Starrah and Jesse Saint John on What It's Like to Be An LGBTQ Songwriter
For Billboard's inaugural Pride issue, two of pop’s most in-demand writers -- Jesse Saint John (Camila Cabello, Britney Spears) and Starrah (Rihanna, Nicki Minaj) -- detailed their behind-the-scenes experiences in separate conversations.
How does being queer inform your work?
Saint John: I felt outsider-y and fringe as a child. It’s important that I channel that, because it’s definitely something that speaks to a vast majority of people. Even straight people feel like outsiders. It’s that perspective of, “I’m different, and these people are in on something that I’m not able to access.”
Starrah: Also, [you’re] spending a lot of time alone and being introspective about what the emotions that you’re feeling actually mean. If you were part of the in-crowd, you probably wouldn’t have as much time to spend hearing about other people and being empathetic toward other people.
Saint John: Nobody likes songs about complacency. No one wants, “I fit in, everything’s great, I’m so popular!” Although I like bratty, popular, buy-me-diamonds songs because those are things that I didn't experience. It’s fun to have out-of-body moments like that.
Is there a song you’ve written that you think of as having a particular queer message?
Saint John: “Secret (Shh)” by Charli XCX. I wrote it with my friend about divulging how queer or gender-nonbinary you are to someone that you are just starting to date. The whole thing is like, “If I share my secret, no one gets to know but you.” At what point does that seem to affect your relationships, and who deserves to know? That to me was always funny -- I knew what it was about, but in the broader scheme, [the message was] “I’m secretly a freak.”
Does being queer make your job easier in any way?
Starrah: I kind of get to do both male and female. I [understand] a lot of the male stuff, but I’m also a female at the end of the day, so I know what a female thinks. A lot of guys automatically like what I do because we like the same thing -- we both like girls! It’s like I have the key. And with women, I know what we want to say, so I just say what I want.
Saint John: I have always said, we [as queer people] stan our pop stars. We’re the ones buying the concert tickets. We’re the ones screaming at the concert 20 years from now. If you’re trying to give the gays everything they want, ask them what they want! Queer people have always remained loyal to the pop divas that helped shape their identity. People like Beyoncé and Britney Spears are able to express an extreme femininity that we as queer people are told to hide or diminish or ignore. That has always spoken to the queer community, so why not let us help write the songs?
Do you encounter homophobia?
Starrah: I had a session with a rap artist who had a song [about not liking] the idea of a female wanting to be like a man -- not in the literal sense, but [based on] gender norms. He thought it was funny that I was there and fit the mold of the title. I never worked with that artist again. I’ve never been tolerant of that kind of stuff.
Saint John: I was in a session with someone who said to me, “Oh, that’s too gay. That’s not what a guy would say.” I assure you the lyric was not gender-specific. It was sort of saying, “You’re too gay to be here.” There are certain people that I don’t work with anymore because I’m luckily in such an amazing position where I can be really selective with my choices of collaborators. Once I’ve experienced being dismissed for my queerness, I make sure I’m no longer in that situation.
In recent years, it seems like there’s been a shift among queer artists from downplaying the differences between straight and queer perspectives to really embracing them, especially when it comes to pronoun use. Have you noticed that?
Starrah: Yeah. I know Kehlani has a song called “Honey”: “I like my women like my honey.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl, that’s fire! If somebody wanted to do music and they were queer, [I would tell them] don’t change the pronouns -- it’s not that deep! To me, it would take away from the same feeling. If you like girls, you’re not going to say the word “boys” the way you would say “girls.” It’s all about emotion. I think songs only have feeling when they’re authentic to the person that’s singing them.
Saint John: 1000 percent. The internet has changed the way we consume media and how we relate to other people. You’re able to find your community and feel so much less alone. If you don’t see yourself represented by the mainstream, you’re going to find yourself represented somewhere else. So it’s made the mainstream media step up, like, “If we don’t keep up with the ways people are looking for representation, they’re going to look elsewhere.”
Is there a behind-the-scenes LGBTQ community?
Saint John: You can still count us on one hand. We are literally on a group text -- I have one with Leland and JHart. I always am keeping up with Trey Campbell and VINCINT. I talk to [Justin] Tranter regularly. We just check in with each other.
Starrah: I feel like I’m the only queer person in urban music. [In the pop world], there’s one or two -- like unicorns.
How can the industry get more queer people into these roles?
Starrah: I think about this all the time. Everything that influences popular culture right now is from the LGBTQ community anyway. When I was younger, I don’t think there were that many [queer people] that I knew about in the music industry. I have a lot of friends who message me and tell me I inspire them. That’s a blessing.
Saint John: I’ll invite [up-and-coming queer writers] to a session. I literally will take a chance on a new queer person, a trans person, a person of color. My friend Alex Chapman is this amazing queer writer, and I was just like, “Fly out here! Let’s get you working.” It’s important to me to make sure I’m including people. Why am I better than anybody else? Somebody took a chance on this little gay kid from nothing, and I have my responsibility to pay it forward and be as inclusive as I possibly can.