage, and watching TikToks set to her songs.
This was your first real set in a couple of years and since you’ve released the album. How has it been playing some of these songs live for the first time?
I haven’t performed for anyone like that in a while, so to do it in such an intimate setting already is very nerve wracking. I find performing for a smaller group of people much scarier than for a larger group. Normally, when you do your own shows, you have your fans and familiar faces, and I didn't really know anybody in the crowd, so that was even more nerve-wracking, but it was great. People were so lovely to me and my anxiety.
You definitely had a few super fans in the crowd.
That’s great news.
Was this your first Miami Basel experience?
Yes, it was my first one. I came here for Mark Levinson. They asked me to perform, which is really great, ’cause I'm like, “Oh, I'm relevant!” I admit, I felt a little bit out of place because everything around was really upbeat music. And then I’m like, “Okay, here I am to bring everybody down.”
“If the World Was Ending” was a big hit during lockdown. Was it interesting to you for that song to take off while it did seem like the world was actually kind of ending?
Absolutely. We actually wrote that before anything happened. It was when we had earthquakes in L.A. Then, it just sort of took on a new meaning and it was kind of a beautiful thing to watch. So many people resonated with it for so many different reasons. We were sitting on our couch watching all these people make TikToks to it and just connect to it and all this stuff while we were holding each other’s hands, being like, “What the hell is happening in the world right now?”
Everyone’s relationship to music changed a lot during the pandemic. It became even more of an intimate experience than it had been before, just because people had really nothing else to do. Did that affect the way you approach music or the way you felt a connection to your fans?
I was used to seeing my fans almost every day, because I toured for seven months straight of 2019. So it was definitely weird having to get to know them again via the internet. But to be honest, I felt like I was really creative throughout it. When I’m bored I have a lot of ideas. I ended up making my entire album in socially distanced quarantine with friends of mine. NICO was literally the product of social distance music. I tried to just focus on the silver linings. If I dwelled on all the things that were happening, I got really overwhelmed and really, really terrified.
One of your trademarks is your lyrical authenticity, which is so important to younger audiences now more than it was even 10 or 15 years ago, when it seemed like people were picking lyrics based on what might sound best with the beat. Was making sure that the lyrics are as authentic as possible always your impulse when writing music?
To be honest, I just write the way that I feel. Music has always been the place where I find my power and my voice. In past relationships I’d make myself really small; I wasn’t great at confrontation and I was not so good at communicating. I would just channel everything that I wanted to say in that moment into a song. Music for me is the place where I can say whatever I want—my thoughts, my feelings and my opinions—and they can feel wholeheartedly mine. If people connect to that, amazing. If they don’t, that’s fine too.
You do a lot of collaborating and co-writing with artists. For some of them, you know the internet is going to look over every single word of that song and to extrapolate something about their personal life from it. Does that ever enter the room when you’re writing with them? Is there that moment of hesitation when you ask, “Should I actually say this publicly or are people going to read too much into this?”
Rarely. Again, it goes back to people wanting to tell their story and in the most authentic way possible. I’m just there to help guide.
Your boyfriend JP Saxe joined you on stage on Saturday. You also performed the song about wishing all of his exes were dead, which you actually co-wrote with him. What was that like?
It was fun. I think it takes a unique man to love someone as petty as I am. We were having a conversation and I really don’t remember how it started, but he was like, “You know, one day we’re going to be able to talk about the people from our past that have helped shape our present.” And I was like, “Absolutely not!” He was like, “You can't just live in a world where you think all my exes are dead.” I was like, “Watch me!” I started singing the chorus in the car and I was like, “All right, well, I guess I know what we’re writing tomorrow.”
I guess if he wants to find out about your past, he can just listen to the music.
That’s right. And vice versa, honestly.
What is your favorite way to listen to music at home?
Honestly, I’m always partial to headphones, even if I’m at home and I’ve got my speaker system and, and all that stuff. Not that my speaker system is great at home. I would love to have something better, but I’m partial to headphones. Always. I feel like I can just hear things so much clearer.