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Music

Julia Michaels on taking ‘Issues’ — and her issues — to the Grammy Awards

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Julia Michaels, seen performing in Atlanta in December, is nominated for two awards at Sunday’s Grammys.
(Marcus Ingram / Getty Images for iHeartMedia)
Pop Music Critic

Julia Michaels had a good laugh this week as she described how she discovered she was in the running for two Grammy Awards.

Best known for her pop hit “Issues,” which has racked up more than half a billion streams on YouTube and Spotify, the 24-year-old singer/songwriter was asleep after a show in Australia when her manager crept into her hotel room and gently woke her.

“She was like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to freak you out, but you’re nominated!’” Michaels recalled on the phone from New York ahead of Sunday’s ceremony, in which she’ll compete for best new artist and song of the year. “Then she fell over me and we started crying.”

A vivid memory, no doubt.

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Yet the singer, who grew up in Santa Clarita and started writing professionally as a teenager, actually sounded more psyched in recounting an earlier bit of good news: the time in high school when she found out that she and another songwriter, Joleen Belle, had been hired to compose the theme for the Disney Channel’s “Austin & Ally.”

“Joleen called me when I was in math class,” Michaels said. “I was 17 and hated math so much. I just wanted to walk out of there — like, ‘I don’t need this anymore!’”

It was the first of many successful writing gigs for Michaels, who quickly went on to make a name for herself creating hits for the likes of Fifth Harmony and Hailee Steinfeld. In 2016 she and co-writer Justin Tranter topped Billboard’s Hot 100 with Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”; then the two reteamed to write most of Gwen Stefani’s album “This Is What the Truth Feels Like.”

Now, Michaels is using everything she learned working for others to make her own music. Last summer she released a 7-track EP, “Nervous System,” led by “Issues,” in which she proudly enumerates her flaws over a ghostly electro-pop groove.

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“I got issues / But you got ’em too,” she tells a lover. “So give ’em all to me / And I’ll give mine to you.”

What’s striking about “Issues” — something of a dark horse in the otherwise male-dominated song of the year category that also includes Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s smash “Despacito” — is the rawness of its emotion. The craft you’d expect, given Michaels’ years of training; of course the tune is catchy and smartly phrased and has a good beat.

But there’s a vulnerability to “Issues,” and to the rest of “Nervous System,” that runs counter to the idea of a hardened veteran simply pulling well oiled levers.

In the delicate “Worst In Me,” she digs through the wreckage of a failed relationship with uncommon acuity: “It’s almost like I’ve gotten so used to resentment that every annoying little thing you say has lost its effect.” And “Make It Up to You” has her wishing she could be “that tender, stable girl that you want.”

“But I’m not,” she adds.

Benny Blanco, who co-produced “Issues” and has also collaborated with Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran, said music “seems like therapy” for Michaels — “which she would do whether or not she was getting paid for it.”

“Julia pours everything into her songs,” Blanco added. “If you’re in the studio with her, you basically just grab a bucket and run around trying to catch the water.”

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The intensity of those feelings hasn’t always worked to Michaels’ advantage. In an essay she wrote last month for Glamour, the singer candidly described a panic attack she experienced during a televised performance on an awards show in 2017.

“I walked offstage and crumbled into a ball in a backstage hallway,” she wrote. “I was so afraid that people could see me.”

On the phone, Michaels said she’s “come a really long way” in managing her anxiety, thanks in part to a new strategy. “If I see even one person singing along, I’ll realize I’m not alone and that we’re doing this together,” she said.

With a laugh, she continued, “So then I’ll just focus on that one person.”

The technique is serving her well enough that she signed on for supporting slots on two big tours later this year: Niall Horan in Europe in the spring and Maroon 5 in the U.S. over the summer. She’s also working on finishing an album.

As is often the case in pop — including with some of the artists she’s written for — Michaels’ follow-up singles haven’t fared as well as “Issues,” which reached No. 11 on the Hot 100. And her appearance on a recent remix of Bieber’s “Friends” did little to bring any attention to that strangely overlooked gem.

But like the Grammy voters who nominated her for best new artist, Blanco believes in Michaels’ ability not just to write a song but to put it across too.

“As an artist she’s the real deal,” he said. Then the producer admitted to falling in love with Michaels’ demo vocals on songs intended for other stars.

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“Sometimes when you hear the actual singer do it, it’s kind of a letdown,” he said.

mikael.wood@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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