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If you’ve flipped on the radio at any point during the past three years, you’ve probably heard a song written by Justin Tranter. Along with his main writing partner, Julia Michaels, he’s helped craft hits for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Imagine Dragons, DNCE, Britney Spears… and the list goes on. Now, awards shows are taking note. Tranter is up for Best Original Song at the Golden Globes (for the Nick Jonas track “Home” from Ferdinand) and Song of the Year at the Grammys (for co-writing Michaels’ breakout hit, “Issues”) — not bad for a guy who spent years toiling in the alternative world as the frontman of glam-rock band Semi Precious Weapons.
Below, Tranter gives an update on new Selena Gomez music, reveals which pop star doesn’t get enough credit, and shares his dream-collaboration bucket list.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on your nominations. A Grammy nod, a Golden Globe nod—you’re having an eventful winter.
JUSTIN TRANTER: Thank you! It feels like it’s not real. For songwriters, there’s only a few categories we can get nominated for at the Grammys. At the Golden Globes, there’s only one category. The chances are so slim. When I woke up on the morning of the Grammy nominations, I couldn’t believe it. And I’m still honored and proud to be a part of Julia Michaels’ insane trajectory. She’s one of the greats of our time. It’s great to watch the world fall in love with the talent I fell in love with on the first day I met her.
And with the Golden Globes, I’m not in the movie business, so no one’s saying, “Golden Globe nominations are tomorrow, keep your eyes open!” I woke up with a text from Sarah Kate Ellis, who’s the CEO of GLAAD, which I’m on the board of, being like, “Wait, now a Golden Globe? Congratulations!” I was like, “It’s 6:15 in the morning, what is she talking about?!” I Googled it and was like, “Wait a goddamn minute, did I just get nominated?” And Nick Jonas is such an underrated musician. He’s the real deal. He plays everything, he sings his ass off. To see him get a little love is fun as well.
In interviews, Julia Michaels has said that she didn’t think she had what it took to release music as an artist. Did you think the transition was inevitable, or were you surprised?
We love telling the story of our first session: She had a panic attack and hid in the closet and then kicked the closet door open singing this insane melody using a title I had suggested a couple minutes earlier. The minute I heard this girl sing, I was like, “Oh f—!” The melody that came out of her was just magical. I always knew, but she was so against it. And I never wanted to pressure her or push her, because so many people in her life were pushing her. Every executive she met was telling her that she should sign a record deal. And we were having so much fun putting our heads down and writing three songs a day for three years! Once I could see it start to happen, I was like, “I think this is starting to happen,” and she was like, “I think it’s happening too!”
Before you started writing with pop artists, you spent several years in the alt-rock band Semi Precious Weapons. If you could pull any non-pop musician into one of your writing sessions now, whom would you choose?
I fell in love with music because of musical theater, but my heart started to want to write songs when I was 14 or 15 because of all the amazing female singer-songwriters of the ’90s. I think it would be really f—ing cool to bring Patty Griffin into pop sessions and see what happens. I think it would be really amazing to bring Paula Cole in and see what happens. All those women of the ’90s were these brilliant lyricists and melody writers in this classic but edgy way. I would love to see what would happen if Patty Griffin and Paula Cole would come along for a 2018 pop extravaganza.
You’ve written with rock stars, pop stars, EDM stars, R&B stars — is there any corner of music you find intimidating and haven’t tried?
I mean, I’m not afraid of much. After going through the insane amount of verbal and physical bullying that I went through at school as a kid, the music business is a breeze. None of the genres really scare me. My favorite thing is getting into a session and helping people feel confident and helping people feel comfortable telling the truth. That truth can come in so many different forms. Dan Reynolds [of Imagine Dragons] and Julia Michaels have a very raw, specific emotional truth. But when I’m working with DNCE, Joe Jonas has this super fun, sexy side of him on [songs like] “Cake By the Ocean.” Going in and figuring out what the truth is for everybody is my favorite thing to do, and that’s kind of genre-free.
Is there something you haven’t been able to do, for whatever reason, that you’re dying to try?
Anything that’s new and exciting. I’d love to come across a new young woman in hip-hop and convince her to work with me. Cardi B, I’m ready, girl! Let’s figure this out. [Laughs] That would be really inspiring for me to be a part of.
You’re very vocal about the in-studio contributions of the pop stars you work with — stars that maybe the public thinks aren’t hands-on, like Britney Spears. So tell me: Who in this business doesn’t get enough credit?
You know who blew my mind recently? Bebe Rexha. I knew she had all these amazing songs, but it never really came into my mind that this woman is a heavyweight. Then I wrote a song with her, and I was like, “Holy sh—!” We had such an amazing time. My favorite part of getting people to tell their truth [is having an artist] embrace all the bright sides and dark sides of themselves, and she was so willing to do it. Her writing talent is just next-level. Which I should have realized, considering the amount of hits she’s written, for herself and others! But being in a room with somebody, you see a whole other side of their talent. I think Bebe has a very long career ahead of her, and if people don’t realize how good she is, they’re going to find out pretty soon.
The mini-albums she put out this year were so much fun.
She’s one of the best songwriters we have right now. And her trajectory has, in a good way, been nice and slow and solid. When you have one of those trajectories, it takes people a little bit longer to realize, “Oh wait, this is the real deal.”
What I also think is funny — and this is not about Bebe — is when people are like, “They didn’t write their songs, they’re not real.” But we’re not mad at Meryl Streep for not writing her own scripts! Some people are songwriters, some people are interpreters, some people are storytellers, and some people are all of those things. Some people are pure entertainers. And I think entertainment is just as important as deep, emotional art. They’re both here to transport us. Anyone looking down on those differences is just an asshole.
You’re one of Selena Gomez’s go-to collaborators. What can you tease about her next album? Is it more “Bad Liar” or more “Fetish” — or nothing like either?
Honestly, I only know the things I’ve been a part of, so I can’t speak to what she has to come, but I think with all of Selena’s stuff, everyone can know that it’s going to be ahead [of its time], it’s going to push boundaries, and that magical tone — and the fact that she has the best taste in the world — will tie everything together. Every time I’m blessed with her presence, she’s always an inspiring beacon of joy. She is truly one of the best and sweetest. That’s pretty much all I can say!
You’ve talked before about wanting to get more LGBTQ people like yourself in behind-the-scenes roles in the music industry. Is there a song you’ve helped write that you think of as having a particularly queer message, one that people might miss when it’s playing on the radio or being sung by a straight performer?
In this new part of my life where I’m writing songs with and for other people, my job is to execute their vision and elevate their perspective. But for me to do that, I have to be able to relate to it honestly. I have to be able to find a point in my life where I saw that or felt that. That’s all based on my queer perspective. If I’m going to be a part of a piece of music and contribute, it has to come from an honest place for me.
I look at Freddie Mercury, who wrote some of the biggest sports anthems of all time. That to me was always really interesting. How did the queen—literally, Queen!—write some of the biggest sports anthems ever? Sports is not always a safe world for LGBTQ people. But every fan in the world is singing along to “We Will Rock You” or “We Are the Champions.” For me, with Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” or Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” there’s an underdog perspective there that me and all queer people have. We’re underdogs, but we find our joy and our strength in our love and humor and whatever else we can use to survive. Even if people don’t realize it [when listening], they are sensing that feeling of “I’m going to talk myself through this and f—ing prevail.” Or with the Fall Out Boy line “You will remember me for centuries” — it gets at the idea that history will be on our side at some point. History will remember that queer people have done nothing but love and bring beautiful things into the world.
I was not expecting you to answer that question with a Fall Out Boy song.
The Fall Out Boy thing is even cooler. I didn’t write the verses on that, they wrote them themselves. It was a really masterful collaboration: We did the chorus, and then the band added all their magical personality to it, and we had this huge thing at the end. So if you’re looking for something about Marsha P. Johnson in the verses, you’re not going to find it.
I hope that song comes soon.
It will! It will! I just signed a new artist, and her name is Shea Diamond. She is a stunningly talented trans woman of color. She has nothing but truth to tell, and the world is going to learn soon. We only have one song out so far, which is a song I saw her sing a capella on YouTube at a Black Trans Lives Matter gathering, and I just lost my mind because the lyrics are so nuts. We have a whole EP coming.
What else do you have coming up?
I’m so excited that Julia and I get to write together again for all of January and February. She’s been traveling so much, but we get back together for those two months. I’ve been working with Haim, which is f—ing amazing, of course, because they are the queens of all things. Their level of musicianship is terrifying. I feel like such a hack. I’m the one who went to a geeky music college, but they’re running circles around me. And then there’s this amazing rapper-singer-producer named Wes Period — he and I just partnered with Interscope to make some magical sh— happen for him. That’s kind of it. Just writing, writing, writing and seeing what the f— happens!