Justin Tranter Is Writing Music to Celebrate Pride Every Day - Rolling Stone
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From Lady Gaga to HBO, Justin Tranter Is Writing Music to Celebrate Pride Every Day

How a glam rocker from the Midwest went from losing a record deal to making Number One songs with superstars, defying odds and fighting for parity on the way

Justin Tranter 2020

Justin Tranter has written for the likes of Lady Gaga, Fall Out Boy, Ariana Grande, and The Chicks.

Photo credit: Noah Webb

2020 is shaping up to be Justin Tranter’s year. The songwriter started it off penning tracks on two major albums, Lady Gaga’s Chromatica and Selena Gomez’s Rare, and recently worked on country staple The Chicks’ long-awaited, upcoming album. Tranter also co-wrote “I Am America” with Shea Diamond — an anthem for HBO’s series We’re Here that has become a symbol of strength in the LGBTQ+ community and is rumored to be a top contender for Best Original Song at the upcoming Emmy Awards.

Pride playlists featured “I Am America” prominently last month, and We’re Here, which documents drag culture and stars Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka O’Hara, has also been critically praised since its premiere in April. Tranter and co-writer Diamond, a black transgender singer-songwriter, both wanted the track to elevate queer voices.

“Obviously I’m a part of the song, so it’s hard to speak objectively, but I just think Shea fucking slayed it,” Tranter tells Rolling Stone. “We did the best we could to capture the energy of the show, and we did the best we could to have Shea’s message as a human highlight the messages of the show. For a black trans woman to stand up and sing ‘I Am America’ and have that recognized by the Emmys, it would just be mind-blowing and so beautiful… Emmys, do the right thing.”

For Tranter, whose pronouns are “they” and “them,” success in the music industry has been a tough and winding journey. Before rising to become one of the business’s most prominent queer songwriters, the Illinois native and Berklee graduate had their heart set on being a glitter-loving, stage-diving glam rocker. Tranter was 28 when they got their first record deal as the frontperson of Semi Precious Weapons. But it wasn’t getting signed that kicked things into high gear; it was getting dropped.

As the driving force of Semi Precious Weapons, they were playing shows with Lady Gaga as far back as 2007. Known for guitar-driven music that oozed confidence and sexuality — and outfits that did the same — the group amassed a loyal following but never managed to break through to the stadium status that their aesthetic embodied. Initially, Lady Gaga opened for Semi Precious Weapons. After she rocketed to global superstar status, she turned around and brought Semi Precious Weapons out as her opener for more than a year — but it was when the label executives stopped returning their calls, Tranter says, that they found their way into songwriting.

“We were on our third record deal, which was at Epic Records, and we knew we were about to get dropped, because everyone just stopped replying to our manager and they’d taken us off of their website,” Tranter recalls. “No one had told us we were dropped yet, but we knew it was coming. And then the guy who signed us to publishing at Warner/Chappell left the company, so we were like, ‘Well, fuck. We don’t even have a publisher anymore.’”

Fortunately, the woman who replaced the ex-Warner exec, Katie Vinten, saw something in Tranter’s vision. Tranter played for Vinten the band’s latest album, which was more alternative/pop than the Seventies glam rock vibe of its earlier projects, and Vinten was more interested in the frontperson’s talent in songwriting. She asked Tranter to try out songwriting for other acts in the pop world — and Tranter’s first big hit to follow that conversation was Fall Out Boy’s pop/rock hit “Centuries,” which is now four times platinum.

Once Vinten opened the doors, Tranter was in eight to ten sessions a week, writing nearly a dozen songs a week. They went full force — but the path wasn’t without its potholes. “The biggest challenge I faced was rejection,” Tranter says. “As an artist, you’re dropped from record deals, and that’s rejection. You open for somebody and the audience doesn’t really love you, and that’s rejection. But as a songwriter, you’re getting emails every single day of people just saying, ‘No. We don’t like the song. The song isn’t good enough. No, no, no.’ That was weird for me. It felt like I was in junior high again, trying to audition for musicals.”

“Coming into the pop world, there were people watching basketball during the sessions… I was still showing up to every session looking like I was about to go on stage, in full makeup and six-inch heels. It definitely confused people.”

On top of that, there weren’t a lot of openly queer people in writing rooms. There were often uncomfortable moments and homophobic comments. “It was shocking to me how bro-y this side of the music business is,” Tranter says. “When you’re in a band, you create your own world. In the songwriting world, you need to work with every A&R and every manager, you need to try to collaborate with every person you come across. Even though all the guys in my band were straight, they were very progressive, artsy, and weird. Coming into the pop world, there were people watching basketball during the sessions. That was a culture shock. Especially for the first year, I was still showing up to every session looking like I was about to go on stage, in full makeup and six-inch heels. It definitely confused people.”

But Vinten helped them carve out a specific lane, and Tranter wound up working with hitmakers Julia Michaels and Mattman & Robin, with whom he’d eventually pen Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me,” among other singles. Fellow songwriters and producers appreciated their unique perspective: Tranter had personally performed in all sorts of venues — whether opening up for a pop star or headlining at a punk bar. They’d signed to labels and left labels, allowing them to speak artists’ language. When they started doing sessions directly with the artists, as opposed to other songwriters, Tranter says, everything clicked.

Tranter co-wrote Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” — the best-performing single from what is largely considered to be the album that launched Bieber into a more mature level of artistry. His work with Imagine Dragons includes smashes “Believer” and “Natural.” Last year, they scored writing gigs on two massive albums: Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next and Jonas Brothers’ Happiness Begins. Both the Gaga album and Gomez album this year have also gone Number One on charts.

In 2018 — when they weren’t busy writing for the likes of Dua Lipa, Camila Cabello, Marshmello, Kesha — Tranter co-founded Facet, a record label and publishing company, with Katie Vinten and in partnership with Warner Records and Warner/Chappell. The duo thinks of it as an “inclusive community” that signs, develops, and mentors artists and songwriters of all demographics.

In launching Facet, they wanted to create “a space where artists, writers, and producers who don’t normally get those shots can really shine,” says Tranter. “I was a super-femme, super-queer rocker. It shouldn’t have made sense for me to succeed in the pop music hit-making world. That’s not what’s normally there.” Now, it’s their mission to do for others what Vinten did for them.

The ACLU presented Tranter with its Bill of Rights Award last year for their activist work, and Tranter wants to continue infusing much-needed diversity into the music business. “It’s great to see a lot of openly queer, LGBTQ young artists being signed right now,” they say. “That is so crazy to me. When Adam Lambert came out after Idol, it was this insane controversy. It felt really scary back then, so I love seeing the progress. I would like to see more LGBTQ executives — specifically LGBTQ executives of color, but I’ll take any LGBTQ executives — because I can honestly only think of a couple. When you make the people in charge more diverse, the opportunities at the bottom become more diverse.”

Tranter signed Shea Diamond to Facet before the pair wrote “I Am America” together. Diamond — who recently released a rock song with Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine to stand up against racism and police brutality — had written a song called “I Am Her” 15 years ago, while she was incarcerated in a men’s institution; the track was finally released in 2016. “I Am America” follows the earlier track’s spirit, and Tranter and Diamond consider its success an accomplishment for everyone who’s been forced to fight for their dreams in the face of constant rejection. The two are watching the nominations for the 72nd Emmy Awards — which will be announced on July 28th, ahead of the scheduled show date of September 20th — with bated breath.

“There’s a huge space for music that actually has something to say. Shea’s existence is a riot,” Tranter says. “Everything she does has so much weight, even if it’s something, like ‘I Am America,’ that’s so joyful, there’s weight there. It’s a very intentional, loaded, and layered joy.”

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