TV & Movies

What It's Really Like to Be a Hit Songwriter

In our 9-5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week, Julia Michaels, one of the in-demand writers behind hits like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez's “Hands to Myself," fills us in on her daily grind

julia michaels songwriter

Julia Michaels has written songs for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Gwen Stefani

Age: 22

Length of time at current gig: 6 years

How did you start writing songs? I’ve always been a writer. I would write poetry about everything, and when my mom got me a keyboard I started putting my words to music. But I got into it because my sister used to do demos, and I would follow her around. When I was 15, we met a songwriter and my mom said to me, “Sing for her!” I was like, “Nooo!” But my mom made me do it, and then the songwriter asked if I wrote songs. I told her that I liked to pretend that I did.  And then she took me under her wing, mentored me and that’s how I got started.

When did you realize it was something you could pursue professionally? I started writing professionally when I was 16 with licensing music and commercial promos. I wrote my first theme song for Disney when I was 18 [for the series Austin & Ally]. That’s when I met my publisher and my manager. From there, everything happened so fast.

What are your hours like? Well, I just got a puppy so I wake up around seven every morning and when I’m up, I’m up! Then I’ll have coffee and check emails. I usually start writing around noon and leave the studio around six.

How do you kickstart your sessions? Normally, I’m with my co-writer Justin Tranter. We’ll catch up, talk about our days and then we’ll either listen to a track we’re working on, or listen to chords and go from there. We do everything based purely on emotion. Lately, more of my sessions have been artist-based. If I’m with an artist, I’ll ask them what they’re feeling and talk to them like a therapist would. I’ll ask, “What’s going on in your life?” It starts with small talk. Then we get down to the nitty gritty after that. It’s like, “How was your day? Now tell me what’s really going on.” [laughs] “All right. Cut the bullshit, what’s really happening?” Sometimes they’ll say something that will be a perfect lyric, and I’ll say, “Ah! Let’s go with that.”

When you’re working with an artist, is there any prep you do beforehand? You can never really gauge how it’s going to go. Everyone sounds different, their processes and their personalities are so different. You never really know what you’re going to get when you go in.

Do you find artists open up easily? I think artists are aware that talking gives a songwriter so much material. If they just tell us what’s happening, it’s so much easier for us to write a song that’s specific to them.

When you’re looking for something to write about, do your own life experiences come into play? Definitely. I always listen to what the artist is saying, but if I can’t connect to it, it’s hard for me to write. I have to find my own perspective. I did a song called “Perfect” on Selena [Gomez]’s record and that song was a lot about personal experience.

Are there ever days when you’re just not feeling inspired? I definitely have those moments. Don’t we all? Sometimes I’ll ask my manager if I can have the day and I’ll just do things for myself. I’ll go to the movies by myself, drive to the beach or take a walk. Or, I’ll listen to music that inspires me.

You’ve worked with Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani, Nick Jonas and more. Is there an artist who you were especially excited to work with? The most surreal thing was probably working with Britney Spears. I grew up listening to her.

Can you tell right away if you’re going to click with an artist? Yes, I can tell. I’ve actually left sessions because I knew it wasn’t going to work. I’m a very emotional person, so if a song doesn’t have some type of emotional element, I have a really hard time connecting to it.

Can you tell if a song’s going to be a hit? Never. I never, ever know.

How did it feel the first time a song you wrote went to number one? It was Selena’s “Good For You.” Justin and I check the charts on a website called Mediabase. It’s so addictive—we watched it like a hawk for three or four weeks. Once we were number one, it was just us in the studio dancing around and being really goofy.

What’s the best thing about your job? It never feels like work. I get to go to the studio and be with my friends every day and write new things and experiment with new sounds. We just have a blast.

What’s the most challenging part? The trickiest part is fitting all of the puzzle pieces together, saying what [the artist] wants to say in so many words and making it all cohesive.

What’s the biggest misconception about working in the music industry? The biggest misconception is that it’s all play. Sometimes we do 12 sessions a week, which means 12 songs a week. When you start to have success, people look at you differently and expect more from you. With that comes a lot of pressure to perform, so it can be a little overwhelming. Even though we have a lot of fun and get to do what we love every day, it’s still very intense and can be very stressful.

Are there qualities that a person needs in order to be a successful songwriter? I think you have to be really driven. Rejection is such a big thing in this industry. You cannot let it get you down. Also, if something’s not working, figure out why it’s not working. Figure out why nobody’s listening and fix it. Find solutions.

How do you like to unwind at the end of the day? Writing can be a mental workout, which is probably why I like to go home, watch a movie, hang out with my puppy or read a magazine. I do love all types of music. I could be in a session for eight hours, and when I leave I’ll instinctively go to the radio or put on my favourite songs. Lately I’ve been listening to Kwabs, who is amazing.

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