MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This time, we talk to Justin Tranter, who has written for/with the likes of Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony, John Legend and Justin Bieber, amongst others. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
The global lockdown in response to the coronavirus has inspired and affected millions of people in millions of ways.
Some have acquired new skills, some have reassessed their lives, some have shuffled their priorities.
For Justin Tranter, one of the most successful pop songwriters of the modern era, there may well have been some crafting, maybe a half-hearted attempt to learn Spanish, but, they reveal, mainly “it’s made me wanna burn down capitalism more than ever”.
This is not an untypical Tranter comment. They do not dance around the edges of issues, they do not flim-flam or flip-flop, and they do not hold back.
They are not, however, constantly furious – far from it. Tranter is actually having a relatively contented lockdown: “I’m fortunate and blessed, with my parents and my best friend, and we’re all healthy.”
It’s just that they want changes, changes to the economic ecosystem of streaming, sure, but more than that: changes to the profile and proliferation of LGBTQ writers, artists and execs – and changes to the balance of power between corporations and individuals.
Tranter originally knocked on the door of fame as the lead singer of pop/rock band, Semi Precious Weapons. In fact, fame reported the band for stalking at one point, so regularly did they get so far down its pathway only to be snatched back by fate, bad luck or, most commonly, being dropped/let down by their (four in total) record companies.
Thankfully, just as the group was finally falling apart, Tranter met Katie Vinten, then working in A&R at Warner/Chappell. She believed in Tranter, signed them, and set them on a course that would lead to co-writes on huge hits for acts like Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony, John Legend, Gwen Stefani and Justin Bieber, including Sorry, one of the 20 most-streamed tracks of all time on Spotify.
More recently, along with Vinten – a constant presence in their life since that pivotal meeting – Tranter launched a record label, Facet Records, in partnership with Warner Bros.
Here, Tranter talks to MBW about the standing of the LGBTQ community in the songwriting sphere, the inequities of streaming payments, inspiration, plagiarism – and, fingers crossed, the overthrow of global capitalism…
In your last interview with MBW, BACK IN JANUARY 2017, you said that “this business is shockingly homophobic and misogynistic and still somewhat racist”. That was three and a half years ago. I wonder how much you think, if at all, things have changed?
I’ll just speak for the LBGTQ community, because that’s been my journey. I do a concert every year to benefit GLAAD, and we feature performances by LGBTQ writers who have written big hits from the year. The first year it was pretty much just me – Starrah’s obviously always kicking ass, but she doesn’t like performing, so it was just me out there.
The next year it was me and Sarah Aarons, which was awesome. Then last year we had me, we had Victoria Monét (pictured) for Thank U, Next and 7 Rings by Ariana Grande, we had Jesse St John for Truth Hurts by Lizzo, we had Jozzy for Old Town Road… it really fucking grew, is what I’m trying to say.
“There is progress being made, but we need a lot more, the fight is nowhere close to done.”
I’m definitely seeing, in the song writing world, a lot more LGBTQ inclusion. Whether that means that means those people have always been there, and more of them are coming out, or that the industry is finally realising that our voices are mainstream, I don’t know.
There is progress being made, but we need a lot more, the fight is nowhere close to done.
You’ve previously spoken out quite stridently on the split of revenues from streaming services, and where songwriters sit in that. How would you assess the current situation there?
It all comes down to the shit show of capitalism and the fact that these huge corporations insist on making the money and not fairly paying songwriters.
Every songwriter is essentially their own small business, and that small business can be making a lot of money or it can be making almost no money.
“The fact that there are amazing young songwriters out there who have had cuts on Ariana Grande records and still can’t pay their rent – that’s a fucking problem.”
The fact that there are amazing young songwriters out there who have had cuts on Ariana Grande records, cuts on Jonas Brothers records, etc., and they still can’t pay their rent – that’s a fucking problem. And that’s capitalism at its worst.
That’s a system that is more concerned with big streaming companies and major record labels making huge money than it is with songwriters getting paid. It’s corporate globalisation vs independent small business.
What do you think was the most important meeting or moment in your career? Or perhaps the Sliding Doors moment where you look back and think it could all have been so different?
Oh yes, it’s very, very clear: the day I met Katie Vinten (pictured), my publisher when I was at Warner Chappell and now my business partner. You know, my band was amazing, our fans were amazing, but we just kept hitting a wall – whether that was us, or the executives in our lives not doing their jobs properly, who knows.
But the day I met Katie, she had listened to the new album the band had made, and she loved it, which led her to ask me if I had any interest in writing with and for other people while I was waiting for the record to come out.
Luckily, I said yes. My life changed in that very moment.
Why do you think that move worked for you? Why did you take to it so enthusiastically rather than see it as a consolation prize?
The idea of writing for other people was already starting to circle my world, but not as a goal, more as, like, sure, why not?
But the day I met Katie, it was put into action, and it became where I was heading. She’s just one of the hardest workers, one of the smartest people, she puts things and people together so brilliantly, she’s always just 10 steps ahead on everything.
Plus, I think I just got better. I always think it’s so funny, the internet is like, ‘Oh, how many writers on this song, bleurgh.’ We like to collaborate, so fuck you. Like, how many people did it take to make that fucking movie?
And in that process of collaborating, I learned so much, I learned what my strengths are and how I can fit in to really elevate something. There are so many different reasons why it worked; I could talk for six hours just answering that question.
Was the transition easy, to write songs knowing that you were never going to sing them?
I loved it; it was so, so freeing. It became only about making the best song possible. This is not about, ‘Do I think I can perform this?’ ‘Would I feel cool performing this?’ It’s just, ‘Let’s make the best song possible.’
I’m so grateful I spent all those years writing songs ‘for myself’, because now when I write with artists, or with a young, passionate songwriter, who really has some shit they want to get off their chest, I know that feeling, and I know how to elevate that, focus that and make them feel confident and safe enough to really dig into all those personal details.
What’s the song that has been most important to your career?
I guess it would be my first hit, which was Fall Out Boy’s Centuries [US Top 10, 2014]. From there, Katie was able to get me into more rooms and bigger rooms, meet more people, blah blah blah.
Also, it was a time when the band [Semi Precious Weapons], not the band members, but the team around us, everything was getting really dark and tumultuous and scary, and so we were subconsciously saying to each other, ‘This probably isn’t working.’
So, having that hit meant I was able to say, ‘Okay, I need to focus on this now.’
Did you need that hit to convince yourself you could do this?
No, I was [pause] pretty sure [laughs].
To succeed in a business that doesn’t really want anyone to succeed, you have to be quite confident. Because although this is a creative, amazing business, that has saved a lot of lives through the joy that music brings, at its heart it’s competitive and cutthroat.
Can you tell us about how you write?
It’s different every single day. It depends who I’m writing with and what the goal is. If the artist is in the room it has to be all about their story and what they’re feeling. I want them to feel like the song is theirs, and that they can own it. I want them, every time they sing it, to know it’s their song and could only ever have been their song.
I started doing this hardcore at 33 years old, and I had had my band, where I got to say and sing and wear and do exactly what I wanted every single day, and so I was able to come into this and say, ‘This is not about me.’
What inspires you? Or do you even need inspiration, can you almost will a song into existence, because it’s needed?
It’s a bit of both. Sometimes it’s something I’m reading, sometimes it’s something a friend has said. A lot of times, actually, it’s something that somebody says at the beginning of a session. It might be while I’m catching up with someone, or getting to know someone I haven’t worked with before, they’ll say something and I’m like, That’s the fucking title right there, that’s the song.
The most important thing for me is I have to know what we’re talking about, it doesn’t have to be the title, but I need to know the main emotion, the main theme lyrically. Lyrics are my favourite part, and if I don’t know what the fuck we’re talking about, I can’t really help.
Do you think the number of co-writes these days is partly about a fairer reflection of what songwriting is versus ‘the old days’?
I think it’s definitely fairer. Whether you’re a producer or an instrumentalist, if you’re writing parts, musical parts that become the DNA of a song, you know…
I’m not going to say who, but one of my favourite artists of all time, I came to learn that they were writing amazing lyrics and melody, but part of their sound is these unbelievable guitar riffs and guitar melodies, and the guitarist who came up with them never got any publishing, never got any credits. And so, to me, we are definitely getting closer to fair.
“There are times when a song is completely done and a producer is asked to give it a finishing touch, a different producer from the original one, and all of a sudden they ask for a publishing split.”
But, as with any situation, there are moments where people take advantage. There are times when a song is completely done and a producer is asked to give it a finishing touch, a different producer from the original one, and all of a sudden they ask for a publishing split. Well, to me that’s a little crazy, because they didn’t write the fucking song.
But, those are few and far between, and in the most part things are much closer to where they should be.
You mentioned splits, how does that work in practice, in terms of who decides whose contribution is worth what percentage of the overall song? Can that get contentious?
For the most part, in my world, whoever’s in the room for the first session, that’s equal splits for everybody. And then if other writers are brought in to tweak the pre-chorus, or another producer is brought in to amp up the drums, then they’re given smaller percentages that everyone figures out.
That’s how my circle does it. And yes, it can get contentious, but for the most part it’s cool.
What do you make of the high-profile plagiarism cases that we’ve seen recently, like the Katy Perry one and the Lizzo one, is that something that worries you?
In some ways it’s depressing, because it’s definitely making people second guess a lot in sessions. Like, ‘Oh fuck, does this maybe sound a bit like that?’ But I mean: there’s only 12 fucking notes, right?
For me, I try and not overthink when I first start writing, just let it happen, let the creativity flow, and if something accidentally, subliminally got too close to something, let’s deal with it later. Right now, let’s enjoy the magic, and not worry about lawsuits while we’re trying to make art.
But yeah, it is crazy, and I’ve seen labels now hiring musicologists for every single song they’re going to release.
“I’ve seen labels now hiring musicologists for every single song they’re going to release.”
In my personal experience, there was this song I did with Bebe Rexha, called I’m A Mess, which I love, and we realised months later, due to a couple of people mentioning it, that the chorus, not meaning to at all, was somewhat similar in concept and rhythm to an amazing song by Meredith Brooks and Shelly Peiken called I’m A Bitch.
And we were like, Okay, yeah, that is kinda close, it was not intentional, and we had no idea if a musicologist would agree or not, but we reached out anyway, to the original songwriters, cleared it with them and offered them a piece of the publishing before anything went down.
And that’s all good – these brilliant women who wrote this brilliant song, yeah, let’s be cool about this let’s bring ‘em in; no weirdness, no drama. That felt good.
Can you tell us why you founded Facet Records and what you hope to achieve with it?
Mine and Katie’s working relationship and friendship was just so strong and so inspiring, we thought why not expand what we’re doing, and instead of just making my dreams come true, why don’t we try and make some other people’s dreams come true?
It’s also true that while I don’t miss being in a band and I don’t miss performing, I do miss being a part of all the other amazing creative conversations that go into the other part of the process.
[Songwriters] write the songs, and then after the song is done, we’re not a part of any further conversations, which is totally fine; I don’t think we should be. But I did miss that part: What should the video be? What do the photos look like? What should be the first single? What will your live show be like? I want that creative excitement, and we get that with Facet.
Does any of this mean you’ll be writing less yourself?
I definitely want to focus my writing more. I’ve spent six or seven years saying yes to everything and running into every room, all over the place.
I want to get more focused – and I do want to be creatively invested in what we do at Facet.
Not all artists we sign have to write with me [laughs], but I am going to write with them, I am writing with them, and that’s really fun, because we really get to do this together.
What’s the single most positive and exciting thing about the music industry right now?
I just love the superstars that have emerged in the last couple of years. We have people with these different perspectives really getting the shine, which is hard to do in a playlist culture.
Everything is about which playlist can you get on, how long can you stay on a playlist, and I feel like that leads to a lot of very neutral songs and neutral artists. But going against that we have Cardi B, we have Lizzo, we have Billie Eilish, we have Lil Nas X, people with huge personalities and very clear perspectives, fucking kicking down the doors or the industry. I love that.
And if we could give you a magic wand to fix one thing in the industry, what would that be?
I mean, just the sort of capitalistic greed that drives averageness. Actually, not averageness – safeness.
“I would love to wave a magic wand and have the corporate greed that drives safe choices be over.”
I would love to wave a magic wand and have the corporate greed that drives safe choices be over. And also, of course, the racism, misogyny and homophobia that exists in all aspects of life, which includes the music business. I would love for that to be gone.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
Work harder than anybody else for as long as you possibly can. Be nice. Listen. But put your foot down when you really, really, really know that you’re right.
Who are your favourite songwriters of all time?
Okay, I could list all the amazing pop songwriters, who are great, but I will go with the songwriters that mean the most to me and who I listen to the most, and they would be Ani DiFranco, Patty Larkin and Patty Griffin.
What are you currently working on and how are you working on it?
There’s a lot of stuff I can’t talk about, but there are a couple of TV projects I’m working on as the driving musical force. And the Bebe Rexha album I’m super super involved in, and has been such a joy.
We’re pretty close to done, and her and I are able to tweak lyrics, listen to tracks on Zoom and work stuff out, so we’re able to keep moving forward on that.
AMRA is the first of its kind — a global digital music collection society, built on technology and trust. AMRA is designed to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in today’s digital age, while providing the highest level of transparency and efficiency.Music Business Worldwide