Justin Tranter’s Written All of Your Favorite Pop Songs This Year
And the former Semi Precious Weapons frontman shows no sign of slowing down
“I love your promptness,” Justin Tranter says happily from his Los Angeles home when SPIN phones him. The suddenly prolific songwriter has reason to require such a prompt schedule; formerly the frontman of the glam-pop, Lady Gaga-cosigned Semi Precious Weapons (they opened for several of the Mother Monster’s arena tours), the 35-year-old has now found himself in the middle of a career revival as the go-to pop lyricist the stars all want. Frequently working with co-writer Julia Michaels, Tranter’s also racked up hits and studio sessions with Gwen Stefani (her October comeback single, “Used to Love You”), Fifth Harmony (the Mariah Carey-sampling “Like Mariah”), Justin Bieber (the blippy Skrillex production, “Sorry”), Selena Gomez (a huge chunk of her “pop star as a young woman” album, Revival), and more. Earlier this week, he and Michaels popped up in an Instagram with pop’s once and future queen, Britney Spears, with the caption “Working hard and hardly working…new album…wheeeee!”
Breaking out into pop songwriting with last year’s “Centuries” for Fall Out Boy, Tranter has already made himself the most in-demand hired gun, and he’s also one of the only queer men to score such high-profile gigs. “I like to make glamorously informed songs for glamorously intelligent people,” he says of the past 12 months of work. “For one thing, I have an understanding of the artist’s perspective. A lot of writers don’t know what it feels like to get on stage. They don’t understand the weight that songs can carry. I got a chance to play all these shows, I got a chance to define myself through music so when it comes to helping other people figure out what they should say, I’ve been through it.”
SPIN had Tranter walk through some of his 2015 tracks in an attempt to peek behind the crafty, inspired songwriting he’s becoming known for.
Selena Gomez, “Hands to Myself”
Justin Tranter: To kind of give credit where credit is due, the fabulous Julia Michaels, who is my main co-writer, she had the [sings] “Can’t keep my hands to myself” — she had that voice noted in her phone and she came and did the session with that line. Julia’s definitely very in tune with the world of Selena. They’re the same age, they’re both gorgeous and Latin and they live in Los Angeles. So there’s a lot of emotional similarities. That’s where it came from. The song was birthed from there.
The line about being “your metaphorical gin and juice” in there gets me every time.
Tranter: I tried to put that into about a hundred different songs. Not “metaphorical gin and juice,” but just calling out the actual metaphor in the song. That’s the first time it actually landed.
Selena’s phrasing on that is impeccable too. As an outsider, I have no clue who decides on that type of thing — is it you?
Tranter: It’s a combination of everything. Selena is an unbelieveable storyteller and singer. I think she’s so underrated as a singer. She’s not out there doing a thousand runs and melismas, but her tone and her intent is at the highest level you could ask for. There’s a reason why she is the star she is and I think that it’s the tone in her storytelling. The whole thing was created with Selena there, in the vibe. That’s definitely a combination of everybody trying to win.
How’d you get involved with Revival in the first place? Your name is all over that album’s credits.
Tranter: Me, Julia, and Nick Monson wrote “Good For You” in a random session when we went in on a Sunday morning to tweak another song. Nick booked the studio for two hours, and we did the tweak in 45 minutes, and there was an hour left. It was like, “Let’s just use the time. Why waste the money?” So we wrote “Good for You” in about 45 minutes. Our publisher was the one who was like, “Oh, this is a Selena song.” It seemed [to me] like “Is it too indie for Selena?” Our publisher sent it over to Selena’s A&R, A&R played it for Selena, and she freaked out. So that is the song that brought us into the project. The tone was set sonically already — Selena knew exactly what she wanted and this song helped explain that. You know, Selena knows exactly who she is and what she wants, physically and lyrically. The direction was definitely led by her. It was amazing to see everybody on board looking to her for artistic direction and as we can see, it f**king worked.
As someone who used to perform, how do you balance your voice with what artists are looking for?
Tranter: My artist career failed pretty miserably multiple times. [Laughs.] I’m okay with that. You know, [Semi Precious Weapons] had an amazing, fabulous fanbase but in terms of the industry, there were lots of big ol’ failures. [Laughs.] F**k it, you know, who cares? For me, it’s sort of beautiful to have my sensibility — especially lyrically — and be able to offer that when it’s appropriate. But I don’t need to do it in every song. I’m just finding it a whole new artistic process to see through somebody else’s eyes, whether that’s the artist or whether that’s the cowriter. I think the worst thing you can do is force your sensibility into every single second of the song. Then you’re not serving the artist and you’re not serving the song. The song is king. Everything else doesn’t matter.
Gwen Stefani, “Used to Love You”
I talked to Gwen last year about “Spark the Fire” and it seemed even then that she wanted to go in a different direction than what she was doing at the time. You and Julia captured that perfectly for her. How did you snag studio time with her?
Tranter: We requested to do it. It’s like a teen dream come true. It’s the same A&R that did the Selena stuff, so we were like, “Oh, we might as well ask him.” So I got to go into my first session with her and it was just amazing and she just flat out walked in the room and was like, “Listen. I only want to tell the truth. I only want to make s**t that’s real. If you’re not interested in that, let’s not do this.” And I was like, “You’re Gwen Stefani! I want to do anything you want to do!” [Laughs.] The first couple of sessions were without Julia, it was just me and Gwen. We built this fabulous trust and then Julia came in and did her genius-ness to all of it. Being able to be a part of Gwen Stefani telling the f**king truth is like… I get teary talking about it. It’s insane. We’ve written at least 20 songs with her. I can’t even believe that my life is real.
I was going to ask how you handle writing with someone who’s going through such a highly publicized breakup, but it sounds like she was ready to tackle that.
Tranter: Gwen is one of the most accomplished songwriters of our time, so you let the queen songwriter lead the way. [Laughs.] To try to get in her way would be the dumbest thing ever. I’ve never gone through a divorce. I can’t speak on that at all for her. These are Gwen’s songs that we were lucky enough to assist her in crafting, these songs that she said she wanted to write, and needed to write. I have to pinch myself every time [we’re in the studio]. The funny part is — because she’s so sweet and she’s so awesome — that you’re just hanging out with her and you forget like it’s Gwen Stefani because she’s just such a real bitch. Then she gets on the mic, and you’re like, “Whoa! That’s Gwen! What’s up, Gwen?”
Hailee Steinfeld, “Love Myself”
Hailee told an interviewer over the summer that the song’s “self-love” subject matter was open to interpretation, but since you actually wrote it, can you speak to where the lyrics came from?
Tranter: [Long, extended, howling laughter.] Please put in the interview that I just started laughing. I would have to say, the brilliant Julia Michaels and I were on our way to dinner the night before we wrote it and she was talking about something I’m not going to say. The next day we were in the studio and I was like, “You know, we should probably write a song about that. It hasn’t happened for like a really long time.” That’s all I’m going to say. What I will tell you about that was that the beauty of it was being fully aware of the double entendre and having it be a self-empowerment anthem meets the self-love anthem. In a beautiful way, it can mean both things because — not to get real deep on you about pop music — but when it comes to female sexuality, we still live in a time where girls are made to feel bad for being sexual, especially being sexual on their own. So even though it’s a really fun pop song, to me it’s actually something serious to talk about.
As a songwriter, is it fun to be able to cloak lyrics like that in double meanings?
Tranter: Before anything else, my favorite thing as a fan of music was to make up my own story as to what it means. When answering these questions, I do like to be somewhat open, because I don’t want to ruin it. If it’s a listener’s favorite song and they’ve created this whole story for what the song is, I don’t want to take that away from them, because what if the real story has nothing to do with their version of it? So it’s cool to know what it means for me and that’s just a little reward for myself, I guess. But the real beauty — the real payoff — is that people can find their own meanings and have it mean something to them that I could have never imagined.
Justin Bieber, “Sorry”
You’ve obviously been attached to some huge pop stars this year, but it feels like the Bieber cosign is a life-changing one.
Tranter: It’s a huge deal. Yesterday, a friend of mine said, “Are all these congratulatory text messages annoying at this point?” And I was like, “No, this is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me.” As a queer kid from Chicago who came out at 14 years old in 1994, to going to music school, to moving to New York, to doing my band, to the industry, to having the band fail, to have these songs that I was part of being sung by the biggest stars in the world: I can’t even tell you how crazy it feels.
One of the things I’ve always admired about you is that you’ve said you actively try to bring a queer voice to mainstream pop. Does it blow your mind that you get to be able to be a voice for so many people who’ve been sidelined in pop for so long?
Tranter: It is really nuts. I’ll say this, and I don’t think I’ve ever said this before publicly: a big part of what I make does come from being queer. I think that as the frontman of SPW, singing and performing the songs and giving the visual I gave, it was too queer for a lot of mainstream situations. I am so happy that my point of view has found a way to make it into the mainstream. I think that there sadly aren’t many queer writers or producers or even executives in the pop-music business. So the fact that I get to be who I am — and open about who I am — and have my music affecting people is a dream come true. I wish that when I was 14, I knew of some openly femme, queer motherf**ker out there writing huge songs for huge people.
You cowrote “Sorry” with Julia. Why do you think you two work as a duo?
Tranter: She has such an unbelievably strong point of view, and I obviously have my strong point of view that I vomited all over the world for as long as I could. [Laughs.] We come from very different worlds. We’re extremely different ages — she’s 21, I’m 35. I think it just works. We just let it happen. You can’t have an ego in these situations. If somebody has the better line, they have the better line. If somebody has the better melody, they have the better melody. Me and Julia are so okay with that. When you have that creative chemistry, you just do.
Did working with Justin ever present itself to you as a moral quandary of sorts, considering all the hours you clocked with Selena [his ex]?
Tranter: That’s an easy one to answer, because Selena has such an open heart. Honestly I feel like I’m her publicist but I’m not bulls**tting. She’s such a f**king amazing girl that the people that she loves, she just wants them to win. She would never in a million years keep anyone from an opportunity. Your question totally makes sense, but I think that if people are honest and good to each other, you only want to root each other on.
Fifth Harmony, “Like Mariah”
I talked to Dinah Jane the other day and she said you were also back working on the group’s second record too. Is that right?
Tranter: For sure. All those girls are so f**king fierce. It blows, because I did “Like Mariah” but I wasn’t in the studio when they cut it. So this song that we just did last week, I was actually there when they cut it and these voices. I mean, these girls are destroyers. As a little alternative bitch from Chicago, when I was younger, I was just so against everything pop music and obviously that has changed drastically, slowly but surely. One of the big turning points was Gwen’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby and Britney’s Blackout, where I started to go, “Wait, there’s actually some really serious s**t happening in pop music.” It’s amazing to then get to see behind the curtain and realize that it’s not Oz. This s**t is real.
I saw a picture on your Instagram of you and Courtney Love. Any chance you guys wrote together this year?
Tranter: I f**king did!
Were you shaking in your boots?
Tranter: I’m a massive fan. She’s managed by the same people that manage Fall Out Boy [for whom Tranter wrote “Centuries” in 2014] and so through that connection I was able to reach out like, “Hey, I heard Courtney is making some new music. Please, please, please: me, over here!” So Courtney Love came to my house and it was the first time I was nervous since the ’90s because she’s such an icon to me, and one of the best lyricists ever. I was okay until I got the text that she was in an Uber on the way to my house to write a song and I was like [pauses for a moment]… “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can handle this.” But it was an amazing experience. Her pen could not keep up with her brain. She’s writing some of the most beautiful lyrics ever, just like a rapper, so f**king fast that. She’s also just so honest and so self-aware. I went and saw her perform and she sang one of the songs that we wrote and she gave me a shoutout and 15-year-old me was like, “No, I have to poke my eyes out and die because this is never going to get better. Ever. Never getting better.” She’s definitely a very smart, mature, self-aware woman. She’s a real artist that grows and changes, but the Courtney Love sensibility is stricken. That s**t can’t be f**ked with. It’s Courtney.
You once told someone that your recent songwriting has been bitchy with flair. Do you think modern pop needs that edge to stand out?
Tranter: [Laughs.] I think we’re in a really amazing place where the radio had gotten cool again. When you look at songs like “Good For You,” we never thought that was going to be a single in a million years. We just thought it was going to be a really cool vibe track on the album. And Selena Gomez, genius, was like, “Nope, this is my first single, motherf**ker.” And you have “Good For You,” you have “Lean On” by Major Lazer, and you have the whole Tove Lo situation, you have the Weeknd, you have Sia. I think radio is cool again. That’s a very inspiring place to be because executives want things that feel ahead and cool because that’s what’s working right now. The songs that I do, especially ones I do with Julia — she is so young, smart, and sure of herself that if she doesn’t think s**t is cool, it’s not happening. Me being a little older will say, “Well it’s a nice opportunity” and she’ll say, “No motherf**ker, it’s not. We’re not writing that.” I remember when I was that age, I was writing queer, political, singer-songwriter music and I was so dead-set at what I was doing. She has that same determination, excitement, and strength, but for pop music.