Justin Tranter On Writing Your Favorite Pop Songs, “Girls” & Being An Ally
When it comes to writing a perfect pop song, Justin Tranter has the Midas touch. From Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” to Halsey’s “Bad At Love,” the 38-year-old has made pop radio a more interesting place with his quirky lyrics and willingness to defy convention — a habit that was formed during his stint as the lead singer of Semi Precious Weapons.
It turns out, he found his calling by accident. “I started going to sessions and it started clicking and some big artists started cutting songs,” the retired rocker explains over the kitchen table in his airy, Echo Park house. “Three months into it, Kelly Clarkson cut a song… to have something that major happen so soon was pretty crazy and I was like, ‘Maybe this is where I should be.’” The string of hits that followed would confirm that suspicion.
While already well-established, Tranter became pop music’s go-to collaborator after the success of Gomez’s Revival. He gives much of the credit to his co-writer. “Julia Michaels’ aesthetic, her heart… that was the entryway into the land of Selena,” he remembers. The pop star’s A&R was obsessed with “Good For You” and the rest just happened naturally. “She cut a couple more [songs] and then we actually started to go and co-write with her.”
And yes, he helped out on the follow-up. “Well, we haven’t been in the studio recently just because Julia’s been touring so much and Selena has been taking over the world,” Tranter answers cautiously. “Last time I heard, there’s some stuff on the album, but you never know until you know. She’s one of my favorite voices in pop music, so I really fucking hope that I have something on the album because I worship her.”
BMI’s Pop Songwriter Of The Year is equally enthusiastic about his work on Gwen Stefani’s This Is What The Truth Feels Like. “Being involved with Gwen, I can’t even fucking tell you,’ he raves, waving his hands in the air for emphasis. “She’s literally one of my top five artists of all time, maybe even top three. I don’t even know what to tell you… you get to work with one of your heroes and she’s so talented and so specific and her vocal tone is sent from baby Jesus.”
I wonder if Gwen is always as chic and put-together as she seems. “She’s always that glamorous,” Tranter howls in the affirmative. “She takes her family very seriously, so a lot of times we’re working at 10 am and she’s serving you full superstar. Red lipstick, perfect hair, the eyeliner, the everything! She’s just the real deal, old-school rock star where it’s like you live it and breathe it, honey. You don’t show up in chap stick and sweatpants.”
He also had his fingerprints all over Britney Spears’ Glory, but is quick to point out the pop icon’s involvement. “She was in the room the whole time,” Tranter confirms. “I think maybe some of the songs we had already done… we went and saw her one night in Vegas and then the next day in Vegas we wrote ‘Do you Wanna Come Over?’ But we talked to her afterwards, so even though she wasn’t in the room that day, she was definitely part of the process.”
“And then we wrote with her on at least half, or more than half, of the songs that we did. No, she was very involved,” he reiterates, while checking on his convalescing dog, Rusty. “A couple of songs, the whole concept was hers, the whole thing. She has amazing melodies. I think that because she is such a fucking amazing showgirl people underestimate her involvement and her talent, because she’s amazing.” What’s the best song he co-wrote for Glory?
“Oh, that’s a great question,” Tranter says taking a sip of water and contemplating for a moment. “I mean, I do love ‘Better.’ I think it’s pretty fierce. And it was on the deluxe edition, so not that many people talk about it. ‘Just Like Me’ is pretty fucking fierce too. And that was all Britney’s idea. It was 100 percent all her. It’s tough, there’s so many that I fucking love,” the salt-and-pepper-haired hitmaker says looking genuinely perplexed. “It’s always hard to pick.”
I ask if ageism played a role in the way Gwen and Britney’s albums were received outside of the gay community? “Ageism for women in pop music is really bad,” he says after a pause. “I think there’s also a thing too where we look at, it’s not even just the actual age, it’s how long someone’s been famous. Kids want ownership of things. Their generation wants to have ownership of it. So that plays a part in it too.”
“But I don’t even think about that, because we were all so happy. I listen to Gwen’s album and it still blows my mind. I still cry. When the love songs start showing up about [Blake Shelton], I still get a huge fucking smile on my face thinking about how happy she was,” he continues. “In terms of the art, we’re all so satisfied and I think it did exactly what it was supposed to do.” Tranter also points out the ecstatic fan reaction to Britney’s “Slumber Party” video as another example of the projects hitting the mark.
Given their long-association, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that one of the songwriter’s next collaborators is Lady Gaga. “We’ve known each other forever,” he says of his former tour mate. (Semi Precious Weapons opened The Monster Ball). “She literally is the queen of our generation, you know what I mean? It’s just insane. I don’t ever want to speak about albums until the artist does their thing because that’s their story, but she’s just the fucking fiercest.”
In addition to penning perfect pop songs for gay icons, Tranter is also a board member of GLAAD and outspoken activist for LGBTQ+ issues. As such, I wonder how he feels about “Girls,” the star-studded Rita Ora collaboration that was accused of queer-baiting by prominent out artists. “To step back from the song for a second, you know, most major labels and major publishers don’t have diversity officers in their HR departments,” he takes a deep breath and begins.
“Which is pretty shocking because most major corporations do have diversity officers,” Tranter continues. “I hope I’m wrong. If this gets printed, I hope that someone corrects me. That would be great news.” As for the song, he seems genuinely conflicted. “It’s an interesting thing because everyone involved in the song, from the artists to the writers, producer, I know and love. And they all have amazing intentions, they’re all unbelievable allies to the community.”
“It was interesting for me because, knowing Rita personally for years now, she’s had very serious relationships with both men and women. So to me, listening to the first verse where she says I’m 50/50 and all these amazing things, I was like, ‘Fuck yes, live your truth in the song, queen! I live for this,’” Tranter says enthusiastically of the song’s opening verse.
“But then as it went on and there was the red wine moment and you have three other girls on the song that don’t identify, hearing it was tough.” He ultimately decided to speak out against it. “If we’re going claim to be allies inside our own community, and I mean me as a cis, white gay man, our community is LGBTQ and IA and plus. So the majority of bi women and lesbian women that I know were very, very upset by the song. So my job as an ally to them is to listen and support.”
I ask if Tranter has ever faced a backlash of the kind that was unleashed on Rita. “I mean fronting Semi Precious Weapons as a hyper-femme, over-the-top, very punk, very queer person, the internet was constant backlash for me,” he grimaces. “Every time I would get off stage, there would be tweets like, ‘Kill the AIDS faggot.’ I’ve experienced that type of internet backlash, but nothing like what Rita faced.”
That would change less than a week later when Tranter attended Out To Brunch, an event for LGBTQ+ songwriters that was criticized for being non-inclusive. “It was extremely whitewashed, and did not represent the L, or the B, or the T in our community at all,” he says with obvious regret over the phone. “I did not organize the event, but there was a lot of very justified, very important backlash about how white, and cis male dominated the event was.”
His initial response was the clarify the situation. “I kind of ran around all week, trying to make sure everyone knew that I did not put the event together, or have anything to do with the guest list,” Tranter explains. “And then I realized that this conversation is not about me and it’s not about my white tears. This is about the very serious issues of misogyny and racism in the LGBTQ community, and about misogyny and racism in the music industry.”
“So instead of defending myself, I realized I need to do even more work to make sure that people have a real seat at these tables,” he says. “This wasn’t my event, but who fucking cares? I’m fine. My life is great. This isn’t about me. I can take a little bit of misplaced blame if it means that these important conversations are being had.” While that might come across as damage control, it aligns with a comment he made a week earlier.
“There definitely have been things I’ve read in interviews even recently where I’m like, ‘Oh I could have definitely phrased that better,'” Tranter replied when I asked if he had ever made a misstep of his own. “I spend my whole life trying to pay my privilege forward and I’m going to make mistakes and I’m sure at some point I’m going to say or do something real fucking stupid and hopefully I will learn from it.” It sounds like he was true to his word.