Justin Tranter is one of the biggest stars in pop music ― you just might not know it.
That’s because Tranter is a songwriter responsible for some of the biggest hits of the last few years, including Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Good For You” and Imagine Dragons’ “Believer.”
Previously the lead singer of his own rock band, Semi-Precious Weapons, Tranter disbanded the group in 2014 and began collaborating behind-the-scenes with a who’s who of Top 40 Radio, including his frequent writing partner, Julia Michaels, who had a smash hit in 2017 with “Issues,” a track the duo penned together.
Now one of the most in-demand hitmakers working in the industry, Tranter was named BMI’s Pop Songwriter of the Year in 2016 and was the only songwriter this year to be nominated for both a Golden Globe for Best Original Song (“Home” from the film “Ferdinand” performed by Nick Jonas) and a Grammy for Song of the Year (the aforementioned “Issues”).
Tranter recently called HuffPost from Miami where he was gearing up to perform some of his hits at the Warner Chappell Global Music Conference and offered his thoughts on President Donald Trump, pop music’s bad reputation and the artists he’s currently dreaming of working with.
HuffPost: You’re one of the most successful and in-demand pop songwriters working today, but 10 years ago you were name-dropping rock bands like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin as your primary influences. Is your love affair with pop a relatively new thing or was it always there?
Justin Tranter: I first fell in love with music when I was five years old because of “Annie.” And then “The Little Mermaid” really made me want to start singing. And then the fierce, amazing women of the ’90s — Alanis Morrissette, Courtney Love, Tori Amos, Ani Difranco, Paula Cole, Patty Griffin ― made me want to start writing. And when I started Semi-Precious Weapons I was falling in love with ’70s and ’80s rock all over again. My dad and my brothers were all huge fans of that, so during my years in the band, that’s what I was listening to.
The two big turning points for me were Gwen Stefani’s “Love Angel Music Baby” and Britney Spears’ “Black Out.” Those albums seemed to have this urgency and this intensity and even though they were both pop as fuck and I was still listening to rock at the time, there was something in them that was really hitting me. That was the beginning. If you listen to Semi-Precious Weapons’ last single, “Aviation High,” you can definitely hear that even in my old band, even in the songs I was writing then, the pop influence really started to take over.
Many people view pop music as a “guilty pleasure” or inherently disposable and incapable of making intelligent or thought provoking contributions to our culture. That must make you crazy.
I was guilty of thinking that way too, when I was younger. If something was “super pop” I thought that it was shallow and couldn’t be thoughtful, and then I realized that was really dumb and ignorant. Pop just means popular — it can be any genre and if it becomes popular, then it’s pop music. Great music is just very clear. Sonically and lyrically you understand the point of view, you understand the melodies, you understand the vibe and you understand the lyric pretty damn quickly. To me that doesn’t make it “less than” ― it makes it “more than.” Pop involves very well thought out, emotional, constructed pieces of music that people can feel what the writer is intending very quickly and to me that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing.
What do you make of the fact that we haven’t seen ― or heard ― many pop stars using their music to address what’s happening politically and socially in our country right now?
We’re in an interesting time where lots of pop stars and musicians and actors and athletes are speaking out and speaking their truth and a lot of people are really fed up with the bullshit ― but we aren’t really hearing that in the songs. A lot of people are saying things that need to be said but they’re doing it on their social media. It hasn’t hit the music yet. I would love to see that change and I would love to be a part of that.
Katy Perry described her latest album, “Witness,” as being socially conscious “purposeful pop,” but I’d argue there really wasn’t much on it worthy of that designation. What has to change before we get to a place where a pop star as big as Perry can put out an obviously political song or album and it’ll be embraced?
I think that people need to speak one hundred percent truth. I always say the more specific and the more personal it is, the more universal it becomes. So, if someone — whether it’s the songwriter or the artist — is speaking a truth that they’ve lived and it feels incredibly personal and it feels really honest, it could hopefully cut through. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic? I think Katy Perry’s album was fucking amazing. It’s just going to take the right song and the right moment and people will begin to talk about these issues in their music.
In 2010 you said, “I don’t relate to specifically gay rights anymore, but gender issues will always be extremely important to me. I think that the core of everything is gender, not sexuality.” Do you still feel that way?
When it comes to this current administration I’m very, very concerned with gay rights but I believe a lot of homophobia is based on misogyny. Even in the gay community there’s a lot of fear about gender and femininity and there’s a lot of misogyny. But I love the gay community — I’m proud to be on the board of GLAAD and I want to fight for absolutely every right that we deserve and every right that this administration is trying to roll back. This administration is doing their best to erase us every chance they get and we will not be erased no matter how hard they try. We will try harder! But I do think that gender is at the core of so many issues and as a gender non-conforming person, I think even in our own community there’s a lot of education that still needs to happen to help people understand all of the beautiful details of gender. The more we understand, the easier it is to overcome the fear people have.
How is it for queer people in the music industry right now?
I mean… there’s like three of us? If that answers your question... [laughs]
Right, but is that changing? Are you seeing progress being made in terms of who is finding success on the charts or at least being taken seriously by labels?
I am seeing major labels signing a lot more openly LGBTQ people and I think that’s a huge, huge step in the right direction. But we still have to see if the labels are going to do all of the necessary work to [give a real chance to] these artists and we still have to see if the mainstream world is ready for these artists. In terms of the media, it’s getting better all the time but there still aren’t that many fully formed, three-dimensional LGBTQ people visible in media — or at least there aren’t as many as there should be. It’s obviously better than it was when I was in high school and it’s amazing to turn on the TV or go to the movies or see someone like Sam Smith, who is a fucking champion just for being as massive as he is while being openly queer. But the music industry has a lot of work to do.
If a queer person manages to break through and find success in the entertainment industry, they’re often presented as ― or forced to present themselves as ― non-sexual. They can come out and they can have a partner and they can sing about love and relationships but it’s rare if they can sing or talk about queer sex itself. Is sex positivity ― especially queer sex positivity ― something that you’re interested in incorporating into your songwriting?
Sex positivity is amazing for everyone and if the artist who is singing the song is a sex-positive person, and that’s the honest truth for them, then of course we need more songs like that. I’m working with this amazing artist named Shea Diamond who is a trans woman of color originally from the South who now lives in New York. The first song that we’re going to put out through Asylum Records is called “Keisha Complexion” about how this man loves her emotionally, physically and sexually because of all that she is — whether that is her dark complexion or that’s her living her trans truth. We’re not shying away from letting her live as a real person who is emotional and physical and sexual. But I think you’re right, LGBTQ people are still sanitized in most of media.
I was surprised to find that your Twitter feed reads more like it belongs to a pissed off politics junkie than a pop songwriter. Where’s your head at in terms of what’s happening in our country right now?
With Trump, there are so many thoughts that it’s hard to focus. But I am going to focus, so, at least for today, the erasure of LGBTQ people and our issues has got to stop. Again, going back to gender, his misogyny and his homophobia is all connected. I think his time is up and the sexual misconduct and sexual assault that he hasn’t been found guilty of but that we all know he is guilty of needs to be addressed. It’s the scariest administration that the LGBTQ community has faced — maybe ever but certainly in decades — and it needs to not be ignored. I know it’s difficult to concentrate with all of the insanity coming out of his office and the nuclear threats via Twitter, but it has to stop.
Do you think that famous people — in this case, those in the music industry — have a responsibility to speak out? I’m thinking of someone like Taylor Swift, who has been called out for not weighing in on what’s currently happening in the U.S.
I think we should take the “pop star” part out of the equation. As citizens in a democracy, we all have a responsibility to be involved and speak out. I feel a responsibility and I’m not even famous — I just write music with famous people — and I always have. When I was in high school I started an AIDS benefit at my school that still happens every single year. Kids put a show together to raise money for different local HIV/AIDS charities and organizations in Chicago. I’ve always felt so privileged as a young, very feminine queer person because not only did my family accept me when I came out in 1994, they thought I was a fucking rock star and they still do. And that’s a huge privilege that I was given by my family. That was a gift. So I feel a responsibility but that doesn’t mean that everybody does. But when our democracy is being threatened in a way that we’ve never really seen in modern history in this country, I think that every person should speak up and get involved. I don’t think it should be about whether or not someone is a pop star because if somebody wanted to make music and their dreams came true, that doesn’t mean they have to do things. But, yes, while the world is in this terrifying place, everyone should be speaking out.
2017 was obviously huge for you. Who do you want to work with next and what do you want to conquer in 2018?
I’d love to work with Ani DiFranco, Paula Cole, Patty Griffin, Patty Larkin, Stevie Nicks, and Beyonce. As far as 2018 goes, I want to try and encourage the media to make their headlines not so clickbaity, so that people’s full story can be told and not just a headline that everyone reacts to. I would like to do everything I could possibly do to make more make more LGBTQ voices heard in the industry. I want to hang out with my parents even more than I already do. And I want to get another dog.
For more from Justin Tranter, follow him on Twitter.