As unsung heroes of music, songwriters have been behind you're favorite chart-topping hits, record-breaking albums and stan-worthy pop stars without you even knowing it. Too often buried in the liner notes and Genius annotations, they play a vital role in shaping the modern music landscape. They're the ones working alongside your faves to make sure they hit a hook just right. PAPER has teamed up with superstar songwriter Justin Tranter for a June Pride series spotlighting queer voices you may not have known are behind today's biggest bops.
As far as songwriters go, Ilsey Juber is a jack of all trades. Not only can she craft a catchy hook or help and artist find the right lyrics to their latest hit but you're just as likely to find her in the recording booth behind a guitar or a drum set laying down melodies and backing tracks like it's no big deal. She's written for the likes of Beyoncé, Shawn Mendes, Drake, Martin Garrix and become a go-to for superstar producers like Diplo and Mark Ronson.
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In addition to being all over Ronson's 2019 album, Late Night Feelings, Juber has worked on albums with Lykke Li, Miley Cyrus, was even partially responsible for a little song by Pitbull called "Fireball" and was part of the team of songwriters that famously wrote Panic! At the Disco's anthemic chart topper "High Hopes" in an Aspen jacuzzi. The daughter of the lead guitarist from Paul McCartney's band Wings, music quite literally runs in Juber's blood.
Justin Tranter caught up with Juber to dive into the stories behind some of her greatest hits, growing up in LA and the key to writing great sports anthems.
Justin Tranter: Hi Ilsey! As you know, I make it my mission to let little LGBTQ kids all over the world know how mainstream our ideas are and that even though sometimes it might not be an LGBTQ person singing the song, there are all these amazing members of our community who are behind the scenes, producing, writing and creating music. So I just want to talk to you about the amazing music that you've been a part of and your journey as an LGBTQ person in the world, business and all that jazz. I wanted to start things off with one of my favorite songs for who knows how long: "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart." The song is magic, the video is magic. I understand certain stories can't be told, but I've never actually even talked to you about this song so I would just love to know what you could tell us on how it came about.
Ilsey Juber: Yeah, I think Miley [Cyrus] told the story a few times so I feel okay telling how it came about and working with Mark Ronson was one of the best experiences of my life. We would get together, throw around a bunch of ideas, maybe come up with some little parts of songs and we had this chorus floating around that was the start of "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart." It was one of those cool little ideas when you start with a scribble of an idea and you're like okay how do I flesh this out and make this a whole song? We had been talking and decided there is nobody in the world that could do this justice other than Miley Cyrus because her voice is magical, she is magical and it just sounded like something that she would get involved in. So, he texted her, sent her the little idea, she loved it and came over to Shangri-La, which is where we were working. We all went back and forth and finished the song together in about maybe a half an hour. It was one of those really magical things when it just goes so easily and that was the first time we had ever worked together.
No fucking way I love that. The first time that you play with an artist, whether you're a co-writer or not, and you just stumble upon magic. There is no question whether you should work together again. Like the question is over. It has an answer and the answer is yes.
I think that was the start of [our] working relationship and solidified that trio of her, me and Mark Ronson. She is just an incredible person to collaborate with; I have so much respect for her as an artist and that song became something so special because of her. She had such a cool perspective on what that lyric meant and brought it from being just a love song to something that could apply to the whole world. The heartbreak of the world.
It is just so beautiful and everything from the guitar part to the melody to the lyrics — the whole thing is just so special. When did you and Mark start working together?
It was kind of just a chance meeting. I ended up going down to the studio to work with Diplo who was a longtime collaborator, friend and awesome dude. He was in there with Mark working on the Silk City project and I got there before Diplo, but Mark was in there. There was a guitar sitting around and Mark was playing around with some stuff, in the booth, playing the piano part and I picked up the guitar and started playing along. He was like "that's really cool, we should lay that down," before we even introduced ourselves to each other. We ended up jamming for a little bit, then Diplo came by and we all hung out for a second. Mark was gonna go home but I was like, "wait hold on, can we start something from scratch?" I gotta grab this moment. This might be the only opportunity I ever have to work with Mark Ronson. He's somebody I've always looked up to and we started a song that night that ended up being the beginning of "Late Night Feelings" which is a song and the title of his album.
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And Lykke Li obviously came in and finished it with us, it became something so special with her on it.
That's pretty iconic that you guys started collaborating together before you even introduced yourselves. Do you ever find that as a woman who actually picks up the guitar and all these different things, that dudes are so surprised that you can do multiple things. Did you ever come across that in your working life?
I think that every once in a while there is a moment when you can see the surprise on some people's faces. If I'm shredding on a guitar or if I sit down behind a drum set or whatever it is that I'm doing, I think that people tend to be a little bit surprised by it. I don't necessarily ever take offense for that, I see it as an opportunity to teach them that women are so much more than just topliners. The skillset that so many incredible women can bring to the table is so much broader. I think the more people like me walk into the room and don't even have to say anything but just show them, all of a sudden you see the lightbulb go off in their heads and they're like oh if she can do that then maybe I was wrong about this person and that person.
That's amazing. That's so true, the answer is your talent and that everyone can do it.
By the way, [toplining is] an incredible talent. There are so many incredible topliners and that's such a valuable skill. I didn't mean to say that in an offensive way.
No, not at all. I'm just a topliner, so it's totally fine. I can't play shit! What I love about this next song, "High Hopes" by Panic! at the Disco, is that it has become a huge sports anthem. I always think it's so fucking cool, whether it's Freddie Mercury, a couple of songs that I've been a part of or "High Hopes," I love when those of us from a community you would not expect to write a sports anthem actually do.
You know what's funny, with that song it was truly in every sense of the word a team effort, much like sports themselves. I think the heart of that song was the chorus and that came from a jacuzzi at a BMI songwriting camp. Same with "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart," you start with an idea, you bounce it around, it didn't really come to life until it ended in Brendan Urie's hands though. I think he's a genius and an LGBTQ ally to the utmost extreme. The magic that he brought to it, Sam [Hollander] — who wrote the verses — is incredible, Jake Sinclair and all these people who contributed to that song made it what it is. Sometimes you have a song that is one person in their garage that writes it all by themself and sometimes you have a song that takes a whole team of people and all of their specific talents, there is no right way or wrong. I think "High Hopes" is one of the songs where you hear the team effort in it.
One of my sports anthems was Fall Out Boy's "Centuries", so obviously with Panic! and Fall Out, magical things come from the same theme together and "Centuries" was a huge team effort for us as well. Me and Raja Kumari, J.R. Rotem doing the chorus and the band took it over for the verses. So it is quite interesting that both of these massive sports anthems started and finished in a very similar way. I would not ever have thought that that would take over not only the radio but take over sports and fucking every trailer for every movie ever. People actually ask all the time what is it like to have a song that is literally everywhere, how does that feel?
I think when it is a song like that, that has such a positive message, uplifts so many people and people feel better listening to it — I think it is wonderful and I think that maybe some people get sick of it, but if it adds positivity to the world then I'm all for it. Tthat is why we make music, it's to add something positive to the world and I think a song like that has something positive, so I'm all for it.
I think that is so cool and that if little kids all over the world know that two women who are part of the LGBTQ community were at the very beginning of creating that song, like how fucking dope would that be.
Yeah, that song is all about overcoming, as cliché as that idea might be, it's a new way of saying it and I think people relate. There is a reason these kinds of songs do well, people just relate to the feeling that you can get through anything and no matter how dark the times are like they are right now.
Yeah, you grew up in LA right, Ilsey?
I did. Studio City.
Studio City, Valley girl! How was it? I grew up in the Midwest and I came into my queerness so young, but I always wonder about people who grow up in LA. How was your journey discovering who you are, not only with your sexuality but also as a woman who wants to make music and all those different things. Do you feel like LA was a great place to go through all of that?
To be perfectly honest with you, I think LA has its issues, but to me I'm still on the journey of discovering my sexuality everyday. I think it is a very fluid thing for me. Everybody is coming to understand that gender, sexuality and all these ideas are social constructs and if identifying makes you feel good, makes you feel like you have a sense of who you are then you should absolutely do that but for me it's very fluid. The beauty of it is that who ever I'm attracted to, I'm allowed to be. My parents have always been supportive of that and I think that part of growing up in liberal-ass LA is that, I never felt like I had to hide who I was or be anything else. If anything I experienced a little bit of internalized fear, internalized stigma for myself. Feeling like I wanted to fit in or wanted to be whatever normal is here. Ultimately, I think that authenticity is what makes you happy, authenticity is what makes you who you are. When I write what's real to me is when I have success, and when it's in my life that's when I'm happy.
Fucking preach. I think that is so powerful. I'll be 40 in a couple weeks and when I was younger you had to identify almost out of survival. You had to pick who you were and fucking stick to it and that was it. But I think what is so beautiful about what you just said is that we're getting to a place where people who want to identify can but, I know for younger people particularly, there is just no need to. There is a song I do want to shout out, not only because it was a huge hit, but it is just so raw and real; "Mercy" by Shawn Mendes.
That was always a really special one to be a part of. Shawn has a special heart and I think that he is someone that so many people relate to for a reason. I think he speaks to the heart of a lot of people because he sings from the heart. To be part of a song that meant something to a lot of people was really amazing, it was one of those ones where you never know what's gonna resonate with people.
It's so great to see the fearlessness that he has. Every song he puts out is so vulnerable and emotional and I think that "Mercy" is probably one of my favorites and so just wanted to shout that out. We also have to talk about, "sex money feelings die" by Lykke Li. I know that you've worked with her a whole bunch. I went to write with her for a few days and I drank her mezcal every day. I would love to hear about, whether it's for that song specifically or the project, the work you have done together.
She is just one of the most unique individuals I've ever met and one of the most creative artists I have ever gotten to work with. Her lyric perspective, her melodies, she has such a clear idea of who she is. She's one of those people where sometimes you write with her and she has such a clear picture of what she wants, that sometimes I don't understand and I'm trying to keep up with her brilliance. As a writer it's amazing to be challenged in that way, working on that album really expanded my creativity. That's what I am looking for, to work with artists who are going to challenge me and expand what it is that I do. I was such a big fan before I ever met or worked with her, I walked into the studio so nervous the first day. But "sex, money, feelings die" I remember just having so much fun in the studio.
How many tracks did you do on that album?
I think I did all but one.
That's so amazing! Isn't that the best? The album that I did actually everything with Gwen Stefani was the same thing for me. I was so fucking terrified to work with her, I was just such a superfan, but then you go into the moment you were so scared of and do all of it. Maybe as queer people when we work with straight people that's when we really step up to the fucking plate and show it more than ever.
Oh absolutely, when you have something to prove to yourself and to the other person, like you said, you step up to the plate. I just wanted to do her justice because as a fan, I wanted whatever she put out next to be something great.
I think it is just such a cool challenge for a songwriter too when you're walking into a world where the artist's perspective is so specific and so clear. What Lykke does is so clear, so powerful and what you guys did together still is her, you didn't change her world but found a way to be a part of it and elevate the best you can. That's such an underrated skill. We always worship the people who go, sit alone in a room and work by themselves, which is great, good for them, but it is also a great thing, you can sit there and...
As response to that one idea, probably most importantly in this whole conversation, I see it as my number one job to not get in the way of what the artist is trying to say and never overstep. My job is to just help the artist with whatever it is that they want to say because it's not my song, it's theirs.
Photography: Brendan Walter
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