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.
Former lead singer of the glam rock band, Semi Precious Weapons, Justin Tranter made the transition to songwriting in 2012 and hasn't looked back. Writing songs for the likes of Justin Bieber, Fall Out Boy, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears, Kacey Musgraves, DNCE and Lady Gaga, Tranter's resume doesn't so much speak for itself as it blindingly dazzles like a million-megawatt marquee. Long before openly queer artists like Sam Smith, Troye Sivan and Lil Nas X were taking over the charts, Tranter was there behind the scenes making sure queer ideas were being worked into even the most heteronormative pop songs.
An outspoken activist and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, Tranter has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity over the years, and has even drawn on their industry connections to help put together a charity single in the wake of the Orlando PULSE nightclub shooting in 2016. Now on the National Board of Directors for GLAAD, Tranter has made it their mission to make sure young queer kids see themselves represented across all of the music industry — and that starts right here.
PAPER caught up with Justin Tranter to chat Selena Gomez, activism and making a new queer national anthem.
You recently worked with Selena Gomez on her new album, Rare. While you're all over that album, let's talk specifically about "Lose You to Love Me."
That song means so much to me. I'm so proud of it as a song and I am so proud of what it means for our group of friends. You know, me and Selena and Julia [Michaels] are still so close, in addition to Mattman & Robin who co-wrote and produced the song with the five of us. We've had a very long relationship. We did "Hands to Myself" together on another album prior and hadn't seen each other for a very long time. It had been at least a couple years. I had seen them all separately, but Selena wasn't working on the album for a while so we didn't see her. Long story not short, it was the first time all five of us were all together in at least a couple of years. So we all got in the room and that was the first song we wrote. The song seems so vulnerable and so raw, but also there's so much hope in it. And there's so much literal closure in the lyrics of the song. But it's just the song means so much to me because I'm proud of it as a co-writer and a collaborator, but also because it was all of our little group of friends all getting back together.
What was the process like?
When you find the collaborators that you really love and really click with, for the most part, all of my favorite songs, all flow really fucking fast, they just happen and they're there. There's some songs that Julia did without me, there's some songs without Julia, just because of people's schedules. It's just such a special thing that Selena had so much trust in us. We want to help her tell her truth and help her say exactly what she wants to say. But we also want to show the respect that our friendship deserves and make sure that we don't push anything where it shouldn't go. It was really fun too! Whether it was on, "Let Me Get Me" or "Dance Again," finding a way to be super emotional and talk about self-growth and being self-assured inside of a dance pop track. Working with Selena is always a dream, she has such good fucking taste as well. Her taste in lyrics and sounds and genre is pretty impeccable.
It's been a minute since you made the transition from recording artist to songwriter but I'm curious as what some of the takeaways you have now that you're well into your career?
What's so interesting is I think so much of my drive to be an artist, to be a rockstar, to be the frontman, was to basically prove my bullies wrong. I was bullied [growing up], as so many other young people have been. I was bullied, pretty much all through school until I got to go to an art school for high school. That was a much different experience in my life, but all through grade school and junior high, the bullying was as bad as it could possibly be. I somehow decided, well, I'm gonna just show them all wrong and be the most famous person in the world. That is what I told myself. That's what I was obsessed with and when this opportunity arose to write songs with and for other people, I realized that actually, I just wanted to make music that reached people. I didn't need to be famous. I didn't need my face plastered on all the walls. I just wanted to make music every day and have people hear it and respect it. I realized I was looking for respect, I wasn't looking for fame. I realized that my gift was really helping people tell their story and trying to create a safe environment where we can dig into parts of their story, where they feel confident enough to do that and try to make a pop song out of it.
A big part of like your own personal practice is your activism: you're on the board of GLAAD, very vocal about LGBTQ+ rights. How did you get involved in that and how has your activism changed over the years?
Yeah. I don't know how or why I started, but in my high school I started an AIDS benefit. I do know why, I guess what I mean is, I don't know why I thought I could, but luckily I did. We had a couple family friends who had been directly affected by HIV and I wanted to do something about it. I got together with my friends and went and talked to the head of school and I said to her, "We want to do this show, please give us a space and like, let it happen. We want to raise money and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." We did the whole thing and it was so rewarding. This idea of combining my art with activism, advocacy and fundraising happened out of that teenage fearlessness and overconfidence. I couldn't believe the joy it brought me, the joy it was bringing the people in my life that were [HIV] positive. That AIDS benefit still happens now. It's the first performance every single year at my high school, the Chicago Academy for the Arts, they just had their 23rd year of doing this benefit.
Then when I was in the band, me existing as proudly femme and so hyper-sexual, that was my version of activism — existing in these very public spaces and not changing for anyone. And then when I started as a songwriter, I needed to be doing more. We had just left Orlando when the PULSE tragedy happened, woke up in Miami and all of our phones had exploded from this horrible news. I was just like: "I gotta go to Orlando and do what I can do." I went to the LGBT center and I bought suntan lotion to bring to people waiting in line to donate blood. I got bottles of water. Loaded trucks, anything I possibly could. That's where I met the people from GLAAD and, in the hotel bar, decided to put together this charity single that me and Julia wrote, called "Hands." Our team reached out to every human ever: from Britney Spears to Mary J Blige to Kacey Musgraves to Selena Gomez to Halsey to Troye Sivan, to get all these people on this song. I feel like if you aren't paying your privilege forward, then you're just a fucking asshole.
I think that's also a really good segue into the song that you wrote for the HBO We're Here series with Shea Diamond.I love that song so much. Shea Diamond is just one of my favorite collaborators of all time. There's hopefully gonna be a full album coming soon. Stephen Warren who is the co-creator of We're Here was on the board of GLAAD for many, many, many years. He saw Shea Diamond perform her amazing song "American Pie" and fell in love with her and then through researching her online found out that her and I worked together. So he pulled up and said, "Hey, can you guys please make her a song for We're Here?"
Shea came over (and our friend, Eren Cannata — amazing producer-songwriter as well — came) and the three of us got in the room, watched the first episode and cried our eyes out. We wanted [the song] to feel like it was clearly for the show and if you listen to the song we do say the phrase "we're here" I think three or four times, to make it clear that it was written for the show. It's not just some random song we had. We were like, "how do we make it feel like a real song that Shea would do? What can you say that like nobody else can say?" And she just said like, "I don't know. I mean, like I am America, like America doesn't want me to be America but I am. I am Black. I am trans. I have been through the prison system, I am living in the South. I lived in the North and now live in Hollywood. I am America." And I was just like, "well that is the coolest thing I've ever heard, you are fucking America. Even if people don't like it, they're wrong, you are America." ["I Am America" is now an Emmy contender for Best Original Song.]
I do love the idea of a queer national anthem.
Me too. I'd love it. I mean, in the first couple of weeks of quarantine, we put together the lyric video for it, which is basically the video for it because there's no way to make a proper video right now. I just love the super diverse queer, trans, gender nonconforming, racially diverse group of people, differently-abled (we have Chella Man doing sign language too)! I just watched that video and you see this true, honest, real diversity singing along to the lyrics "I am America," it feels pretty fucking cool.
Perhaps it would be a good note to end on explaining why you wanted to do this queer songwriter series with us?
I started this benefit night with GLAAD where we do a concert the night before Spirit Day. I think Spirit Day is such a powerful thing. I wish Spirit Day existed when I was young, when I was being bullied in grade school. If there were teachers wearing purple or other students wearing purple, and I knew that that meant they supported me, it would have really changed my life. I created this concert to amplify Spirit Day and raise money for GLAAD. As the years have gone on it has slowly become a night where we celebrate LGBTQ songwriters who have had big hits that year. They come and perform their songs and we get secret surprise celebrity guests to come and sing. It's my favorite night of the year, hands down because I bring together a lot of the queer community of Los Angeles and almost the entire music business. There's like 700 people in the room. We're melting these two worlds, that should be always together because progressive queer people have made the business a lot of fucking money and they have made a lot of memories for people to live by with their songs. But those worlds don't intersect as much as you would think.
Last year we had we had Victoria Monét and she got on stage for a minute because she came out as bi a couple months before and had co-written Ariana [Grande's] "thank u next" and "7 rings" and a whole bunch of fucking amazing songs. We had Jesse Saint John who co-wrote Lizzo's "Truth Hurts," and then Jozzy who co-wrote the "Old Town Road" remix. It was this mind-blowing night of like, holy fuck: look at all this queer talent showing the music business these huge songs that were co-written by LGBTQ people. You need to support us even more. You need to celebrate us even more. I want young queer people to know that our ideas are mainstream. Our ideas are valid and our ideas are worth a lot of fucking money. If we can do this series highlighting these songwriters, we'll show that your favorite songs performed by straight people are co-written by LGBTQ people.
Photography: Christopher Patey