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JUSTIN TRANTER: THE HITS PRIDE SPECIAL INTERVIEW

At home in L.A., Justin Tranter is talking at rapid speed about an array of creative projects: TV shows, musical theater, running the Facet label and continuing to pump out the biggest, brightest, queerest pop songs. Tranter has amassed an extraordinary number of blockbuster hits as a songwriter and producer, and at the young age of 40 has lived many iterations of performative life, first as the lead singer of ferocious NYC glam-rock band Semi Precious Weapons and more prolifically as an inspired songwriting partner for the likes of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato. Tranter’s been a go-to collaborator for countless alternative acts, too, notably Fall Out Boy, 5 Seconds of Summer and Imagine Dragons. 

The Illinois native is also deeply involved in political and social activism. Tranter, whose pronouns are they/them/their and has identified as queer since they can remember, started organizing benefits as a teen and never stopped. Today he sits on the board of GLAAD. In 2019, the ACLU of Southern California bestowed its Bill of Rights Award on this committed creator for years of activism—not only on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community but also climate-change advocacy and animal rights.

All of that aside, Tranter is a beacon of positivity despite life’s hurdles. To spend an hour with them is to be infused with righteous optimism. “My parents retired during the pandemic and moved in with me and we’ve just been having a fucking blast,” they say about finally breaking out into a post-COVID summer. “I’m excited for a new world.”

You grew up in Lake Zurich. Tell me about it.
First off, please don’t learn anything about Lake Zurich. It’s 45 miles from Chicago. I grew up in a town called Hawthorn Woods—a barren little neighborhood with a pig farm. When I was a kid there was nothing. It’s just a shithole; horrible people, horrible kids. In my house, I always felt safe and celebrated, but the second I went into the neighbor’s yard or walked into the doors at school… I’m able to laugh now, but it was fucking awful.

So you were an outsider from the jump?
Completely. All queer people, even those of us who are so lucky to be safe at home, are still outsiders. We all knew I was different. Going to school, everyone made sure to verbally and physically let me know that I did not belong. My first day on the bus I had a fight. The girl in the house behind ours was Laurie Dickinson. We got on the bus together. The kids were like sharks smelling blood. I got a huge chunk of my hair ripped out of my head, and Laurie was trying her hardest to defend me but was scared by association.

You never shied away, though? What do you think gave you such strength early on?
I’m the youngest of four kids. I was born confident, knowing that there were gonna be people that were wrong. My parents supported me. All my brothers are straight and had more privileges, but they were a lot more fragile. I knew that people could be mean and that I shouldn’t internalize it. Every time they’d separate boys and girls in a class, in the gym or in line, I knew that it was going to be 20 minutes of kids laughing [at me]. Any time I had to use the locker room or the bathroom, I couldn’t go without guys screaming at me. I thought, “You are gonna hate your life because you’re a miserable person. But I’m gonna get the fuck outta here and be OK.”

What was the culture of Chicago Academy of the Arts, where you attended high school in the ’90s? 
I was always in love with musicals: Annie, The Little Mermaid, etc. I was still in school in Lake Zurich when they announced that Annie was gonna be the musical. I was bullied so bad that I’d never auditioned for the chorus—I thought it would make my life worse. There weren’t enough hours in the day to deal with more bullying! When they announced Annie, I said, “Fuck it. I can’t say no to Annie.” At public high school, the bullying got physical on a regular basis. The idea of putting a kid on a train for an hour to go into the city to school seemed crazy to my parents, but keeping me at public school was worse. So they said that if I could get into the Academy, they’d figure it out.  

I got in. Halfway through my freshman year, my life changed. Everything that’s romanticized about ’90s alternative culture—grunge, underground, goth—was happening at this high school. The teachers were living their truth; the students were living their truth. It was gender diversity, racial diversity, sexual-orientation diversity, financial diversity in a school of 140 students. Pure fucking heaven. In my mind, I was going to be the biggest Broadway star in the world, but I quickly realized that was not for me.

Really? Why?
Being so strong in myself to survive all of childhood, the idea of pretending to be someone else felt gross. Even though musical theater is the gayest art form of all time, this was the ’90s and there were no queer roles. So if I wanted to get a role, I had to act butch. Add to that, there was the rise of Lilith Fair female singer-songwriters: Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, Tracy Chapman. I thought, “Maybe if I put Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos together, that’s me.” I started writing songs. I had this teacher walk into a practice room one day when I was writing on the piano. My teacher goes, “What the fuck is that? I don’t think you should do musical theater; you’re not very good at it. We should talk about songwriting.”

The voices you related
to became your mentors; deconstructed, unconventional songwriters. How do you think it affected the way you built your own voice as a songwriter?
Nobody’s asked me that, ever. I can’t move forward in a pop-song session unless I know what we’re talking about. There are amazing songwriters for whom it’s chords, melody, how it sounds, how it feels and then they figure the lyrics out later. Paula Cole and Tori Amos are musicians’ musicians. Ani DiFranco is one of the most incredible acoustic guitar players to ever live. But they were story first; they weren’t afraid to be dramatic. At least twice a week I still listen to Ani DiFranco’s “Swan Dive,” and it’s the story about her: I built my own empire out of car tires and chicken wire/ And I’m queen of my own compost heap.” These are the lyrics of a woman owning her own life. She doesn’t fit into society, but you can go to her concert—and I went to many—and there are thousands of people losing their minds.

So you’re trying to apply that in a pop setting?
I still try to build my own empire of car tires and chicken wire! Yes, I’ve had huge hit songs with huge pop stars on major labels, but I am not the typical person in this industry. These women were not afraid. I try to bring that to everything that I do. A pop star on Top 40 radio is very rarely going to be as radical as all of these women who inspired me when I was young, but I try to find that morsel of excitement that can feel radical in a mainstream setting. That’s my mission. That’s why I’m dedicated to having a label and breaking artists like Shea Diamond and Jake Wesley Rogers. Shea Diamond is a Black trans woman. Even in her celebratory songs, like “I Am America,” she’s saying some shit. Jake Wesley Rogers gives his intimate, romantic queer love to the mainstream. I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is.

You grew up during the AIDS crisis and organized fundraisers. What inspired you?
I was at the arts high school, in a free place. It had never been done. It was a risk to get everyone’s parents to show up to donate. A family friend of mine was HIV-positive. I had that beautiful teenage delusion where you believe that one person can change the world. I wasn’t afraid to put the show together. I would do it because I could. I wanted to get every department involved. I had this amazing group of friends, and we’re all still close. We went for it. That’s carried with me. To quote Roxanne Gay in Bad Feminist: “If you’re reading this, you have some sort of privilege.” There are so many levels of privilege in this fucked-up society. But in school I thought, I can do something. So I did.

How do you think the work of the queer community has changed in the last 10 or 15 years?
A huge priority now is being inclusive in a real way—not in a tweet. Making sure that LGBTQ+ people of color are being supported, included, celebrated and amplified. Making sure that Black trans women are being supported. That has been a big change. As we all know, this movement was started by Black trans women, and they were erased from the story for many decades, because white straight-passing gay men thought the goal should be to assimilate.

What about the political spectrum?
So much focus was put into marriage equality and that passed under Barack Obama’s Supreme Court. But the Equality Act is still important: making sure queer people aren’t going to lose their homes or jobs for being LGBTQ+. We should be specifically named in the Constitution as a protected group. Four years of Trump was four years of hell. Trump attacked our community on paper over 170 times. All the movement leaders had to keep up to protect us.

In songwriting rooms, have you noticed improvements in your treatment as a queer person?
I hear a lot less homophobic things in sessions. People don’t ask as many inappropriate questions anymore.

Like what?
Basic dumb questions. I walked into a room for a late-night session and was serving a full fierce look after a dinner. The producer was like, “How can I help you?” I said, “I’m Justin Tranter. I’m here to write with you.” He didn’t want to write. Another story: I co-wrote Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries,” and an A&R for an up-and-coming younger band approached me for a writing camp in Palm Springs. After he met me, my publisher got an email saying, “We don’t think it’s appropriate for Justin to spend the night with the band in the house, so maybe he can just work on some songs here and send them over.” Those kinds of things stopped happening. Well, they might still be happening.

They’re just not telling you?
Yes. When it comes to any work field, the silent homophobia is what’s holding people back from success. If someone straight-up calls you a faggot, you see them, you know them, you deal with them. It’s the opportunities we miss and nobody tells you why that’s the real killer. Aggressive homophobia is scary and dangerous. But the silent stuff fucks up people’s lives. Did you not get asked back for another session because the music didn’t fit or did you not get asked back because they’re uncomfortable with you?

In 2018, queerness in pop hit a kind of critical mass. How do you feel about queerness as a more commercialized commodity?
If companies wanna celebrate our community, we love that. Show us the money. How much are you donating to LGBTQ+ organizations? How many LGBTQ+ people do you employ and give high-level positions to? It’s a very thin line. I want every company to celebrate us, be visible with us. More than just in June would be nice! If it’s gonna be just June, I’ll take it, but show me the receipts. It can’t just be lip service—it has to be wallet service.

Are there queer artists you feel have not had the success they deserve?
Yes. MNEK deserves to be one of the biggest stars in the world. My band Semi Precious Weapons deserved to be one of the biggest bands in the world. King Princess deserves to be one of the biggest stars in the world. MUNA deserves to be #1 at Alternative radio all day every day. Aces deserve 10,000 more doors open to them. SOPHIE, rest in peace, deserved to be 10 times bigger than any DJ/producer we’ve ever had. I could keep going. Even someone as big as Sam Smith deserves to be bigger.

Who are you particularly rooting for?
Lil Nas X is our first queer superstar that the world is allowing to be three-dimensional. In his music, he’s fun, emotional, ridiculous and even fully sexual. We’ve never had that before. I’ve heard the following and it makes me wanna blow up buildings: “What about Elton John? What about Freddie Mercury? What about Melissa Etheridge?” They were all in the closet for a long time because they had to be. “Old Town Road” was #1 and the biggest song in the world for a couple months before Lil Nas then quickly made a statement coming out. Young people are identifying as queer in record numbers, so we don’t have nearly enough LGBTQ+ stars. I’d love if we had queer superstars for whom the truth was public before they had a #1 song.

Lady Gaga is someone you’ve worked with repeat
edly. You were tour support on the Monster Ball Tour, and you wrote on Chromatica. Do you think she set a tone for the next generation?
She’s the first Internet superstar. One thing the Internet does well is hold people accountable. She set the tone that if you’re gonna have a platform, you better use it. You better speak out. Madonna was the first LGBTQ+ advocate with a huge platform. Madonna was speaking up for us, putting us in her documentary, speaking about AIDS. I work with so many people who have never seen Truth or Dare. In pop music. How? Gaga set the stage in the Internet age. You have a platform now that you type on every day. She’s possibly the best live performer of our time. Without queer people, pop music and the live touring business is over. No one’s going! For Gaga to pay respect to the people who are paying her bills every night on her tours is important.

Chromatica is such a queer-sounding record. Was that part of the conversations you had together?
Turning conversations into song is what my goal always is. As a very queer person, I think my music vibrates on the queer frequency. Between having songs on The Chicks’ album, Dua Lipa’s and Gaga’s, plus so much love for Britney’s Glory, last summer was my queerest, even though I was in lockdown with my parents. All the queer people I worship were sending me DMs.

Are there any of your songs you hear when you’re out and feel like you can’t ever hear again?
To be honest, no. I fought so fucking long to get where I am, dropped from four record deals in my band... My family fought for me to be here... that every time one comes on, I’m like, “Turn that shit up!” I take yoga online and sometimes there’s a deep cut that people don’t know. King Princess’ “Ain’t Together” came up in yoga class, and I texted her, “Girl, we’re in yoga!” 

Is there a song right now that you wish you’d written?
Yes. The entire Phoebe Bridgers Punisher album. Every single syllable, note, guitar lick, every second of that album I wish I was part of. I wish I was Phoebe Bridgers. I wish I was her co-writer. I wish I could work the computer so that I could be her producer. Punisher makes me feel 16 again in all the good ways. There is that feeling when you fall in love with music between 13 and 20, that level of love and obsession that’s hard to keep finding the older you get.

Do you feel like you want your songs to say something different right now?
Yes. I am trying to not write about toxic relationships. I haven’t been in anything close to a traditional relationship for eight or nine years. We should be allowed to celebrate other kinds of love: friendship, family, one-night stands. We’ve all been duped by music and movies that if the relationship is difficult, then that means it’s love. That’s a bad message.

Has success as a concept changed for you?
I don’t wanna be a part of running around town anymore, and working with people who are writing with everybody else, and trying to fight to be on that pop album that all the big writers in town are trying to write the first single for. That part of the L.A. pop scene is starting to hurt my soul and hurt pop. There’s a reason pop is not the coolest genre in the world. The conveyer-belt Frankenstein isn’t working anymore. Kids have too much access in their phones to everything. They can smell bullshit, and if it doesn’t feel real or detailed or textured, they don’t care.

Are you trying your hand at anything outside of pop?
I’m working on a couple of big musicals—one with Idina Menzel, and Diane Paulus is directing. It addresses climate crisis in a fairytale way. I co-wrote a pilot script about my teenage years. I’m executive-producing a TV show. I’m working on a movie musical. I’m still doing pop, but I’m trying to embrace all the things that made me fall in love with it in the first place.

What gives you hope?
There is love in the world. Sometimes it’s hard to see, because when you have a supercomputer in your hand, you see the bad shit that’s happening at every second. Being alive is fucking fun. It can be exhausting and painful, but the truth always comes out. Bad guys succeed all the time. So do good people. I always tell myself it’s all meant to be, as long as you don’t quit. I look at all the times that people gave up on me and I never gave up. I wanna be that for people. I’m not afraid to sign people in their 40s. I try to be the person I always wish I had. 

Top two photos and cover: Josef Jasso

NEAR TRUTHS:
DEVELOPING STORIES
The kids are almighty. (8/3a)
LEADING OFF:
RON’S BIG RUN
Not your father's Columbia (8/3a)
ON THE COVER
Happier days are here again. (8/3a)
AN AUGUST HITS LIST
Look at the guns on these giants. (8/3a)
GRAMMY CHEW: SEEING BIEBER
It's high time for Justice in the Academy. (8/3a)
NEW & DEVELOPING ARTISTS
From tender shoots to mighty oaks.
MARKETSHARE MANIA
Let's do the numbers.
DELTA VARIANT
It is not the name of a Henry Miller novel.
IS IT TIME FOR ANOTHER ROCK STORY?
Could be. Dunno.
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