If you’re in Los Angeles on Saturday (March 24) for the satellite March For Our Lives event, be on the lookout for Justin Tranter. The former Semi Precious Weapons lead singer and acclaimed songwriter for hire, who’s penned hits for Britney Spears, Kelly Clakrson, Selena Gomez and Kesha is planning to be a loud, proud presence at the march in support of the massive rally in Washington, D.C., in support of school safety and common-sense gun legislation.
“I’m so glad that these kids are using every single second that they have to try to make the world a better place because that’s the whole point,” Tranter tells Billboard about why he’s planning to make his voice heard about the need to pass gun legislation to avoid another horrific incident like the mass shooting at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 that took the lives of 17, including 14 students.
Billboard caught up with Tranter before the march to talk about why he never stops advocating for communities under siege, how he’s trying to rally more music industry voices to his side and why he’ll never touch a gun again.
Given your previous band’s name, I’m just wondering: have you ever shot a gun before?
I shot a gun one time in New Zealand. An entertainment news program there thought since the band was called Semi Precious Weapons they would bring us to a gun range. It was obviously a very safe, monitored environment.
How did it feel?
It’s shocking. It’s exhilarating, it feels like a movie and it sort of gives you all these feelings that one should never feel when they’re holding something that can take someone’s life. The complexities of what a gun is and what a gun can do and what a gun can create, which is death, it’s a very complicated thing. The one time I shot a gun, the feelings I felt I was guilty for feeling them. There is an exhilaration and a glamour and I felt awful for feeling that.
Would you say you’re anti-gun then, in general?
For me personally I’m anti-gun and always have been and always will be. But I’m definitely not someone who is looking to a abolish the Second Amendment. I think we’re definitely interpreting it wrong. If people want a gun in their home that is not a semi-automatic weapon, or a fucking weapon of war, I think that’s creepy, but I would never, ever tell them they can’t have that.
You’re a storyteller by trade, whose job it is to take someone’s feelings and turn them into a song. How do you tell the story of something like the Parkland shootings in song? Is it possible?
We did a song after the Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub… me and Julia Michaels and BloodPop got as many stars as we could to raise money with a song called “Hands.” There are metaphors clearly about what happened but we didn’t speak literally about the topic… it’s interesting to think about because music should be telling the truth and speaking about what’s happening in the world now.
But there is a side of music and all art that is about escapism and joy. It’s one of those things I wrestle with all the time in pop sessions: I want to talk about real shit, but we also want to create something that will allow you to escape the insanity of life for three minutes. All my heroes are people who speak the truth very honestly and brutally, like Ani DiFranco’s “To The Teeth,” which is a song that’s been ringing in my mind since the Pulse tragedy. Twenty years later, nothing has fucking changed.
Why do you think we’ve seen such a relatively muted response from the music and movie business on the topic of gun control following Parkland?
As creative people, there are so few opportunities for us to succeed that you get people who are brave and do amazing things and speak out and do all this shit. But when it really comes down to it everyone is just trying to survive. It’s not talking down to people who are afraid to lose opportunities by making art that speaks out. Back in the day, when I was making music for myself it was much more political, but my job now is to help other people tell their stories.
Is it safer for you to weigh in, then, because you’re behind the scenes and don’t have to go out on stage or in front of the cameras every night?
I’m not famous. I work with famous people. So there’s not as big a bullseye on my back… maybe the wrong metaphor. So for me it is easier to speak out. But I also didn’t find real success in this business until I was 34-35, and by the time I got here I’d been through so much shit — the homophobia, the femmephobia I’d faced. I’ve seen it all, what are they gonna do?
I feel like we have a responsibility… Now as a hit songwriter I have influence and money and that affords me privilege. And I feel like if you have that and you’re not paying that forward you’ve fucked up this thing called life.
So, if an artist came to you tomorrow and said, “I want to write something about what happened in Florida,” would you have something to say without being headline-y or obvious?
For sure. That would be amazing and I’d love to do that. I hope that somebody does ask for that song. Maybe I should write it and find a home for it. When you look at statistics, the majority of people support stricter gun laws, so when it comes to the art I don’t think it would be that dramatic to talk about it. There would have to be a way… Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a perfect example of how to be political in pop music. You create a smash hit that is asking people to think about shit. I don’t know if I’m the one to do it, but somebody’s gotta fucking do it.
What if they wanted to express their thoughts on gun owner’s rights? Could you do that as a songwriter for hire?
That’s a great question. I’m a songwriter for hire, but whenever I write a song with somebody, I have to find a way to relate to it in my heart, so that I can help them tell their story honestly. I’ve written songs with conservative people and it went fantastic. I’m really good at being open-minded and open-hearted. I always use this quote from this street artist: “We can agree to disagree as long as you are not threatening my basic human rights.” So I can’t agree to disagree if they really believe that anyone, their mom or their son, should be able to have a fucking AR-15, because that is threatening not just my human rights, but everyone’s human rights.
What do you think is different this time around because of the way the Parkland students have spoken out?
There’s probably 100 different reasons, but I think it didn’t happen at Pulse because the shooter was brown. It didn’t happen at Pulse because it was LGBTQ people who died, and we’re already treated like second-class citizens. Vegas, possibly the country music aspect.
If you look at Florida, it’s people from one community who all stuck together and spoke out. Also these kids are brilliant and passionate and they’re educated about what they’re talking about. Also, if it was a bunch of kids of color I’m not sure the country would have cared as much, sadly. I have no idea why this one worked, but I’m so glad that these kids are using every single second that they have to try to make the world a better place, because that’s the whole point.
Do you plan on going to the March?
Those kids give me hope that change can happen and the conversation is bigger than it’s ever been and it’s because of these kids, so of course! We owe them everything. I’m not going to D.C., but I’m organizing a big group here of every person I’ve ever met in the music business to meet me at a certain intersection before the march starts so we can march together. I’m going to try to get as many of them to march together so hopefully that can create an ever larger community of activists within the music business. It’s just a shame we have to keep losing these lives for something to happen.
We’ve seen mass shootings at schools, churches and concerts over the past few years. Were you ever concerned about safety when you used to open for Lady Gaga?
I worry about my safety a lot on tour, just because as a gender non-confirming person in six-inch heels in full makeup with a five o’clock shadow, we had a rule in my band that I wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom alone at truck stops. Me being afraid of violence had sadly been part of my entire life. The physical violence, and bullying all through middle school and one semester of public high school, the fear of violence has always been part of my life. I didn’t really fear a mass shooting until after Pulse happened. Then for about the next 10 times i went into a gay bar after that I was like, “Oh god, this could happen at any moment.”
Were guns ever an issue when you were in school?
No, there was never any fear of guns in the suburbs of Chicago and even when I went to arts high school in the city there was never a fear of guns. I was just always afraid of… people. That’s why it’s funny when people say “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Yeah, well people tried to kill me even without guns, so I don’t really want them to have guns to make it fucking easier!
What steps have you taken personally to make sure your voices is heard on the subject of gun laws? Do you call your Congress members?
I call any time I see a call to action on Twitter. Luckily where I live in Los Angeles I’m normally calling them to thank them for continuing to support the things they are already supporting. And people need to do that. They need to see the numbers of people calling in to see the things they’re supporting.
My job as a songwriter is to help amplify the voices of others so I immediately got in touch with the people who are arranging the March For Our Lives here in L.A. and I helped put them in touch with the mayor’s office. I immediately did everything I could, I donated money to the national march, the local L.A. one and tried to raise their social media numbers. I’ve never experienced gun violence, so it’s not my story to tell. I don’t have children in school, so it’s not my story to tell. It’s my job to be an ally in this situation and the way to do that is to listen and support.
If you could send a message to the students in Parkland what would you say to them?
Very simply: thank you. It’s been a long time coming since we needed people to find a way to actually make a real difference in this conversation and they have done it better than anyone in history. I keep saying to my friends that it’s just so beautiful to be alive in this moment to see these kids fucking doing this. I would just thank them.