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Justin Tranter On Writing For Pop's Vanguard, Ruling The Myspace Era & Remaining Fearless
Justin Tranter

Photo: Christopher Patey

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Justin Tranter On Writing For Pop's Vanguard, Ruling The Myspace Era & Remaining Fearless

Justin Tranter was taught to be courageous from childhood, which meant they were enabled in adulthood to pursue any creative pursuit they desired. Here's how Tranter balances writing for megastars with their array of other pursuits.

GRAMMYs/Aug 11, 2022 - 02:21 pm

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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Julia Michaels Deconstructs "Issues," Writing Songs | "Required Listening" Podcast

Scott Goldman and Julia Michaels

Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage.com

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Julia Michaels Deconstructs "Issues," Writing Songs | "Required Listening" Podcast

Go inside the bright mind of one of pop's most promising singer/songwriters and learn about her songwriting process, her transition to the spotlight and the three female artists she admires

GRAMMYs/Feb 8, 2018 - 11:57 pm

Julia Michaels' career has soared within the past year. Already a talented songwriter with writing credits such as Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Ed Sheeran, and Fifth Harmony to her name, Michaels took a leap of faith with the release of her third solo EP, 2017's Nervous System.

Listen Now: "Required Listening," Episode 3 With Julia Michaels

Though Michaels has admitted to being nervous about moving to the forefront as an artist in her own right, the gamble paid off. The single "Issues" went gangbusters all the way to No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and her EP cracked the Top 50. Plus, the Davenport, Iowa, native scored two nominations for the 60th GRAMMY Awards: Song Of The Year for "Issues" and Best New Artist.

What makes Michaels tick musically, how did she overcome her trepidation and why does she rely on feelings to guide her songwriting?

You'll learn the answers and so much more on the latest episode of "Required Listening," the new music podcast by HowStuffWorks and the GRAMMY Museum in partnership with the Recording Academy.

"It depends on the person. A lot of the times I'll just talk to them [first]," said Michaels regarding collaborating with other artists. "I mean we're all human. We all cry the same. We all bleed the same. So I try to make people feel as comfortable as possible to be able to tell me things, even if the artist that I'm with doesn't write, just having them talk is lyrics in itself. You know, them explaining their day or expressing how they feel. It's like, "That's amazing ... if that's how you're feeling we should write that.'"

As a matter of fact, Michaels told the host of "Required Listening," GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Scott Goldman, that she lets her feelings pilot her songwriting instead of traditional conventions — a process that has yielded gems such as "Issues."

"I'm not that calculated when I write," said Michaels. "I'm all heart when I write so I don't think about the algorithm of a song or the mathematics of a song. I just think, 'This feels good to me,' and just kind of go with that."

When peppered by Goldman with a question about coming into the limelight as a recording artist, Michaels was quick to point out that she has benefitted from plenty of help and encouragement.

"I think a lot of people have helped me get there," said Michaels. "My manager, Beka Tischker, she's been with me for six years. She's always believed in me. … And this year a lot of people have come into my life. I mean even my band — Dan Kanter, who's my guitar player … he's been with me since the beginning of the artist transition. I can't even do it without him at this point. ... There's a lot of people in my life, especially this year, that have made me feel comfortable and confident."

Speaking of confidence, Michaels has taken cues from plenty of her self-assured peers. She cited three artists, in particular, who have inspired her career path.

"I'm not that calculated when I write. I'm all heart." — Julia Michaels

"[Pink is] a bad*," said Michaels. "I love Fiona Apple. I love a lot of artists that are not afraid to say what they want to say. I love artists that write their own music. Laura Marling — she's very much from her point of view, very much whatever she wants to do. And plus her voice is so haunting and beautiful."

"Required Listening" launched on GRAMMY Sunday, Jan. 28, with the first episode featuring an in-depth conversation with GRAMMY winners Imagine Dragons and the second detailing "The Defiant Ones" with Allen Hughes and Jimmy Iovine.

Future guests will include Sean "Diddy" Combs, Dan Auerbach, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and Lindsey Buckingham and Christie McVie of Fleetwood Mac, among others.

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WATCH: Lady Gaga And Ariana Grande Team Up For "Rain On Me"

Lady Gaga 

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Haus Laboratories

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WATCH: Lady Gaga And Ariana Grande Team Up For "Rain On Me"

Grande enters the "Stupid Love" singer's futuristic world as the two pop sensations dance together in an out-of-this-planet setting

GRAMMYs/May 22, 2020 - 10:17 pm

Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande have come together for "Rain On Me," an optimistic pop track about Gaga's personal experiences off her forthcoming album, Chromatica

"I can feel it on my skin (It's comin' down on me)/ Teardrops on my face (Water like misery)/ Let it wash away my sins (It's coming down on me)," the global pop stars sing together on the chorus. "I'd rather be dry, but at least I'm alive/ Rain on me, rain, rain."

The song is an empowering track about being comfortable with letting tears fall. Gaga revealed the many layers behind the song in an interview with Vulture, sharing that some of the inspiration for it came from her relationship with drinking. "This is about an analog of tears being the rain. And you know what it’s also a metaphor for, is the amount of drinking that I was doing to numb myself," she said. "I’d rather be dry. I’d rather not be drinking, but I haven’t died yet. I’m still alive. Rain on me."

She added that the song also went beyond that. "Okay, I’m going to keep on drinking. This song has many layers," she said. 

Grande enters the "Stupid Love" singer's futuristic world in the video released Friday, May 22, with the two dancing together in an out-of-this-planet setting. The video ends with them in a strong embrace.

Gaga has shared how much the collaboration with Grande means to her and thanked Grande for "reminding me I’m strong."  Before the video's release, she tweeted out a special message to the "Stuck with U" singer. 

"One time I felt like I was crying so much it would never stop. Instead of fighting it, I thought bring it on, I can do hard things. @arianagrande I love you for your strength and friendship. Let’s show them what we’ve got," she tweeted

Grande returned the love with more love, revealing what sharing a track with Gaga means to her.

"one time ..... i met a woman who knew pain the same way i did... who cried as much as i did, drank as much wine as i did, ate as much pasta as i did and who’s heart was bigger than her whole body. she immediately felt like a sister to me," she tweeted. "she then held my hand and invited me into the beautiful world of chromatica and together, we got to express how beautiful and healing it feels to mothafuckinnnn cry ! i hope this makes u all feel as uplifted as it does for us both. i love u @ladygaga , u stunning superwoman !"  

Watch the full video above. Chromatica is set to be released on May 29. 

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Ariana Grande Donates Proceeds From Atlanta Show To Planned Parenthood

Ariana Grande

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

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Ariana Grande Donates Proceeds From Atlanta Show To Planned Parenthood

"Ariana Grande's generous donation comes at a critical time—in Georgia and across the country, anti-women's health politicians are trying to ban all safe, legal abortion," Dr. Leana Wen, President of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement

GRAMMYs/Jun 12, 2019 - 10:56 pm

Today, Planned Parenthood confirmed that GRAMMY winner Ariana Grande has donated the proceeds from her June 8 concert in Atlanta, around $250,000, to the reproductive health non-profit. The contribution follows several Southern states, including Georgia, passing restrictive anti-abortion bills in May.

"Ariana Grande's generous donation comes at a critical time—in Georgia and across the country, anti-women's health politicians are trying to ban all safe, legal abortion," Dr. Leana Wen, President of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement to People, who broke the news. 

Wen, who is a medical doctor and the former Baltimore City Health Commissioner, spoke to the critical timing of Grande's donation, at a time when lawmakers are rolling back years of women's rights legislation:

"This is not what the American people want, nor is it something they'll stand for. Thanks to inspiring support like hers, Planned Parenthood can continue to fight back—in the courts, in Congress, in state houses, and in the streets—against these dangerous attacks on people's health and lives. We are so grateful to Ariana for her longstanding commitment to supporting women's rights and standing with Planned Parenthood to defend access to reproductive health care. We won't stop fighting—no matter what."

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As People and other outlets point out, the donation follows the singer's response to hate speech made outside of the Atlanta concert. Ari fans tweeted a video of a protester outside of the venue making homophobic, sexist and racist comments over a P.A. system to the young women. Grande commented on the post, writing: "man... saddened but not surprised by this one bit. I'm so sorry any of my fans had to encounter this. we will do our best to ensure this doesn't happen again. proud of u all for not fighting / engaging violently. never worth it. wishing him peace & a healed heart cause girl yikes."

The Atlanta show was one of the stops on the pop star's Sweetener World Tour, which continues across North America until mid-July, after which she'll headline Lollapalooza on Aug. 4, then take the tour across the pond to London on Aug. 17 for its European leg.

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Dua Lipa Teases New Album, 'Future Nostalgia,' Announces 2020 Tour Dates

Dua Lipa

Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

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Dua Lipa Teases New Album, 'Future Nostalgia,' Announces 2020 Tour Dates

The 2019 Best New Artist shared the first details of her highly anticipated sophomore LP by getting the album title tattooed on her arm

GRAMMYs/Dec 4, 2019 - 02:37 am

GRAMMY-winning dance-pop queen Dua Lipa is poised to bring us boldly into the new decade. On Dec. 1, the 2019 Best New Artist shared the first details of her highly anticipated sophomore LP by getting the album title, Future Nostalgia, tattooed on her arm and posting it on social media.

The "Electricity" artist followed up the album reveal with another exciting announcement: a 24-date European tour, which she will kick off on April 26 in Madrid. The Future Nostalgia EU Tour 2020 will see the Londoner playing massive venues across Europe, two nights at London's 20,000-capacity The 02 and Berlin's Mercedes-Benz Arena.

Lipa has not announced the release date for the new album yet, although her most recent bop, the vibrant nu-disco-tinged "Don't Start Now," was confirmed to be the lead single. She dropped the "boy bye" anthem on Halloween, followed by a fun new video (where you can peek that new tattoo!) the next day, Nov. 1.

She also spoke about the forthcoming project in a recent press release:

"What I wanted to do with this album was to break out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to make music that felt like it could sit alongside some of my favorite classic pop songs, whilst still feeling fresh and uniquely mine. I was inspired by so many artists on the new record from Gwen Stefani to Madonna to Moloko to Blondie and OutKast, to name just a few.

Because of the time that I'd spent on the road touring with my band I wanted Future Nostalgia to have a lot more of a live element, but mixed together with modern electronic production. My sound has naturally matured a bit as I've grown up but I wanted to keep the same pop sensibility as I had on the first record. I remember that I was on my way to a radio show in Las Vegas thinking about the direction for this new record and I realized that what I wanted to make was something that felt nostalgic but had something fresh and futuristic about it too."

Sounds like exactly what we need in pop music in 2020!

Last October, at her powerful acoustic performance and intimate conversation at the GRAMMY Museum, the "New Rules" singer noted the personal-feeling early albums of P!nk and Nelly Furtado, two of her childhood favorites, as points of reference for her 2017 self-titled debut album. We also caught up with her before the event to chat about working with Calvin Harris, who's on her collab wish list (Rosalía and Frank Ocean are two!), what the viral success of "New Rules" felt like for her and more.

Tickets for the Future Nostalgia EU Tour go on sale this Friday, Dec. 6 at 9 a.m. local time, except for Spain, whose tickets will go on sale on Dec. 5 at 9 a.m.—more details can be found on dualipa.com.

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