The JM1 era is here. Or perhaps we should call it the NICO era. Not in Chronological Order, Julia Michaels’s long-awaited musical baby is about to be born, and no one is more excited than the singer herself. When I caught up with the “All My Exes” singer a few weeks ago over Zoom, the first thing I did was congratulate her on the forthcoming album, and her excitement was immediately apparent — and infectious. Michaels practically squealed, and as a fan of everything she puts out, it was only right to squeal along with her. “I’ve got heartbreak mixed in in the album when I haven’t been heartbroken in two years,” Michaels shares of her forthcoming album. “I’ve got insecurities at the bottom and I’ve got love at the top and heartbreak in the middle and that’s just not how it is right now, but that’s how it’s been in the past.”
So it’s only fitting to call the album Not in Chronological Order, because the music is, in fact, not in any sort of order that makes sense for her life right now. This is especially apparent if you’ve been paying attention to Michaels over the past couple years — she’s more in love than ever and she just so happens to have fallen in love with her “favorite songwriter,” so she says, and happily tapped into his talents when it came to putting together the album.
Michaels wrote “All Your Exes,” which was released last month, with JP Saxe, and the two teamed up again for another track on the upcoming album, “Little Did I Know.”
“We wrote ‘Little Did I Know’ in my bathroom, in our bedroom, at a park, at his house,” she says of the track. “It sort of was a thing where we couldn’t get settled with where we were. I recorded the full vocal in the bedroom, JP and I did choir stacks in my bedroom, recorded the pianos in our bedroom. What you hear now is basically what we put down, give or take some strings that Mr. David Campbell graced us with.”
The songwriting process for NICO sounds unconventional at best, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that struck the world last year and is only barely starting to let up. Artists in particular have chosen to handle these unprecedented times differently — some hunkered down and got to work, some used the time as a break from creating, and some powered through as normally as possible. For Michaels, it was a matter of figuring out a new way to write and record, because not making music was simply not an option. Also not an option? Zoom songwriting.
“I need to be around people and feel a certain sort of energy,” Michaels says of how she chooses to create. “Zoom just sort of blocks all that energy for me.” Though she made an attempt at working on the album through Zoom, ultimately she decided it wasn’t the way to go because it felt “so intangible” to her. What she chose to do instead was have a good old-fashioned get-together in a backyard — properly socially distant.
“The Monsters & Strangerz, who co-executive produced this album with me, have their studio set up with their production room, then they have sliding glass doors to the outside. They would just string an SM7 out to me so I could cut the rough vocal in. Then, another songwriter would be on a different couch opposite of me so we could all be together just in a very weird social distanced sort of way,” she says.
From there, it was a matter of clearing out studio space so Michaels could dart in with no one nearby. She’d shut herself in the production room to record vocals — about two tracks a day — and dart back out while everyone else stayed tucked away so there was no risk of spreading the virus. And while it was certainly out of the norm from what Michaels is used to, she still much preferred it to making the album through Zoom. “Zoom is a whole technical situation that my brain does not understand at all,” she says. “Seeing an actual, impressively well-done song come out of a Zoom session blows my mind.”
It was a fortunate situation for Michaels that she didn’t have to rely on Zoom and instead crafted NICO as she imagined, including with Saxe’s help. The two only collaborated on those two tracks, but Saxe does feature as the object of her affection elsewhere on the project, like in “Orange Magic,” my personal favorite song on NICO.
Michaels chuckles when I ask her about the imagery in the dreamy song and says that it’s, of course, about Saxe. “It’s basically just a really funny way of saying that JP is a very magical creature,” she shares. “I sound so gross and obsessed, but I totally am.”
“Orange Magic” gives fans an inside look at the beginning days of Michaels’s relationship with Saxe — all the way back to when the two teamed up for “If the World Was Ending,” the song that started it all. She says the day after that fateful songwriting session, the two had their first date, and Saxe showed up in an “awfully ugly, poop-colored — like poopy glittery colored — BMW,” calling it the ugliest car she’d ever seen. Though Michaels says she forgave him for the abomination of a vehicle, she felt her power when a few months later someone stole the car and quite literally set it on fire. “Not saying I manifested that, but I absolutely manifested that,” she jokes.
There’s more than sappy love songs on the new album, though, because it wouldn’t be a Julia Michaels project if that were the case. For an artist who has built her brand on raw emotion, angst, and being a self-proclaimed “grungy bitch,” Michaels was sure to bring all those elements that are so inherently her into NICO as well. They shine through as yearning in the next single, “Love Is Weird,” and in “History,” and when you reach “Undertone,” you reach the dichotomy of old love falling away in place of the new. The album truly lets all Michaels’s forms of love come through because love is such a focus in her life now — she just figured out a way to balance it with her art. A lot of it comes down to her acknowledging her past bitterness toward love, using it as a tool for creativity, and then letting her newfound sense of peace drive the message.
“I feel like I’ve always been a bit of a pessimist when it comes to love,” she says. “I think too as somebody that has a really anxious brain and someone that has to deal with depression and all of these things, I’ve always kind of thought that I wasn’t good enough for love or that I didn’t deserve love, that I wasn’t really worthy of love. It took sort of somebody coming in and being like, ‘No, but you are,’ to make me feel like I was.”
And it was that love — and gentle nudge — from Saxe that helped the artist realize that she has the talent, know-how, and skills to put out an album of her very own.
The catalyst for starting on Not in Chronological Order actually came from a casual conversation between Michaels and Saxe when she realized that she wanted to write. It was as simple as that — and then she got to work, first with “Lie Like This,” which was released late last year. The danceable track put Michaels on a new path that immediately had a completely different vibe from where she’d been before but one that saw her excited, happy, and healthy.
From there, it was only a matter of time before she’d written all 10 tracks of the album with her collaborators and featuring her new favorite subject — Saxe. It’s a new era for the Iowa-born singer — who once joked with me, an Ohioan, about how no one can ever tell the two states apart. (She’s not wrong.) And instead of feeling anxious about where this album will take her, she’s instead feeling so very zen.
“I would describe this next phase as just being really open,” she says. “I’m just excited to talk about [Saxe]. I’m excited to talk about love. I’m excited to just be in every single moment that I possibly can. I feel like in the past I would have been stressing out and freaking out and overanalyzing everything and micromanaging everything. Right now, I’m not, because I have a subject matter that I really enjoy talking about.”
It’s a big moment for Michaels, whose come-up included writing music for other artists rather than for herself. After spending years penning tracks for the likes of Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Fifth Harmony, Michaels wrote “Issues.” The song started like any other, when she realized she just loved it too much to give away. Instead, the 2017 track became her breakout hit and turned her from just a songwriter into a whole artist. And while the talented creator still writes music that other artists use, she’s able to devote much of her time to her own work as well, which is a completely different process, and one that she greatly enjoys.
“For other people, you’re sort of shifting your perspective a bit too to mesh with theirs,” she says of writing songs for other artists. “Doing it on your own, you can literally just say whatever the fuck you want in whatever fucking way you want. You don’t have to conform to other people’s emotions, even though you are putting a bit of yourself into someone else’s song when it’s just yours, you can fully be like whatever you want.”
She adds that when fans come to her shows for her songs and scream her lyrics back to her, she feels so validated for all the emotions she poured into the music. “They must understand me,” she says of her fans.
And I like to think they do. Michaels’s fans are a dedicated group who shower her with love on social media and at shows. Her fans are really the only reason Michaels still gets on social media because it can be an otherwise toxic place. “I try not to focus on people’s negativity,” she says, calling out the few times that other fandoms have come for her for one reason or another. “I try to just focus on the people that I know are there for the music and they’re there for me and I’m there for them. That’s about all I can do when it comes to social media.” But in a time when we’re all living on social media because we still, for the most part, can’t get back out and lead normal lives, it’s become tough, and Michaels is mostly just looking forward to the day when she can get on stage again — and bring NICO along for the ride.
“I just miss connection,” she shares with a bit of a resigned sigh. “I miss being with fans. I miss being around people.” But she’s hopeful that live shows will be coming soon, and when she’s able to tour, she wants more shows and bigger shows and more production, all in the name of having a good time.
Until that day comes, we’ll have Not in Chronological Order, the official beginning of Michaels’s next era that will give listeners a fun look into the inner workings of a brilliant songwriter’s mind. And that is enough to tide us over for now.