Photo by Christopher Patey
Songwriter Justin Tranter On Pride Anthems, Protesting & Pop Superstardom
The Los Angeles-based lyricist speaks with the Recording Academy via Zoom about their work on some of 2020’s most popular songs, writing future hits over FaceTime and the importance of activism
It’s late May, months deep into the country’s extended period of self isolation, but Justin Tranter—coming to me live via Zoom from their Hollywood home—says they’ve just written one of the best songs of their career. Considering that the veteran songwriter has helped pen some of the biggest hits of the past decade—including Justin Bieber’s "Sorry," Imagine Dragons' "Believer" and Selena Gomez’s 2019 chart-topper "Lose You To Love Me"—those words carry real, certifiable weight.
But it’s not hard to believe them when you look at Tranter's track record—just ask Britney Spears, Fall Out Boy, Halsey, Bebe Rexha, Nick Jonas, Cardi B, Gwen Stefani and Janelle Monáe what they think about their GRAMMY-nominated collaborator, a writer whose lyrics are not easily quantifiable beyond, simply, singular and necessary. And it’s equally easy to believe Tranter when they say they’ve actually been artistically thriving lately—"I know that saying that comes from an extreme place of privilege," they’re quick to note—as they enjoy the fruits of time, creativity and the ability to (for once) not overwork themselves.
Beyond their prestigious, prolific songwriting career, Tranter spends much of their time advocating for others. They're a vocal champion for the LGBTQIA+ community, including their continued work with singer Shea Diamond (their Emmy-contending song "I Am America" soundtracks HBO's "We're Here," which was just picked up for a second season) and their spot on the board of GLAAD. Just last year, Tranter received the ACLU of Southern California's Bill of Rights Award. "Justin Tranter has not only redefined popular music through their work with some of the biggest artists on the planet, but has redefined what it means to be an advocate through music," the organization wrote. "As an activist, I wanted the ACLU Bill of Rights Award, and as a songwriter, I want Song of the Year," Tranter says now with a grin.
They may not be far off. Their work with fellow songwriter Julia Michaels on Selena Gomez’s most recent album, Rare, carries on a fruitful partnership that began with 2015’s Revival. In the last year alone, Tranter has racked up credits on Dua Lipa’s exceptionally well-received sophomore album, Future Nostalgia ("Boys Will Be Boys"), Kesha’s High Road, Camila Cabello’s Romance and Lady Gaga’s long-awaited return to dance-pop, Chromatica ("911" and "Alice")—the latter of whom they’ve known as friends for decades, and even previously opened for on tour with their band Semi Precious Weapons.
Over the course of an hour, Tranter spoke with the Recording Academy about their banner year, songwriting in the time of COVID-19, the importance of intersectionality and protest in Pride’s history and future and more.
[noticing my Selena Gomez "Bad Liar" poster behind me] I've never felt more welcome in a Zoom in my life.
How has work been for you now that you’re homebound? I’m sure historically you’ve done some of it remotely anyway.
Exactly. The people that I write with a lot, we're able to figure out ways to do stuff virtually. I'm very heavily involved in the [upcoming] Bebe Rexha album, who's so amazing and such an underrated talent. She sings her ass off. She writes her ass off. And I think on this album the world is finally gonna really see the Bebe that we all know. And since me and Bebe are so close, and most of the songs are done, it’s just doing little tweaks here and there. That’s easy to do.
This week was the first week that I actually had some really successful cowrites over FaceTime. I've had to minimize the amount of people in a session, because us pop queens, we love to have five people in a room. I needed to be like, "OK, someone send us a track and then me and the other songwriter will just write to your track. I can’t have you on FaceTime while we do this, it’s too much."
The Zoom thing is great for conversations, but it has the mute feature, which is so helpful for conversations but not really helpful when you’re trying to hear music. I’m figuring it out, but it just started to click the last couple of days. My thing was: I’ll just work more than anybody, and that’s how I’ll survive in this business. I definitely just said yes to literally everything… why did I say yes to everything? [Laughs.]
When we entered this period of social distancing a few months ago, did you already have your spring and summer mostly booked?
My schedule is always booked three months out, for the most part. Of course stuff changes because artists have to cancel, but I was pretty much booked through June when this started.
It’s a bummer, but also I try to find the positive in everything. One of the main positives for us super activist radical-type people: we all knew capitalism was a shit show, but this has really just been like… "OK… so you think this is working? Because our essential workers don’t make a living wage, so if this is capitalism’s plan, I think it’s pretty clear now this is the wrong plan."
So much of your career is focused on activism: you’re a GLAAD board member, you’re so supportive of LGBTQIA+ artists and writers and talent behind the scenes. What does Pride look like in 2020 when we can’t actually be together?
My definition of what Pride means—I can’t impose this on anybody else—is to just live your truth at all times. Celebrate your truth. But fight for those in our community that are less fortunate, that are less privileged, that are still being marginalized in many ways. Obviously, Pride started as a protest, and we always have to remember that energy.
I love that Pride has become a celebration, because a celebration of our truth is so important. But we always have to keep in mind the protest part of it. I think that we can do that virtually. It may not feel as crazy, and the celebration part might feel different, and the protest part might not have that community energy where you can literally smell the sweat and you can hear the screams. But I think we can still do that.
One of my favorite artists that I love to work with is a woman named Shea Diamond, a trans singer-songwriter who’s one of the best talents of our time. She makes all her money during Pride season. There are so many amazing people in this world for whom Pride is the time that they actually get hired and celebrated enough that someone cuts them a fking check.
Obviously we need to be supporting black trans talent all year round. And it’s amazing that there is this season where you know you are getting fking paid, but now that season is gone for her. A lot of our artistic community survive off of Pride season. Having in-person Pride disappear in that way is really sad, but I think in terms of the celebrations and protests, we can get the job done online.
You've been vocal on social media about the epidemic of anti-Black police brutality, and ensuing protests, in America. How best can we show up as allies in this moment?
The best way to always be a good ally is to listen and support. Seek out leaders of the BLM movement on social media and listen to everything they are saying and support it. Support it with your voice, with your time, and with your wallet if possible. Also look at your own life, and places where you can make change. How are you hiring at your company? How are you talking to racist family members? Are you spending money at black-owned businesses? Oh, and fking vote.
So many members of our LGBTQIA+ community have wisely advised pivoting our Pride efforts this year to supporting the BIPOC communities in America. As someone with extensive advocacy work, in what ways would you advise people looking to help?
Since this is the GRAMMYs, let’s focus on music. Stream black LGBTQ artists. Buy their merch. Share their songs and videos on your socials. Book them and pay them for gigs even if they are virtual. Shea Diamond’s music has always been speaking about what the whole world is finally waking up to in the past few weeks and deserves a million streams a day. VINCINT’s voice, passion and musicality is at the highest level and deserves to be heard on repeat. serpentwithfeet speaks to my soul in ways I never imagined—I’m sure the music will speak to everyone’s soul if they listen.
You worked with Shea Diamond on the theme song for the new HBO show We’re Here, "I Am America." How did that opportunity come along?
The two creators of the show, Steve Warren and Johnnie Ingram, saw her perform "American Pie" and fell in love and couldn’t believe her talent, her lyricism, her voice, everything. Then, through the magic of the internet, they found out that we worked together. They were like, “Oh my god, the two of you have to write a song for this show.”
We watched the show and me and Shea were actually sitting in this very room, on that couch right there, and I was like, "It still needs to feel like this is your song." We definitely say "we’re here" like four or five different times in the song. "But to make it feel believable, it still needs to feel like your fking song. If you, Shea Diamond, were gonna write a Pride anthem, what could you say that nobody else could say?” And she was like, "I don’t know… I am America?" I was like, "Welp! Song’s written, bitch! We can go home!"
You had another banner moment just a few months ago with Selena Gomez’s Rare, which found you reuniting with someone whose recent musical career carries so much of your DNA in it. What is it about her that makes you want to keep going back?
First and foremost, she’s a great person. She couldn’t be sweeter. She couldn’t be more honest. I love my job, and there are people that I work with who I make amazing music with, together, and Selena’s one of those people. But she’s also a real friend.
I got the call that I was gonna receive the ACLU Bill of Rights award on the way to the studio to work with her. I was telling her about it because I was excited, and she was like, "Is there anything I can do to help? Do you have someone to present you with the award yet? I would love to do that." So much of my fundraising and advocacy involves having to ask celebrities awkward questions. She’s just one of those people I don’t have to ask. She just was like, "Well I’ll be there. Fierce! What’re we wearing?"
Creatively, what me, Selena, and Julia [Michaels] have together is just so, so, so special. My first hit was Fall Out Boy’s "Centuries," but my first pop hits were all with Selena, which opened the pop doors for me. What me, Julia, and Selena did together has changed my life, time and time again. I’ve been so blessed to have so many songs connect, but only two that’ve gone No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and one of those was Selena.
And she's so honest in the studio. She's like, "Here’s my whole life and here’s my whole feelings, because I trust you with them. Let’s try to make a song." It’s just too fun. She's the best.
A partnership like that that can be so rare in creative industries. So often those turn out to be, no malice intended, work-for-hire deals. Yours, though, feels like an equal playing field.
It’s so equal and so collaborative. Also, she’s such a great storyteller on the microphone. I think what really sets her apart is she has unbelievable taste, and she’s not afraid to make decisions. She’s like, "'Bad Liar' this is the coolest song ever, this is my single."
Everyone loved "Good For You." She was the one who was like, "This is the first single, everyone please stop talking. This is the song. Thank you!" We are living in a singles era. I think it’s starting to get a little different, because streaming’s leveled the playing field, but we’re still in a singles game. So pop stars can get really nervous about what songs should come first. Selena knows what’s cool, and she knows what she wants to do, and isn’t really worried about whether that is the biggest hit or not. What she’s worried about is: does it tell the story she wants to tell? And because she knows what story she wants to tell, she makes the decision. That is such a priceless gift in any creative industry. Working with her is a dream.
What is it about Lady Gaga, who you just worked with on Chromatica, that checks those same boxes for you?
One listen to "Bad Romance" and not a person alive can deny that Gaga is one of the best songwriters of our time, with one of the clearest perspectives of our time. She checks all the boxes—always has, always will. Having "Alice" and "911" be fan favorites is such an unbelievable, full-circle moment. Seeing the fans that used to tweet my band [Semi Precious Weapons] in 2010 be so excited that we worked on these songs together in 2020 is really special.
I'm sure you saw last month the #JusticeForGlory campaign that launched Britney Spears' most recent album—on which you cowrote several songs—to the top of the iTunes charts worldwide. What was it like seeing such a masterpiece finally be so publicly warmly regarded?
It’s a fking trip, I tell you. I love that woman so much. I love her as a fan. I love her as a collaborator. I love her as a vocalist. I knew this was happening because the Britney fandom was letting me know. But obviously Julia [Michaels], having sung hit songs, her social media is way fking bigger, so she was not aware. She sent me a screenshot of iTunes, and the "Slumber Party" video was either No. 1 or No. 2 and she was like, "Hey, um, what the fk is going on with ‘Slumber Party’? I’m not complaining, but what is happening?" I was like, "Yeah there’s been this whole campaign..." [Laughs hysterically.]
I would kick myself if I didn’t ask you about my favorite song on Glory, "Do You Wanna Come Over?" What do you remember about recording that one with her?
Me, Julia, and Mattman & Robin are all signed with Warner Chappell for our publishing. My now business partner Katie Vinten dreamed up this whole amazing [writing] camp in Vegas, and we went. We got invited to see Britney’s show, so we all went.
The next morning, it was Julia’s birthday and she had an early flight, so we had to write quickly so she could pack and get out of there. We wrote "Do You Wanna Come Over?" after seeing her show and being so inspired by it, and what worked in the show and what it needed and what it didn’t. We called Britney’s team and had them come over immediately to listen to it, and then they played it for her and she loved it. Her next day off that she could get back to L.A., we went and recorded it.
That was the first time that we had heard her sing where we were in the room, in the studio. In the most polite way, Britney asked me and Julia to leave because we were freaking out. We were just like, "Oh my god, she sounds so good, that just comes out of her face. She doesn’t put that tone on, that’s just her tone. She just does that." We were literally losing our fking minds. She was like, "Hey y’all, I don’t want to be rude but… I need to focus. Thank you for the support, but I can’t sing like this." I was like, "Oh, yeah, of course you can’t. No one can sing like that!" [Laughs.]
Putting aside the current pandemic, what does a dream session look like for you?
What I actually have learned from this pandemic is: I’m finding real joy in making every syllable count. As someone who’s mainly a lyricist, that’s what I wanna do now, every day. I don’t have to write every lyric! If the artist is amazing at lyrics, great, but I wanna make sure every fucking syllable counts, and not take for granted the fact that people might listen. I wanna tell that story the best way possible.
That is my new dream, to just creatively really challenge myself. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve had all the different kinds of hits somebody can have. I thought I wanted to just have hits forever and ever, but I’m learning that actually I just want to push myself as a songwriter and as a lyricist. I wanna just really figure out how I can still be excited about this. I find a lot of joy in it now. I feel like a whole new era is about to start.
Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More
The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
Scott Goldman and Julia Michaels
Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage.com
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
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.
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?
"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.
Source Photos (L-R): Cindy Ord/MG22/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue; Mauricio Santana/Getty Images; Rich Fury/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella
Listen To GRAMMY.com's LGBTQIA+ Pride Month 2022 Playlist Featuring Elton John, Lady Gaga, Lil Nas X, Ricky Martin, Rina Sawayama & More
For LGBTQIA+ Pride Month 2022, GRAMMY.com presents a genre-spanning playlist of emerging and established artists you should know, including RuPaul, Janelle Monáe, Kim Petras & many more.
Now more than ever in the music industry, artists are out, proud and loud about being open members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Across all genres and music of different languages around the world, musicians are joyfully embracing their queer identities while creating much-needed visibility for their queer-identifying fans. As calls for LGBTQIA+ fairness and equality continue, artists throughout the world are amplifying the voices of the global LGBTQIA+ community.
In honor of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month 2022, GRAMMY.com has put together a playlist celebrating 50 artists across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum from throughout the decades and across all genres.
Among the queer icons who paved the way for representation in pop music and culture are Elton John, Queen's Freddie Mercury, and George Michael of Wham! In the '90s, drag queen superstar RuPaul took the world by storm and would soon lead a drag revolution of her own. Into the 2010s, Puerto Rican superstar Ricky Martin kicked down the proverbial closet door and led the way for more Latin and queer Latin acts to follow in his footsteps. Lady Gaga took queer culture into the stratosphere with her global Pride anthem, "Born This Way." Frank Ocean created waves through R&B and pop as a Black queer innovator with the release of his breakthrough single, "Thinkin Bout You."
The last decade has welcomed more openly LGBTQIA+ artists than ever. South Korean singer Holland has led the way for queer voices in K-pop, Kim Petras has become a pop beacon for trans representation, and Lil Nas X remains one of the biggest rappers and singers in the world today. Also, legendary musicians like Lesley Gore and Chavela Vargas opened up about their queer identities later in their lives.
As LGBTQIA+ representation continues to grow across the music industry, may more artists and music fans keep living their truths and expressing themselves openly and safely.
The Week In Music: Who Is The Fairest Of Them All?
GRAMMY ladies go head-to-head in the battle of the pretty
What are the attributes that make the perfect woman? Is it a camera-ready glow? Fashion sense? Intelligence? Sense of humor? Talent? An uncanny argumentative ability? Chances are the ladies making AskMen.com's Top 99 Women of 2012 list have all of the above, and much more. With actress/television personality Sofia Vergara topping a list containing the usual abundance of actresses, models and paparazzi favorites, current Best New Artist GRAMMY nominee Nicki Minaj led all female musicians at No. 5. Other GRAMMY nominees putting the "s" in scintillating in the top 20 include Rihanna (No. 9), Zooey Deschanel (No. 12), Katy Perry (No. 16), and Lady Gaga (No. 18). Other notables making the grade include Selena Gomez (No. 14), Beyoncé (No. 39) and even hot newcomer Lana Del Rey (No. 95). Of course, lists of this nature are always subjective. But if you're a female looking to get in on the competition, we invite you to sample some tips from our GRAMMY Glam Squad.
While Music's Biggest Night is just a week away, Indianapolis will take center stage on Feb. 5 when the New England Patriots and New York Giants battle it out in Super Bowl XLVI. While the staff at ESPN is busy crunching statistics for their exhaustive game coverage, musicians are chiming in with their official predictions. Not surprisingly, JoJo, who grew up in Foxboro, Mass., will be pulling for Tom Brady and the Patriots. "I just feel like we [will] win by default, because we have heart," said the songstress. Putting on his analyst cap, Nelly thinks the Giants defense will be too hot for the Patriots. "I think the Giants play a little bit better defense, and I just think defense wins championships in the end," he said. Theory Of A Deadman's Tyler Connolly is leaning toward the Giants, but don't quote him on it. "I guess I'll go with the Giants," said Connolly, a San Francisco 49ers fan. When it comes to the halftime entertainment, Connolly did not mince words, however. "In reality you need to think about who's actually watching the Super Bowl — it's big dudes eating nachos and drinking beer," said Connolly. "And they want to watch the commercials with the Doritos girls. … Madonna? They're not going to watch Madonna." While there are few things better than Doritos girls, we here at TWIM we'd definitely rather watch Madonna, while enjoying a side of nachos.
Speaking of the Super Bowl, following Elton John and Madonna's Golden Globes feud last month, the Rocket Man is reportedly turning over a new leaf in offering the Material Girl some advice for her upcoming halftime performance on Feb. 5. "Make sure you lip-sync good," John advised Madonna on "Good Morning America." "I've never seen a decent one. Never ever." While Super Bowl halftime shows have arguably become more about the spectacle instead of the performance, it's hard to tell if John's advice is sincere. In 2004 the tiny dancer's response to Madonna winning the Best Live Act honor at England's Q Awards was: "Madonna, best fing live act? F off. Since when has lip-syncing been live?" While much of the Super Bowl action will happen on the field this Sunday, there's no doubt there will be lots more to see between Madonna's halftime spectacular featuring LMFAO and Nicki Minaj, and John's Pepsi commercial, set to air during the big game.
While Dave Grohl has long been known for his quirky sense of humor, evidenced by videos for Foo Fighters songs such as "Big Me" (Mentos, anyone?), "Everlong," "Learn To Fly," and, most recently, the GRAMMY-nominated "Walk," the Foos frontman is taking funny to a whole new, hopefully hysterical, level. According to a report, Grohl is teaming with comedian Dana Gould to executive produce a 30-minute sitcom for FX Networks. The show will reportedly center on a rock band that is in the midst of their big break, and a breakup. The band seeks help from a therapist, who ends up being broken herself. Did we say sitcom? This sounds like the makings of a perfectly good drama to us. But whatever the show turns out to be, we're sure it'll be a hit, given Grohl's vast voiceover experience in films such as The Muppets and television series including "Daria."
Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich lost the Florida primary Tuesday to Mitt Romney by a wide margin, but that may not be the worst news he got this week. Gingrich also joined the long list of politicians who have been sued for misappropriating a pop song for a campaign without the artist's permission. On Monday, Rude Music Inc., controlled by the song's co-writer Frank Sullivan, filed suit against Gingrich for his use of Survivor's GRAMMY-winning "Eye Of The Tiger" from Rocky III. Gingrich was clearly gunning for some Rocky Balboa magic now that he appears to be the underdog again, and the anthem's other co-writer, Jim Peterik, who hasn't joined the suit, says that's okay with him. "If it motivates people to get out to the polls and create some excitement, that's what it's for," he told the Washington Post. And while Chicago-native Peterik is loyal to his native son, President Barack Obama, he concedes, "I like [Gingrich's] taste in music." Still, as Rocky himself might ask, "Yo, don't I got some rights?"
Adele's "Set Fire To The Rain" is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" is tops on the iTunes singles chart.
Any news we've missed? Comment below.
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