Justin Tranter on Their Bieber, Selena & DNCE-Assisted Charts Hat-Trick
The Warner/Chappell Music songwriter and Facet Records co-founder looks back at their 2016 charts milestone -- when three left-of-center bops reached the top 20 on the Hot 100 simultaneously.
As one of today’s most prolific songwriters, Justin Tranter has racked up credits for Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Imagine Dragons, Jonas Brothers, Bea Miller, Janelle Monae, Bebe Rexha, Liam Payne, Leon Bridges, Keith Urban, Cardi B, Christina Aguilera, 5 Seconds of Summer, and Rita Ora -- and that’s just since last year.
The 39-year-old began their career as the lead singer of glam-rock act Semi Precious Weapons, which they formed at Berklee College of Music, and whose fast rise included a support slot on Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball tour. But after getting dropped from “four different record deals,” Tranter -- who identifies as queer, uses they/them pronouns and serves on the board of GLAAD -- found a second act behind the scenes. In 2012 they inked a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music, and four years later, during the week of March 12, 2016, Tranter joined pop’s songwriting elite with three left-field bops that cracked the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100: Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” (No. 4), DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” (No. 9) and Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself” (No. 11).
Since, the top 40 hitmaker has earned accolades such as Songwriter of the Year at both the 2017 and 2018 BMI Pop Music Awards and nominations for Song of the Year (Julia Michaels’ “Issues”) and Best Original Song (Nick Jonas’ “Home”) at last year’s Grammy Awards and Golden Globes respectfully. The Chicago-bred activist has also used that platform to give back: last September, they funded The Justin Tranter Recording Studio at their alma mater -- The Chicago Academy for the Arts -- and in October, with the help of pals like Darren Criss and Nick Jonas, they raised over $400,000 for GLAAD’s annual Spirit Day benefit, which supports the LGBTQ advocacy group’s anti-bullying initiatives. “I want to make sure the music business really understands and is aware of how much the LGBTQ community contributes to our amazing, gajillion-dollar industry,” Tranter, who curated the concert, told Billboard at the time.
In December, they took on the added role of label head, after co-founding a new imprint (Facet Records) alongside A&R executive Katie Vinten (Warner/Chapell) and in partnership with Warner Records. The moniker speaks to Tranter’s preference for undiscovered talents with great potential for growth: “Even the most precious stones deserve thought-out, passionate facets to make them really shine.”
Below, Tranter looks back on the 2016 hat-trick milestone, noting: “It changed my life forever.”
I was always obsessed with women telling bold, honest truths in the pop world. I connected with that feminine strength, vulnerability and sexuality. First it was Ani DiFranco, Paula Cole, Diane Warren, Tori Amos and Linda Perry. By the time Linda had her first run of hits for other people, I was in my late teens, early twenties, but still obsessing over it like I was 12. Then it was Kara DioGuardi, Ester Dean, Bonnie McKee. Anytime there is a female songwriter with a run of hits, I’m paying attention. To have three songs pretty high the fuck up on the charts blew my mind. Julia Michaels [who co-wrote “Sorry” and “Hands to Myself”] and Mattman & Robin [who co-wrote and produced “Cake by the Ocean”] were -- and still are -- my closest collaborators.
We were in the studio almost every day, so there was endless celebrating that week. As a songwriter, you get daily rejection. You write a song and you send it to someone, for the most part they say no. It was definitely that moment of like holy shit… what is happening?! I was 35 then (I’m 39 now), which is of course young, but in the music business, to get anything post-30 is pretty fucking lucky. That week was the moment where I felt like the insane amount of hard work and rejection, and all of those things had really paid off. And if I continued with the insane amounts of hard work, that maybe I could keep this going -- or something like this going -- for the rest of my life, or as long as I wanted to. That moment was the turning point: one hit can get you in the door, but there is something to be said about that feeling when you’re the common thread with multiple collaborators.
Even though it was only three years ago, it feels like a million fucking years ago. I’ve been able to make music with almost everyone I could have dreamed of, though there are still a couple I’m gunning for. That moment, me and my team realized anything was possible. -- AS TOLD TO NICK WILLIAMS