Most songs can be placed somewhere on a spectrum between specificity and universality — between confessional detail and mass applicability. Justin Tranter has written for everyone from Ariana Grande to Måneskin to Janelle Monae; how does this GRAMMY-nominated songwriter strike that balance?
The answer partly lies, Tranter says, in the differential functions of the verse and chorus.
"The chorus should explain the whole song, and it should be universal enough that everybody would want to sing that chorus," Tranter, who uses they/them pronouns, tells GRAMMY.com. "Then, you can use the verses — and sometimes the pre-chorus — to make it a clear, specific story."
This axiom seems simple enough on paper — but when you truly absorb it, the entire songwriting canon opens up. It applies to tunes by everyone from those pop stars to singer/songwriters of yore, like John Prine or Tom Petty. Go as specific as you want in the verses; just connect them to a chorus that's emotionally available to all.
But the magic of Tranter isn't just that they have songwriting down to a science; it's that they've run headfirst into everything from publishing to activism to jewelry-making, often to smashing success.
In this in-depth interview, learn not only about Tranter's songwriting chops, but how a sense of fearlessness made their entire multifarious life possible — from their old band, Semi Precious Weapons, onward into a possibility-stuffed future.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
You're not only a major songwriter; you're active in the label, publishing and activism spaces. Have you always wanted a career like this?
Yes, I did. I always wanted to do lots of things. Fortunately, I was born pretty fearless, and my parents let me continue to be fearless. So, when it comes to the activism side of things or when it comes to going big, I never had any fear in doing that. So, I always dreamed of this. I always imagined this.
How were you raised to be fearless? A lot of kids grow up in fear, and then they become fearful adults.
First of all, I'm very lucky that I'm the youngest of four kids. So, I think my parents had really figured out parenting by the time they got to me — and I was a really big personality from the get-go.
I was very obviously feminine and queer very early, and no one — well, not a lot of people — told me I shouldn't be that way. My parents never told me I shouldn't be that way. My oldest brother was very supportive of it. Some of my other brothers weren't as supportive of it, but between my parents and my oldest brother, [I was] really loved.
I think I was raised to be fearless because anytime I was fearless and truly myself, they really enjoyed it. At least three of the five other people in my household thought it was fabulous and commended me — when I told people they were being mean or turned the other cheek at the appropriate moments.
There was just a lot of reinforcement that: yep, you can date exactly who you want, and we're going to celebrate and applaud it. And when you're funny, we're going to laugh at it. I think all those things were there for me. Every day, I realize how lucky I am to have had that.
Getting a band off the ground is a Herculean effort for so many people — but you did it with Semi Precious Weapons. How did you make it work?
I had built a solo singer/songwriter, piano-based thing for myself in New York, and I was hosting a night — every Sunday night — at the SideWalk Cafe in the East Village. It was called Justin Tranter's Flaming Sunday, and it was a night of queer singer/songwriters.
Once a month, I would do a full set, but every week, I would do a couple of songs and then just host and introduce the other people I had booked for the night. So, I had built a little bit of a following on my own in New York. And then, when the band happened, it really blew up.
The amount of guerilla marketing that took place — everything from literally tagging things, like spray painting our gun-and-heart logo all over the city, to putting stickers and matchbooks all over the city with that logo that would have the website so people could connect the dots.
It was the Myspace era, and I was deep, deep into trying to find any way to find fans on [there] — [like] messaging kids who liked music that was similar or liked people who looked like me, because my look was so specific and so over the top.
We'd just spend hours and hours and hours on Myspace, which ended up really working for me. We got on some big people's Top 8s, which led to more exposure for the band.
Another thing that happened is that for our first show, I designed necklaces, which were the gun-and-heart logo, and the heart had a bullet hole through it. I think I made 10 of them, and people loved them so much that I was like, "Huh, maybe there's a thing here." And I worked at jewelry stores as my day job.
So, I knew how to make this happen, and I ended up selling the band jewelry at Urban Outfitters — all over the country and the world.
This is so era-specific. Urban Outfitters and Myspace — what a time to be alive!
Every single display card the necklaces were on would talk about the band and have a link to the band's website. Then, the jewelry ended up at Barneys and had 14-carat gold and diamond versions.
It was this whole, insane journey. We found ways from guerilla marketing to a f—ing jewelry line! And that's how people heard about the band, I guess.
None of it could have happened without that fearlessness, I'll bet.
I look back to it, and I'm like, "Starting a jewelry line is the hardest thing in the world!" And the fact it ended up at Urban Outfitters and Barneys — I was just like, "Well, why the f— shouldn't I have a jewelry line? Who's to tell me I shouldn't?" Yeah, the fearlessness really helps the whole way.
You've written for a laundry list of A-listers. Who was the first major artist you wrote for, and how did that come about?
The band's last album, we made with Tricky Stewart — an amazing producer who did "Umbrella" and "Single Ladies" and a bunch of other unbelievable songs. Including the new Beyoncé — "Break My Soul."
He said to me a couple of times, "You're a f—ing great songwriter, and yes, your band is alternative." The last [work] we made with him was in much more of an alternative side of things that it was on the glam rock thing with the early days. He was like, "You're writing pop songs, and you should look into this."
The band had a publishing deal. I asked the publisher to cut us some sessions, and I really enjoyed stepping out of myself and just focusing on the best song — not on the best song for me to perform. I was doing it for three months, and it was a whole bunch of no, no, no, nos.
I was like: Maybe I shouldn't. Maybe this isn't for me. The band is really known for our live shows. And now that I know this side of the business, three months is nothing. That's a very short amount of time, but I finally stopped trying to chase trends that were happening.
Because I thought that's what pop writers did: you chase the trend. And that's what some pop writers do, and they're very f—ing good at it. I just wasn't good at it.
So, I wrote a song with some people I'd met for the first time. One of them, I'm still really, really close with — a writer named Ryland Blackinton. We wrote a song I really loved ["Nostalgic"] and Kelly Clarkson recorded it, like, a week later. I'm such a huge fan of her voice that it was a very exciting thing to happen to me.
If you were to place all songs on a spectrum between ultra-specific and candid and vulnerable, and perhaps more general and one-size-fits-all, where does your work lie? Is it a balance to strike most of the time?
If the artist does write, so much of what I do is writing with them and having a conversation about where they're at. And it's casual — I'm not interviewing them, but having a conversation and finding the song in that conversation.
And then, if the artist doesn't write — or does write, but doesn't need to — sometimes they're just looking for other songs, outside songs. I still like to either talk to them or find out about their life through them, or through somebody else in their life, and find a song that's really about them.
And if they really want, I want the artists to feel like this song is theirs. And hopefully this song is going to be good and big enough that they're going to need to sing it for the next 40 years. I want them to really feel like they can own it.
So, I don't actually write about my life that much anymore. In terms of the specificity of their life — and also something the world can relate to — I always say that we should know what the whole song is about inside the chorus. The chorus should explain the whole song, and it should be universal enough that everybody would want to sing that chorus.
Then, you can use the verses — and sometimes the pre-chorus — to make it a clear, specific story, specific to the artist and what they're going through, or have been through.
So, that's kind of how I like to [do it] — the chorus is easy to understand, because it's pop music, but the verses can uncover details for listeners. After many, many listens, they finally realize what's actually underneath there.
We could talk for hours about your material for everyone from Leon Bridges to Dua Lipa to Måneskin. Could you single out a couple of songs that you feel are particularly special, or cornerstones of your artistry?
Let's see if I can pull that off. Well, because you mentioned it first, I'll talk about Leon Bridges' "Beyond." It's one of my favorite songs I've ever been a part of. We had a very short time to work. It was, like, an 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. session — very quick.
As I said to you before, I normally try to keep the conversations very casual to find where the song is, but there wasn't time. So, I just said, "Hey, I'm going to just start asking you really awkward questions right off the bat so we can find a song here quickly.
Maybe the second or third I asked him was, "Are you in love right now?" He said, "No, but I did meet someone, and I feel like there might be something there." Which then turned very quickly into the lyric: "She might just be my everything and beyond."
Julia Michaels' "Issues" — that was nominated for [a GRAMMY for] Song Of The Year. That was a really special one for me because Julia and I are so close — and what she was going through that day was very very real.
Especially when you're younger, those moments in your relationships feel like the end of the world. And as an older person, you never want to tell them it's not the end of the world, because they just think you sound old.
So, really embracing that moment with her in the studio — and being able to write that song, have that be the song that the world finally got to hear her sing, and be nominated for [a GRAMMY for] Song Of The Year is such a beautiful, beautiful thing to be part of.
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