“In my personal life, I always feel like I make myself feel small. And when I do music, I feel big.”
The Iowa-born singer-songwriter Julia Michaels said this about her album “Not In Chronological Order” in an NME interview with Hannah Mylrea, explaining that music is where she is able to be honest. And her vulnerability shines through in her debut album, released on April 30. However, despite releasing her first album just recently, Michaels broke into the music scene as a solo artist in 2017 with the release of her chart-topping “Issues,” which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified quintuple-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Following “Issues,” Michaels was nominated for both song of the year and best new artist at the 2018 Grammy Awards. However, her role in the music industry was illustrious even before she was seen walking red carpets and opening tours for big-name artists like Shawn Mendes and Keith Urban.
In 2013, Michaels was able to hear the songs she had written on the radio when both “Miss Movin’ On” by Fifth Harmony and “Slow Down” by Selena Gomez started to receive airplay; both songs made their way into the Billboard Top 100 charts.
After these collaborations, her career took off, and she continued to write for Selena Gomez and began to write for Justin Bieber, helping to create one of his biggest hits, “Sorry.” Michaels still writes for other artists, including the songs “Fever” and “Pretty Please” on the Grammy Award-winning album “Future Nostalgia” by Dua Lipa.
Now, after a decade in the music industry, Michaels has created a space for her own music career and released her debut studio album — a revealing and romantic pop album that contains hints of her signature sounds that can be found in all her hits, such as the disco-pop in Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” and heartfelt ballads in 5 Seconds of Summer’s “If Walls Could Talk.”
“Not In Chronological Order” opens with a pop-punk hit, “All Your Exes,” which is blunt and gruesome but still honest and vulnerable. Complementing the uptempo pop backing is a slightly sinister electric guitar line and the lyrics “I want to live in a world where all your exes are dead / I want to kill all the memories that you save in your head.” While some may say that opening the record with “All Your Exes” could be too striking for the audience, it is reflective of Michaels’ whole album: a little bit out of place while simultaneously making perfect sense.
Much like how “All Your Exes” juxtaposes dark lyrics with an upbeat tempo and uplifting melody, “Not In Chronological Order” as a whole integrates piano ballads about love and loss, like “Little Did I Know” and “That’s The Kind Of Woman,” with upbeat pop hits like “Wrapped Around” and “Undertone” and transforms it into a cohesive sound that could only be Michaels’.
Hannah Mylrea of NME wrote, “This debut confidently chronicles every dizzying high and crushing blow that love brings – affairs of the heart have, after all, long been Michaels’ specialist songwriting subject.” And Mylrea is not wrong: Michaels has written a multitude of love songs, as well as a fair share of heartbreak ballads, spanning her career. Yet, the question remains: Why did it take her 10 years to release her own album? Why did she opt out of making a record in favor of EPs, singles and collaborations for a decade?
Michaels answers: “I think I can mostly attribute it to being in love. Now that I’ve experienced love in a very healthy way, I realised how pessimistic I’ve been in the past. And how bitter I’ve been and how in love with toxicity I was. The thing that I wanted to write about is… I think with love people think that there has to be this drama. And for a long time, I thought that too. I wanted to just really talk about this new healthy relationship I have with love.”
And that answer takes form in her songs “Pessimist,” “Little Did I Know” and “Orange Magic,” as well as in the form of her collaborator and boyfriend, JP Saxe, who had worked with Michaels on the song “If The World Was Ending” in 2019. Their love story, although not directly mentioned in every song, is central to Michaels’ album. Their love blossomed from their duet, and the pair has been together ever since, with Michaels and Saxe co-writing songs for each other. Saxe even played guitar for “Not In Chronological Order.”
However, the most striking song on “Not In Chronological Order” is not a love song at all; it is the final song, a two-and-a-half-minute acoustic guitar ballad titled “That’s The Kind Of Woman.” The basis of the song is simple: “If the me I am / walked out that door / that’s the kind of woman I’d leave me for.” All it takes is Michaels’ quiet whisper to bring audiences into her world, and what a heartbreaking world it is. Yet, it begs the question that almost everyone has asked themselves: Am I enough?
The song is produced simply but is lyrically complex, with Michaels referencing one of the other songs on the album, “Love Is Weird,” in which Michaels sings, “Keep my ex’s letters / in the third door of my dresser; later, in “That’s The Kind of Woman,” Michaels reflects on that fact with insecurity, singing “[The kind of woman I’d leave me for] doesn’t keep those letters in a drawer.”
The sentiment of jealousy is not a new one in the music industry, whether it be the envy in relationships or outside of them. However, with “That’s The Kind Of Woman,” jealousy, insecurity and discontent are emotions that Michaels is able to make her own. She paints a picture of the woman she wished she could be, whether that be in the form of sitting up straight and loving to dance or letting go of the past and learning to be confident.
“Not In Chronological Order” is not currently topping the charts in the way that much of Michaels’ past work has, but it is honest in a way the audience can recognize and relate to. In these moments of vulnerability, like that of “That’s The Kind Of Woman” and “Little Did I Know,” listeners are able to connect with Michaels in a way they haven’t been able to before. And that is well worth the decade-long wait.