Justin Tranter on how to write a hit pop song — and celebrate Pride — during a pandemic
If you pump up the volume of a hit pop song from the past five years, there's a better than even chance that what you're hearing was co-written by Justin Tranter. From Lady Gaga's Chromatica and Selena Gomez's Rare (just in 2020) to the Jonas Brothers and Ariana Grande, Tranter has become a prolific hit-maker whose sweet yet spunky approach to songwriting is splashed across their collaborators' Instagram Stories.
This glitzy second act of Tranter's career followed more than a decade of classical training (at the Chicago Academy of the Arts for high school and then Boston's Berklee College of Music) and a five-year stint as the singer for the glam-rock New York band, Semi Precious Weapons. "It was very urgent, aggressive, sonically rock music," Tranter says. "But then lyrically it was super high camp. There was this fun vulgarity, this hyper-femme sexuality — and I was in six-inch gold glitter heels."
Tranter, who is queer and gender non-conforming, prefers more of a flowy caftan-inspired look these days. "Now my life as a pop writer is so completely different," they told EW as part of our Untold Stories: Pride Edition podcast.
In celebration of Pride Month, EW also spoke to Tranter about how songwriting works when everyone's quarantined in separate spaces and how they're supporting emerging artists on a new record label.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Other than doing a deep dive into the life and career of Divine, as we discussed in our Untold Stories podcast, how are you these days? Are you still writing songs in quarantine?
JUSTIN TRANTER: Yeah. I had to push our interview by 15 minutes because I was actually finishing a song — virtually, of course. I am trying to keep writing virtually with people.
Do you do it over Zoom?
I do it over FaceTime. I've tried a couple of Zoom sessions, but Zoom does the automatic muting if someone's playing the track — you're trying to hear the track and write lyrics and melody to it, and if someone else starts singing [it mutes]. I have a couple of writers who are signed to my publishing company who are kicking ass on Zoom. And I'm like, "Oh, it's probably because you're 20. I'm 40 and this technology is really f---ing up my flow."
You're hearing too many things at once.
Yeah! I've been super honored to be executive producing Bebe Rexha's album with her. I think Bebe is one of the most underrated people of our time right now. She sings her ass off. She writes her ass off. She has a really cool story from where she grew up and her family. And I really think that this album we've been able to make together is going to show the world why I'm so obsessed with her. Obviously, she's been hugely successful, it's not like people don't love her, but they need to love her more. And we are so close that we've been able to finish up a couple of songs on FaceTime, pretty easily, tweak production, call producers, and have this tweaked and that tweaked. So that's been really great because we were pretty much done writing, right when lockdown started. So now we've just been tying up loose ends virtually.
Have you worked with anyone new?
I have. I don't know if I can say it, but it was actually a really funny story. Hopefully, the song will come out and you'll all know what I'm talking about. Their wifi wasn't working, so we literally wrote it over the actual phone. We couldn't even see each other.
It's not quite like Bernie Taupin faxing lyrics to Elton John, but kind of.
Right. I have done some stuff too, though, where I'm just sending people lyrics and then they're doing the melody and the track at home. So I'm trying to find ways to work. But what's also been nice too is I'm just writing a lot less. I'm still probably writing like three songs a week, but I normally average around seven songs a week. Those don't all come out, obviously, but I'm writing a lot less. My mind is open for me to really dig into the lyrics a little more, which is my favorite part. There are a couple albums that we have just completely stopped that we were working on and we keep trying to plan for when we're going to go back.
I know some people in my business are getting tested and then picking a small group people to work with. But my 73-year-old mother is in my house, and I'm just not going to risk any of that. I just can't even imagine going out into the world right now and trying to get my job back to normal and making the lives of essential workers even harder. I can't, I wouldn't be able to live with myself.
You recently started a company called Facet. Is it a publishing company? Is it a recording company?
It's a couple of companies. My business partner, Katie Vinten, and I launched Facet Publishing and Facet Records. And we have a house in West Hollywood called Facet House. I had all these murals being done of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera for our backyard, kind of Warhol style where the images just repeat over and over. We have a studio so the people that are signed to us, whether they're signed on the label side for their artist projects, whether they're signed to publishing for writing, they can all work in this studio for free, collaborate with each other, collaborate with outside people. It just launched basically at the beginning of the year. On the label side, Diana Gordon has been putting out music — she's an unbelievable singer, performer, songwriter. She wrote all of my favorite songs on Beyonce's Lemonade. We put out a little bit of her music right before the shutdown. And an amazing producer–DJ artist that we have signed to us named Shawn Wasabi goes viral every other day with these — he makes beats on the weirdest household objects you've ever seen. But he's a classical piano player and his album is out now. And then we have a couple of other unbelievable artists that we had signed. The music is done, but we want to make sure they can shoot proper videos and take proper photos, so their music's on hold right now until we can all go back to normal.
Who is a young queer or trans or nonconforming artist who is not on your label but whose work you think is amazing?
The artist serpentwithfeet I'm fully obsessed with. I don't even know how to put it in a genre. The EP [blisters] was this sort of alternative classical soul, it was unbelievable. All the music's amazing. Never met, never worked with. He's not signed to me, and I worship him. Lil Nas X is unbelievable. His melodies are like gold. And of course when a song is that big for that long, it makes people question it almost, which is so funny. But I'm like, "No, the reason it was not big for that long is because those melodies are so f---ing good that they will stay with you until the day that you die and probably in your afterlife." I also have to shout out, even though she is part of my company, Shea Diamond, who is an unbelievable trans singer-songwriter, sort of like protest soul music. She currently has the theme song for the show We're Here on HBO.
How are you celebrating Pride this year?
I am a firm believer that Pride started as a protest, which we love. We love a protest, or at least I do. And it has obviously become a celebration. I think that both of those things are valid and both of those things are amazing. So I like to say I celebrate Pride by always living in my truth and celebrating that truth. But making sure that I am still protesting and fighting for those of us in our LGBTQ community that are less fortunate. And whether that means fighting against systemic racism, against income inequality, against femme-phobia, fatphobia, all these different things that still exist inside our community and outside of our community. I celebrate by being who I am — and will probably have a drink at noon. And by making sure that every day of my life, not just on Pride, I am fighting for those less fortunate.