Songwriter to the stars Justin Tranter was honored Monday by the Recording Academy’s Grammy Museum with their own, one-on-one Spotlight: Justin Tranter, moderated by Yahoo! Entertainment Music Editor, Lyndsey Parker. Following the interview, three artists in Tranter’s orbit performed, including pop singer and actress Sofia Carson, (whose new film Purple Hearts is one of the most-watched Netflix films this summer), soul singer Shea Diamond and 19-year-old pop talent YDE.
The in-depth interview was a thorough, all-encompassing look at Tranter’s early days as a creative, their bold and perhaps ahead-of-its-time run fronting glam rock band Semi Precious Weapons, breakthroughs with songwriting for the world’s biggest pop stars as well as looking ahead to future ventures across film, television, stage and beyond. For those unfamiliar with Justin Tranter, their dominance in pop songwriting has yielded RIAA diamond-certified hit “Sorry” by Justin Bieber, and numerous multi-platinum smashes like “Issues” by Julia Michaels, “Believer” by Imagine Dragons, “Lose You to Love Me” by Selena Gomez, “Cake By the Ocean” by DNCE, “Bad At Love” by Halsey, “Centuries” by Fall Out Boy and so many more.
The Grammy Museum’s Chief Program Officer, Rita George welcomed the guests to the program, introducing the honorable Tranter and moderator Parker. Tranter was decked out in an oversized khaki trench coat and matching platform boots, referencing their look audibly as “it’s like Sharon Stone meets David Byrne”.
Parker and her subject got to business talking Tranter’s early days in Hawthorn Woods, IL, growing up across the street from a big farm which is now a “generic suburb”, according to Tranter. There was a lot of music in Tranter’s home but the family was heavily into tennis, saying, “I was a really fierce tennis player”. Tranter was obsessed with music and women in music from an early age, drawn to the movie musical Annie. They always wanted to sing but they were bullied and “everything happened” to them, so chorus in 7th grade was out of the question. But once Justin Tranter played the character of radio announcer Bert Healy they never played tennis seriously again. Once they had the courage to sing publicly, they didn’t look back.
Tranter was drawn to writing songs because of the rise in female singer-songwriters and they connected with the artists of Lilith Fair, particularly resonating with the songwriting of Ani DiFranco, thinking they could be the Ani of piano. The Chicago Academy for the Arts is where Tranter was a musical theater major, saying, “it saved my life in more ways than I can count” and “I refused to take acting because I wanted to be myself“, which garnered a lot of laughter from fans after Tranter said this with emphasis.
Tranter’s mom was a David Bowie super fan and they were obsessed, observing women making glam, and identifying with the way fashion could be married to performance. Semi Precious Weapons was born following Tranter’s move to New York in 2002, visiting the East Village haunt the Sidewalk Cafe which put Regina Spektor and Moldy Peaches on the map, and where they hosted Flaming Sundays. “Lady Gaga was a huge super fan of my band, she was brunette and messaged us on MySpace”, recalled Tranter. They gave a shout to bandmate Dan Crean who was in the crowd and went on to mention that “If there is gender confusion, then labels don’t want you to be sexual”. Tranter talked about being signed to four separate labels and how they wanted to change them, highlighting their adored lyric “I can’t pay my rent but I’m fucking gorgeous”.
The band members, who Tranter mentioned were all straight, all experienced some kind of homophobia by proxy during this period. Tranter’s negative stance on the labels’ lack of direction with Semi Precious Weapons was “what they’re doing works in New York and LA but we’re going to change it so it works everywhere”. On the positive side, “if they saw an amazing performer and talented songwriter, they can convince it to do something else”. It was not happening for the band, and Tranter zeroed in on the misogyny around the entire principle: “We don’t mind if women wear pants because who doesn’t want to be a man?” But at the same time, men wearing women’s apparel and the “fem equation”, as Tranter described, was not of any interest to the record labels.
If only Tranter and Semi Precious Weapons had a time machine and launched about a decade later. But the band aside, Tranter’s gravitation toward female artists remained, saying, “I just think men should stop talking, and that includes singing. We just need a break”. On the topic of artists in their wheelhouse but slightly later in the pop timeline, Tranter pointed out Sam Smith as being the perfect example and told a story about his fame. “Sam was a very huge fan of our band and he sent us a message on Facebook”, said Tranter. “He said seeing someone like you makes me feel like I can do this”, and Smith dropped out of college to become one of the biggest pop stars of all time. Tranter and Smith have since collaborated.
“Epic hadn’t dropped us but we were off their web site”, said Tranter. “The music business is classy”. Tranter signed a publishing deal with Warner Chappell, which still represents them to this day and they asked about taking on sessions with other people. It was the collaboration that really set Tranter off. “The magic and electricity you feel in the room, I start screaming and jumping and kicking my legs like when I’m performing”. They had opened for Lady Gaga and Kesha and said, “Quitting the band was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do”. When asked if they missed the artist and touring life, Tranter responded, “Twenty-three hours of the day are boring and you’re only on the stage for one hour when touring”.
So they went full speed ahead with songwriting, taking notice of Sia’s “Titanium” collaboration with David Guetta, thinking they could have a piece of the dance-pop wave. Their first pop session cut was Kelly Clarkson’s “Nostalgic”, which gave them the first feeling of satisfaction writing for someone else. The first hit or break arrived with Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries”, which Tranter describes as “ridiculous and over the top, just like me”.
Tranter discussed other standout moments recording meaningful songs with Imagine Dragons, DNCE, Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani and Justin Bieber and said, “My favorite part of being a songwriter and not being an artist is it’s such a gift to help other people tell their stories in the best way possible”.
Beyond the hit songs, Tranter’s history as an activist remains strong, with their Chicago Academy for the Arts Talent Show which has raised funds for HIV/AIDS for over 25 years, jumping in following the Pulse massacre in Orlando and finally joining the board for GLAAD which Tranter says changed their life forever. “Trying to do what’s right has always been a natural instinct for me”.
Tranter reiterated their support for women in the music business, “If I’m writing a song for a woman, I demand that a woman be in the room”. And on the overall discussion around songwriting and believing in a singer, Tranter made the powerful statement, “Elvis, Whitney and Frank Sinatra never wrote a song but we believe them when they performed. So songwriters believed in what they wrote”.
Justin Tranter offered a glimpse of what’s to come with their other ventures, which already include their Facet House, Facet Records and Facet Publishing. But they’ve got a musical on the horizon heading to Harvard in summer 2023, written with Eve Ensler and Idina Menzel and directed by Diane Paulus called WILD: A Musical Becoming. Also coming up is music Tranter wrote for Billy Porter’s directorial debut, which is the first-ever trans rom-com. Additionally, Tranter is songwriting for a Grease prequel TV series coming to Paramount+ in 2023 called Grease: Rise of The Pink Ladies.
Finally, Tranter had a special presentation with three talented vocalists capping off the night with Sofia Carson, whose Tranter-penned songs appear in the popular Netflix film Purple Hearts. Tranter was challenged with creating the entire soundtrack for the film in five days and pulled it off with their talented team. Carson, draped in a glamorous black gown delicately sang the breathy melody to one of the film’s themes “Come Back Home”, delighting with lovely dynamics and hitting the big notes with impressive showmanship. She was accompanied by a lovely string section that included Shawn Wasabi, piano from Dan Crean, background vocals by Skyler Stonestreet and Justin Tranter and guitar from Eren Cannata.
Tranter also joined Shea Diamond, the first artist they signed to their label for a powerful rendition of Imagine Dragons’ “Enemy”, also penned by Tranter. Pop singer YDE also performed the poignant “People Can Change” accompanied by acoustic guitar and the string section on the stage.
Though Justin Tranter doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon in the pop songwriting world, they are broadening the palette of opportunity. The impression Tranter has left on popular music is undeniable and their core purpose can be summed up by the quote: “To make these people’s dreams come true makes my dreams come true all over again”.