Four years after Julia Michaels broke through with the ultra-personal pop hit “Issues,” the singer-songwriter has put the finishing touches on her debut studio album. Not in Chronological Order, out Friday (Apr. 30) on Republic Records, follows the EPs Nervous System and the two-part Inner Monologue, and finds Michaels, one of the most prolific songwriters in modern pop, taking an extended look at her own experiences of romance, loss, loneliness and self-examination.
Although Michaels (and longtime co-writer Justin Tranter) are often fielding calls from various pop stars to help pen their next Hot 100 hit, “I definitely want to savor this,” Michaels tells Billboard during a mid-April chat. “This is my first album, and there’s only ever one first, so I definitely want to bask in this for as long as I can.”
As her fans finally receive the full-length they’ve been craving for years, Michaels discussed how the project came together — during a pandemic, with her boyfriend and “If The World Was Ending” duet partner JP Saxe making some key contributions. Here are five things you need to know about Michaels’ long-awaited debut album:
1. It was (safely) made in person during the pandemic.
“I definitely didn’t want to make an album on Zoom,” says Michaels, who worked on the songs for Not In Chronological Order from the spring in 2020 — early days in the U.S. shutdown due to the pandemic — through January of this year. Instead, she figured out a way to create the album in person, with executive producers the Monsters & Strangerz (Justin Bieber, Camila Cabello) and her various co-writers all practicing social distancing.
“They would be in their room,” Michaels says of the production team, “and they’d have a sliding glass door to outside. And I would be sitting on a couch, and whoever else I was writing with that day would be on an opposite couch at the far end. We would all be apart from each other, wearing our masks — which was an interesting way of writing, because normally when I’m in the studio, I like to sit really close to people. A lot of times we’re so deeply insecure that we won’t say the things that we think are great. But I’m super grateful that people took time during a very scary time to make this album with me.”
2. Its biggest gut-punch is about Michaels herself.
Since making her debut as an artist with “Issues,” Michaels has made a habit of focusing her songwriting on her most vulnerable features. Yet “That’s the Kind of Woman,” the sparse stunner that closes Not In Chronological Order, literally lists the insecurities she wishes she could shed in search of a more perfect version of herself: “Doesn’t cry when someone leaves, isn’t contradictory, mind takes a break when she falls asleep,” Michaels sings.
“That’s the Kind of Woman” was written when Michaels “was just having a very self-reflective moment, and thinking, ‘If I could be a well-rounded individual, what would that look like?’” She brought the song to songwriter-producer Michael Pollack (Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus), who helped Michaels capture its finger-picked guitar melody, gentle string swells and unvarnished vocal take. “The vocal that we did on it, that was the demo vocal,” Michaels recalls. “We tried to re-create it, but never felt the same.”
3. It wasn’t created with hits in mind.
Michaels says that she writes a lot of her songs, including “That’s the Kind of Woman,” in her bathtub — no laptop, no notepad, just her mind working through melodies. “It probably looks pretty funny,” she says with a laugh. “Tranter always said that I have an ‘internal writing face’ — which is probably a little awkward and clumsy-looking. But I think about what I want to say, I piece it together in my head as to how it could sound and how melodically I would want it to be, and I figure, if I remember it the next day, it must be worth pursuing.”
Although Michaels has a long history of co-writing hits for herself and others, from “Issues” to Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me” to Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” she says that she never approaches any project, including Not In Chronological Order, thinking about how a song might impact the mainstream. “I think that, if you look at songs as ‘hits,’ it can muddle the art of it,” she explains. “I also think anything can be a hit, you know? ‘Toxic’ doesn’t sound like ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t sound like ‘Don’t Start Now’ doesn’t sound like ‘Dangerous Woman.’ A hit is just a certain feeling that a song gives you.
“When [writing] I think about what I want to say, how I want to say it, how I want it to sound and how I hope certain songs will resonate with people,” Michaels continues. “Then I take a deep breath, I go eat dinner and I pass out.”
4. It’s inspired a TikTok challenge.
On her social media pages, Michaels has been sharing clips of fans lip-synching to the hook of her latest single, “All Your Exes,” a bitingly funny snapshot of seething envy built around the line “I wanna live in a world where all your exes are dead.” In the clips, one half of a relationship stares into the camera and utters the hook, while their partner looks on with a mix of anxiety and wide-eyed fear.
As TikTok has become increasingly influential as a means of music discovery — and started to impact the way in which hooks are deployed in pop music — Michaels says that she has mixed feelings about the burden that the platform puts on creators. “TikTok is definitely a driving force in music right now,” she says, “but it scares me a little bit for people that are a bit awkward and introverted like I am. … Now I feel like there’s a lot more pressure on artists to do and be everything. We have to marketing moguls, models, singers, performers, songwriters, TikTok and TV personality types.”
Michaels believes that the answer for combating that pressure may ultimately lie in a platform for artists that doesn’t yet exist: “Even though TikTok has changed the careers of a lot of people in a lot of positive ways, hopefully, someday, there’s some sort of balance for introverted human beings like myself!”
5. It includes more team-ups with her boyfriend.
The first time that Michaels worked with Canadian artists JP Saxe, the result was the tender duet “If the World Was Ending” — which became a quasi-anthem for the pandemic (even though it was written prior to the pandemic), reached No. 27 on the Hot 100 and scored a song of the year nod at the Grammys. Most importantly, it also kicked off a romance between the singer-songwriters, who attended last month’s Grammy ceremony arm-in-arm — then went to their shared home and made dinner when the intimate ceremony wrapped up. “Being nominated for the song that I wrote with the person that I fell in love with the day that I wrote that song? That was pretty special,” says Michaels, who had earned a song of the year nod for “Issues” three years earlier.
Saxe co-wrote two songs on Not In Chronological Order, “All Your Exes” and “Little Did I Know”; Michaels hints that more collaborations are coming, eventually. “We figure if the first song we ever wrote together got a Grammy nomination, we must have something special together,” she says. In the meantime, Michaels says that she’s grateful for the time she’s shared with Saxe during the pandemic, growing closer and she’s finished her long-awaited first full-length.
“I’ve gotten to make an album and fall deeper in love with the person that I love,” says Michaels, “so there have definitely been some silver linings.”