Hitmaker Justin Tranter on Writing for Fall Out Boy, Kelly Clarkson and Fifth Harmony


Hitmaker Justin Tranter on Writing for Fall Out Boy, Kelly Clarkson and Fifth Harmony


Photos courtesy John Kolic

Justin Tranter first made a name for himself as the towering, peroxide blonde frontman of NYC punk outfit Semi Precious Weapons. “I can’t pay my rent, but I’m fucking gorgeous,” Tranter wailed on the 2010 self-titled single, “Semi Precious Weapons,” showing early signs of his incredible ability to craft a provocative lyric with glamorous, tongue-in-cheek subtleties. He’s spent the past decade hanging from basement bar ceilings, performing on cramped stages that smell like piss; he’s embarked on global tours opening for longtime friend Lady Gaga, revving up crowds with more than 10,000 Little Monsters. Now, he’s relocated to Los Angeles for a new chapter of his dynamic musical career—one that’s centered on writing tomorrow’s hits for pop’s biggest players.

We caught up with Tranter to talk about co-writing Fall Out Boy’s platinum hit, “Centuries,” Fifth Harmony’s Reflection standout, “Like Mariah,” and Kelly Clarkson’s just-released track, “Nostalgic.”

On stumbling into songwriting:

“Semi Precious Weapons kept getting stuck in really unfortunate label situations—we finally got Aviation out, but that took four years. Before Aviation was released, about two years ago, I met this fabulous woman Katie Vinten, who was new to my publishing company Warner Chappell when they were hiring new, amazing talent. Katie listened to Aviation and was like, ‘So what’s happening?’ At that point, we didn’t really know if the album was ever coming out, which was pretty heartbreaking and shitty. She was like, ‘Have you ever wanted to write for other people?’ I was like, ‘Please, please, please.’ So she just started putting me in sessions and sending me tracks. I started writing every single day with different producers, artists and writers—sort of finding the people that I love to collaborate with. For the first time in my life, this is the first thing that’s happening naturally. Making music has always come naturally to me, but never the business side—my songwriting career is the first thing that just happened.”

On his musical journey:

“I went to college for songwriting and moved to New York when I graduated. I released two solo albums into the world, which are probably somewhere on eBay. They’re these very dramatic, politically queer solo projects. Then, I found my way into Semi Precious Weapons, which is obviously a very retro, glam New York City punk vibe and now I’m a pop songwriter. They’re all three extremely different, but I think they all inform each other. It definitely helps, in terms of business, that if artists are about to do a session with me, they can Google me and see me half naked making out with Lady Gaga to an audience of 10,000 people. Most songwriters in L.A. haven’t spent six years of their lives wearing six-inch heels and making out with pop stars. I think my past has definitely informed everything I do now—it’s a great story and a great history for me to have. It’s lent me a bit of credibility that I’m happy to use.”

On co-writing “Run” for Nicole Scherzinger:

“I went into a session with two very dear friends of mine: Felix Snow, a producer, and Julia Michaels, a songwriter. We met in songwriting sessions and became immediate friends. Julia had the main idea for this song, which I guess she brought into other songwriting sessions and people were like, ‘I don’t really get it.’ I was lucky enough to say, ‘I get it.’ For Julia, she was writing ‘Run’ as a warning to the people that date her and I was saying it from my point of view, trying to tell myself to stop dating all these asshole boys. ‘You know they’re assholes, so why do you keep doing it?’ In a very brave, artistic moment, Julia was saying, ‘I’m an asshole—run away from me.’ It was this amazing thing where we wrote together, but both came at the lyrics from different sides of the equation.”

On co-writing “Like Mariah” for Fifth Harmony:

“I worked with Raja Kumari, an amazing songwriter and melody goddess, and J.R. Rotem, an amazing producer who’s had an obscene amount of hits in his life. J.R. had this track with a Mariah sample from ‘Always Be My Baby.’ We were like, ‘We have to acknowledge the sample—it’s too famous to just ignore that it’s Mariah Carey.’ We couldn’t write a song about the beach with Mariah Carey singing, ‘Do do do do,’ in the background, so I was like, ‘Let’s fucking make a song called “Like Mariah” and we won’t be talking about Mariah herself, but we’ll be saying, “My man kisses me so good—touches me so good that I’m singing like Mariah.”’ We wrote it at like 7 pm and were done by 9:30—one of those really magical, super quick sessions. I love how the track is so minimal and I love how the girls’ vocals fucking destroy. Their album Reflection has a ton of pop heavyweights on it, so I’m happy to be included in the company of such amazing songwriters.”

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On co-writing “Nostalgia” for Kelly Clarkson:

“That song came from the first day I met these guys Ryland Blackinton, Dan Keyes and Vaughn Oliver. They’re all signed to this super cool publishing/management company called, ‘Pulse,’ in Silver Lake, which is like the Brooklyn of Los Angeles. I had an idea for a song called, ‘Nostalgic,” with the main lyric, ‘Even though we lost it, I still get nostalgic.’ Dan and I were both going through the same thing emotionally in our relationships at the time, so we both really dug into details with the song. Some of the lyrical details are so obviously his and others are mine. I sang the demo for that song, and as a singer, I’m a massive fan of Kelly’s voice. When we heard that she was going to do it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, Kelly Clarkson is listening to me sing right now—this is so fucking weird.’ When I heard the final version with her singing it, I was so overwhelmed after having listened to my demo for over a year and then going to New York, where I used to live, and hearing Kelly’s version in the RCA offices. I was a total loser—I started crying in this meeting with all these executives. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is my life, I’m so happy.’”

On co-writing “Centuries” for Fall Out Boy:

“The song is about to go double platinum, which is fucking sick. I also did ‘Centuries’ with J.R. Rotem and Raja Kumari. When I went into a session with them, J.R. started playing the instrumental to write over and as a big fan of all folk music, especially female ’90s folk, I was like, ‘I am writing over that fucking track right now.’ I had the idea for the main lyric, ‘You will remember me for centuries,’ and we wrote the chorus and post-chorus. In our minds, ‘Centuries’ was going to be for a rapper to rap the verses and have a female singer sing an epic chorus. Raja cut the vocal and couple days later we heard that Fall Out Boy wanted to do it. I’m a huge fan of that band and I’m a huge fan of Patrick’s voice. They got on the song and they wrote shit out of the verses and the bridge, and they played guitars amazingly all over it. When it came back, it was better than we all could’ve dreamed up. Being from Chicago and coming from a rock band, I’m really proud to have ‘Centuries’ be my first big song.”

On his perspective:

“I think I naturally bring a dramatic, anthemic and queer perspective to the pop songwriting world. Queer in the sense of colorful, at times queeny lyrics, but also in the sense of being the ultimate underdog. We are the champions—you will remember me for centuries. My favorite part of a song is the title—the main concept. I love thinking of a great title and working with my co-writers to create the perfect story and melodies around it.”

On Los Angeles’ songwriting scene:

“People may not realize that the pop music community in L.A. feels like a real community. Obviously I’m not going to try and compare it to New York’s punk scene or Seattle’s grunge scene, but I think there definitely is a real community here. I know most of the people out here who’re writing or producing songs. We all talk, we all hang out and we all show up to the same parties. It’s a real scene of people who’re making really cool music that can still reach the mainstream.”

On moving from New York to Los Angeles:

“Location affects everything drastically. The weather so much better in L.A. and everything is so much more spread out—there’s a lot of greenery. Even in this horrible drought, everything is so fucking green compared to New York. I think this environment definitely changed the way I write. Even though a lot of the Semi Precious Weapons stuff was funny, there was a lot of bitchy darkness behind it—a cynical nature. Now, I’m still writing bitchy songs, but with a smile. Also when I was young, my favorite songs were huge fucking anthems and now in L.A., where everything is so vast, I’ve found myself writing a shit ton of anthems, which I’m really happy about.”

On his dream collaborations:

“I would obviously be thrilled to work with Kanye West, Miranda Lambert and really anyone in country music. Folk and country are my heart—it’s all I’ve listened to in life, starting with Ani DiFranco in the ’90s. She kind of kicked off my musical palette. If I could write with anyone in Nashville, I’d be beyond thrilled. Country is my thing—my dark secret.”

On the future of Semi Precious Weapons:

“We found ourselves in more music business issues, so everyone is happily focusing on other things. The whole band together is working with the amazing Rich White Ladies and they have an EP coming out soon. I wrote a DJ Cassidy song with the guys; I wrote a song for The Knox with the guys. We’re all making music everyday, but we’re just taking a break from the fight of being an artist. There’s so much logistical drama that goes into being an artist that takes away from the beauty of making music. We’re on a ‘Semi Permanent Hiatus’ of trying to be an artist, just to go back to the beauty of making music again.”