Justin Tranter is responsible for enormous hits with Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, but that doesn’t make the gender-nonconforming songwriter immune to industry-entrenched homophobia. Not only does Tranter have credits on Halsey’s new album (which just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200), but the hitmaker has co-writes on four songs on this week’s Billboard Hot 100. Still, the wordsmith deals with intolerance on a regular basis. In an extensive interview with Billboard, Tranter pulls back the curtain on the industry’s bigotry, shares stories about working with Halsey and Julia Michaels, and remembers the moment when old friend Lady Gaga discovered their success as a songwriter: “I got 25 texts in a row.”
Do you think homophobia is still prevalent behind the scenes in the music industry?
Homophobia is still prevalent everywhere on the entire planet — especially behind the scenes in the music industry. I’ve experienced some really very obvious, direct homophobia — when I was still trying to be an artist, behind the scenes, being told to be less gay, be less feminine. But also I like to quote — well, misquote or paraphrase — what Chris Rock said at the Oscars about racism in Hollywood. He was like, “It’s not like you get lynched racism, it’s like sorority racism. It’s like, we like Becky but she’s just not a Delta Gamma” or whatever he said.
That’s sort of when it comes to misogyny and homophobia in the music business. Meeting the female songwriters in the industry — people do say outright awful shit to them. The thing that makes it harder for us to succeed is that the bros that are running the industry, they’re not throwing down with us. They may be slightly uncomfortable and won’t exactly know what to do in the session– they can’t do the normal things like talk about girls in a degrading way.
There are moments of very obvious homophobia and misogyny, and racism of course — all these things still exist in this business. There’s the obvious moments and then there is the more subtle moments.
Is there a specific thing that someone said to you that really sticks out as a songwriter?
Two things. One, there is this cool new gay singer and I heard his single — his voice is so crazy. I reached out to try to work with him and I got an email back saying, “Oh, I just never put you in the session because I assumed there would be too much ‘gay’ in one room.” They didn’t think that was a bad thing to say.
Another time, I walked into a session and the producer knew my music and my songs but didn’t know me and what I looked like. I had just gone to dinner with friends and I was serving a pretty chic look and he literally sort of just stopped and was like, “Uh…” I was like, “Hi, I’m here to write a song with you,” and he was like, “Uh I didn’t know you were going to be like that.” I was like, “What?” and he was like, “Well I mean you know…” and I was like, “No I don’t. I don’t know. You’re going to have to explain.” This is just a couple of examples of the shit you hear.
Do you have any memories growing up of when you started to express your feminine side?
Of course! Those are the best memories. One of the first things I can remember is picking up a stick and immediately thinking it’s a magic wand where of course my brothers always thought it was a gun.
One time, for Gay Christmas — a.k.a. Halloween — where every f–king Halloween it was like, “Yesss, I can dress up as a woman and then no one can get mad at me!” And then actually in fourth grade, I won ‘most creative Halloween costume’ when I was half man and half woman. That is the most telling Halloween costume possibly of all time. There’s just so many great memories. I was very lucky that my family really supported me in exploring my femininity when I was young and so it was a joyous thing.
My parents would actually explain that to me, “Yes of course you can do whatever you want, we just want you to know that you are getting bullied — this isn’t going to make it any easier.” But they were so supportive. I just got to do whatever I wanted and it was f–king great.
So femininity is sometimes rejected by gay men — have there been times when you…
Sometimes? Sometimes being rejected? It’s always being rejected in the gay community.
Can you tell me about a specific experience?
It’s interesting to see the more femme that you present yourself, the more people sort of dehumanize you. If it is sexual, it’s very fetishized and if it isn’t sexual it’s just a prop.
I’ll never forget this guy I was dating and we’re still close friends, but when we first met and trying to date — we were out at a club and I was giving the fierce look and people would just pet me. He was like, “Woah, does this happen all the time?” I had this jacket on with an interesting texture people would touch it and even take it off of me and put it on. He was the one that pointed out to me how odd that was — it’s because of my femininity, I was just this object and sort of a toy for everyone to play with. Of course, being femme makes dating very difficult.
One time, I was working with the amazing producer Tricky Stewart. He’s an amazing guy — one of the most open champions and allies of the business, if you ask me. He had brought me down to Atlanta to work at his studio. I just went into the studio with daytime makeup on and I wasn’t wearing heels, and the people in the studio — they weren’t with him, they were just working in the studio — someone made a comment and they were like, “Don’t talk to us.” And I was like, “Excuse me?” They were like, “Don’t talk to us. We don’t talk to people like you.” At first I thought they were kidding, but they weren’t kidding at all. The first thing I thought in the head was, “Oh my god, I’m not wearing heels, I’m not wearing makeup. I don’t have my feminine armor on.” I felt so defenseless because I didn’t have my magical, feminine armor on. That was a really interesting moment for me to realize that how much the femininity was protecting me.
I’m sure that seeing such an unapologetic, queer person in a prominent role in the music industry has made quite an impression on some young kids struggling with their identity. Have you ever had anyone reach out to you and tell them about the impression you made on them?
Oh yeah! I’m fortunate enough that I do get messages from people saying how inspiring my story is and how they feel that they could do it too. And every single time I cry. I’m tearing up just talking about it, because when I was growing up, the closest thing there was to mainstream, out-and-proud was RuPaul. Ru is all we had and it’s so funny that Ru is doing it again, f–king twenty years later.
I get those messages and it’s really amazing. Sam Smith posted a thing on his Instagram about how way back in the day, he sent me a message and I wrote back giving him confidence and the encouragement to pursue music. This was four years before he was famous. It’s pretty crazy. When a fan posted that, I lost my mind.
It was really cool too because in the industry, my band [Semi Precious Weapons] was viewed as a failure. We had an amazing fan base and toured like crazy and I don’t regret it for one second, but in the industry, it was viewed as a failure. So, to see that me busting my ass and my three straight band members supporting me and my very over-the-top queer vision — to get that message from Sam and to see that it inspired one of the biggest openly gay stars of all time, I
You’ve explained the queer undertones on Selena Gomez’s “Good For You”, but do you have any other songs that have queer meanings?
I really do pride myself on being able to help other people tell their stories and bring out the best in them. But I still, every song I’m writing, I still need to relate to it. I still need to find my true self in it or else it’ll feel dishonest. I mean everything has a queer meaning as far as I’m concerned.
I look at the majority of my songs and I feel very proud. I feel proud of being a part of a song that got Justin Bieber to be vulnerable and apologize. I’m really proud right now with Maroon 5’s “Cold” — that it’s Adam Levine expressing vulnerability in fear of losing his girlfriend. Obviously that’s not his real story, but that’s what the song represents. I’m really proud of “Cake By The Ocean” being a really flamboyant that’s over the top, sexually free song. I’m really proud of the new DNCE song “Kissing Strangers” featuring Queen Nicki [Minaj] because my favorite line, “Open heart, open mind/ Never know what you’ll find/ Open heart, open mind/ Kissing Strangers” like being open minded to the love that might be in front of you.”
Out of all the artists you’ve worked with — who has been the most surprising?
There’s an element of surprise and amazement in pretty much all of them. Some of my favorite highlights was watching Gwen’s [Stefani] dedication to telling her whole truth and nothing but her truth so-help-her-god is really f–king cool.
Watching Courtney Love write some of the best lyrics of all time in like six minutes, while smoking — that’s pretty cool. I think Selena [Gomez] is just really f–king impressive.
You write for a lot of pop acts but how did your collaboration with Linkin Park come about?
Me and Julia Michaels got an email from our publishers saying, “Hey Linkin Park thinks your stuff is dope, do you want to go in?” We were like, “What do you mean? That doesn’t seem like an obvious fit at all, but what a cool experience.”
We just went in for a day — we did our thing, they were so sweet. Mike [Shinoda] is just a brilliant producer, brilliant writer. Chester [Bennington] is f–king dope — his voice is just insane, like magical f–cked-up gold. We did two and half hours and then we left. I wish there was a better story for you.
Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. What was it like working with her?
Oh my god, it was so cool. The song we wrote [“Bad At Love”] is very queer. It was just amazing to watch her work. She works really fast, really smart. She’s like the realest of real deal. I’m really lucky I got to hang out with her and help her out because that girl is fine on her own.
You and Lady Gaga were close friends before either of you were famous. You even made an appearance in her “Telephone” music video. Do you still keep in touch now that you’re hugely successful as well?
Yes. We ended up talking every nine months or something because our paths cross or something cool happens. But it was really neat when it first started happening for me as a pop songwriter — I think when the Gwen song came out, somehow it came across her radar that I had done other couple hits before that and I got 25 texts in a row like, “Wait. What the f–k? What are you doing? Where are you? What’s happening? I’m so proud of you! Woah! Woah! Wait, really? Wait Bieber. Wait Selena. Wait Gwen.”
That was a really cool moment just because it’s been a long journey of us back in her New York days of Gaga opening for us and then us opening for Gaga. I think Lady Gaga and people from the past know how hard I’ve worked I think are all very, very proud of me, which is really cool.
You co-wrote Julia’s song, “Issues” — how did you two know that was going to be her song and not someone else’s?
That was such a special moment. The minute I met Julia, I knew she had a very, very specific story to tell. Everyone that ever met her was like, “You’re an artist, you’re a star,” and I could see just the thought of that was very overwhelming for her. So, I did my best to say it as little as possible, even though I wanted to say it every f–king day. What was cool, it was kind of like a double whammy — when we wrote “Issues” she was so connected to it, as she should be.
There was another song that she was maybe going to be a feature on and it ended up not happening and they put a different artist on it. She was so devastated that they weren’t going to keep her vocals on the song that she was so close to — this was a different song than “Issues.” It was right around the same time and I kind of just said to her when she was in the bathroom crying in the middle of the session — which is very normal for us, it’s not like a big drama. We’re songwriters, it happens. So, I kind of knock on the door, “Hey, honey I think we need to think about this. If your voice not being on the song is hurting you that much, I think it’s time for you to own the facts that you’re a fucking superstar.”
We had luckily written “Issues” in that same realm, maybe in the same month or so. It was kind of that moment like, “Oh wait. Yep I’m very upset about this feature and I have this song that is still so important to me.” All the songs that we have written are very much our stories, but “Issues” — it was like, “this is Julia, this is her.” She had to f–king keep it and I was so supportive. The other people we wrote it with were a little skeptical just because it’s such a special song and if you put it on a superstar, it has a better chance of working. But me and Julia were like, “Nope, bitches, that’s her song.” So, it was really cool and now to see it work so well it’s just one of those moments you read about happening in somebody else’s life and you don’t think it’s going to ever happen in yours but it’s really cool to be a part of that.
“Issues” has really taken off — it’s one of the biggest songs of the year. Should we expect solo music from you anytime soon?
This is Julia’s moment — her time to shine bright like the genius she is. I’m definitely looking to expand my creative outlets, grow my brand, but a solo career is not the way I want to do it. I’m having too much fun helping others tell their stories.
Speaking of helping artists tell their stories, you started an imprint and signed two acts. Can you tell me about them?
Shea Diamond is just the queen of the planet. She is this unbelievable singer-songwriter. Beautiful, beautiful trans woman of color, who has lived just a life that if you saw in a movie you wouldn’t believe. A friend of mine sent me a clip of her singing the song, “I Am Her” acapella on YouTube. She was singing it as a Trans Lives Matter event and I was just like, the voice is insane and the lyrics were some of the best I’ve ever heard. I just found it so inspiring to hear her in this one song — she talks about the good and the bad things she has done in her life and how it all makes her, her. I was just blown away, so I had to work with her immediately. We’re going to have an album out sometime in the next four or five months.
Another queen of the planet is this disco group called Plasty that we’re about to start putting out stuff on soon.
How do you spell that?
Like rhinoplasty or vaginoplasty. You can quote me on that.
They’re sort of a disco-inspired, high level musicianship, but dance music. For the most part, very live instrumentation. The lead singer is this girl named Chloe who has a voice from God. She plays guitar and she’s a musician’s musician but wants to make music that people can just tune out from all the insanity for a brief moment and dance away and makeout.