Hitmaker Justin Tranter on LGBTQ Advocacy, Allyship: ‘Without Marginalized People, Music Is Gonna Get Really Bad’

·14-min read

Whether or not you know Justin Tranter the person, if you’ve been near a radio in the past 10 years, you know Justin Tranter the songwriter, who’s had a hand in hits like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean,” Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me,” Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” Halsey’s “Bad at Love” and dozens more. The former lead singer of Semi Precious Weapons, Tranter (pronouns: they/their) also founded and runs Facet Records and Music Publishing, which launched late in 2018.

Yet music is just half of the story: They are also a prominent and outspoken advocate for arts education, animal rights, ending gun violence, songwriters’ rights and perhaps most of all, the LGBTQ community. Tranter has been honored by the ACLU and is a board member of GLAAD, and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the organization every year. There’s lots more to tell, but they talk all about it in the expansive interview below.

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The former lead singer of the theatrical hard-rock group Semi Precious Weapons — which released three albums and was the opening act on Lady Gaga’s 2009-2011 “Monster Ball” tour — Tranter, 40, carved out an hour before a songwriting session to speak with Variety last month about advocacy, music, their label, and .

You’re a loud advocate for many causes — LGBTQ causes, songwriters’ rights, animal rights and many more. Even in high school, you established an annual AIDS benefit at Chicago Academy of the Arts, and later founded a scholarship fund for LGBTQ youth while attending Berklee School of Music. Have you always advocated for what you believe in?

Since I was young, I always sort of had this fearlessness of doing what’s right, and I can’t take credit for it because I honestly think I was just born with it. Even when I was being bullied as a kid, I always knew those people were wrong, and I couldn’t always stand up to them but it never damaged me internally that much. Of course there are still scars, but I always knew those people were wrong and one day they were gonna regret it — and even if they don’t they’re probably living a much more unhappy life than I am (laughing).

Is there a history of advocacy in your family?

Yes, my dad is like the ultimate community builder, without really being aware of that term. He’s a tennis coach and that world can be very stuffy and elitist, so on days when he wasn’t working he’d be coaching kids for free and things like that. And both of my parents were never afraid to tell people to fuck off if they’re wrong. I’d rather maybe guide them to what maybe could be right, which is also something I learned from my parents.

How do you engage with someone who has views that are very antithetical to your own?

As a very femme queer person, I never had “passing privilege” — passing as straight — so as a survival technique I had to develop ways to walk people through hard conversations and try to bring humanity to everything. I had to explain to a close family friend who voted for Trump in 2016 why people were so upset, and speaking in broad terms wasn’t working, so I had to make it personal: “You’ve known me since I was born, let me tell you why I’m so scared about a Trump presidency.” I speak my mind and try to hold humanity to higher standards while still being loving, and I know I lose opportunities because of it, but my life is pretty fierce and I sleep better because of it.

And I had a conversation the other day with producers who truly did not think there is misogyny in the music business. I was trying to very calmly point out all the research that was done a couple of years ago after the great Grammys [“Step Up”] mishap, and point out the fact that we were in a room of four creative people with one woman and three men — even though I identify as non-binary, I am very aware that I get a lot of privilege because most people view me as a cis-gendered man. And again, bring it to the personal: We have to acknowledge this misogyny because 75% of the room is male! To be honest, I know there are sessions I don’t get invited back to (laughing) because I speak my mind and try to hold humanity to higher standards while still being loving, but my life is pretty fierce and I sleep better because of it.

Do you ever wish you hadn’t lost those opportunities?

No, because they were saying dumb shit and I don’t want to hang out with those people! (laughing) Seriously though, as creative people we’ve been so beaten down for so long that we’re afraid everything’s going to end at any moment. It took me awhile to be like, “It’s okay if I’m not invited back.”

What are your main advocacy projects at the moment?

I am on GLAAD’s national board of directors and I take it very, very seriously. Just last night — because I’ve been so busy I just got around to watching the Elliott Page-Oprah interview, and Oprah mentioned GLAAD and specifically Nick Adams, who is the head of trans relations, like 12 times in the interview —Oprah Winfrey, the most gifted interviewer of our time, is relying on this organization to make sure she gets this interview right. I don’t work there so I can’t take any credit for it, but I was beaming with pride.

You kind of do — your Spirit Night concert raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for GLAAD every year.

Right! We do Spirit Day every October, so the night before I do a big concert that has gotten bigger and bigger every year — we normally raise around $400,000 and this year I’m aiming for $500,000. We highlight openly LGBTQ songwriters who have had hits that year and have them perform them, and other people perform those hits if they don’t want to get onstage. We always have a couple of amazing special guest celebrities: Courtney Love, Idina Menzel, Imagine Dragons, Bebe Rexha, Hailee Steinfeld, but we always keep the celebrities secret because I want it to be about community and GLAAD and uplifting all of the unbelievable LBGTQ songwriters in this business. It’s my favorite night of the year — leading up to it is shockingly stressful, but once we hit the stage it’s pure joy.

Are there specific causes within that you’d like to highlight?

Yes — the number of trans women of color who have been murdered is truly alarming. We’re supposed be the land of the free, and these women are being murdered for merely existing. That needs to be a top priority. When it comes to entertainment I would love to see a lot more young LGBTQ stories on TV, specifically where the characters are the leads, not somebody’s funny best friend or the character who gets two lines. We need them front and center because that representation is so important and Hollywood really does change hearts and minds — and by that, I mean film, TV and music — specifically with the trans youth.

And on a local level, you can be calling your representatives to be sure that these horrible bills attacking trans people, especially trans youth, do not go through. They’re trying to make it so that trans youth can’t get the health care that they need and can’t play on sports teams, so they can be gender-affirmed and live their truth. The more representation we have, the more humanized these very marginalized communities become.

How can people outside the LGBTQ community best be allies?

Listening and learning is always important — I don’t want to hear anyone’s opinion on how the LGBTQ movement should be handling itself unless they’re LGBTQ. You would not believe some of the conversations I’ve had: “What if you guys blah blah blah,” and it’s like, do you really think the brilliant leaders of our movement haven’t thought of that? (laughing) Also, if you have financial privilege, you’d better be paying it forward — and if you are a white, straight person who is making money from music, you’d better be donating money to LGBTQ causes and Black Lives Matter and others that help marginalized people, because without marginalized people, music is gonna get really bad, really quick.

Let’s talk about music. When did you fall in love with music, and when did it become obvious that you were talented?

I saw the movie “Annie” when I was 5 years old and I just wanted to be her so badly — I wanted to sing her songs, I wanted to have her dog, I was just obsessed. Then “The Little Mermaid” came out and the song “A Part of Your World” just ruined me, in all the right ways. Looking back, it has everything I love about songs: It’s so specific to Ariel’s journey and yet such a universal message about being an outsider and having a bigger dream and wanting to get there — very specific and personal, but that specificity leads to a bigger feeling.

I wanted to start exploring music, and my family finally found a theater camp at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, which was pure, life-changing magic. I thought I was going to be the biggest Broadway star in the world but quickly realized I hated pretending to be anyone besides myself, so started writing songs there. So “Annie,” Ariel, and the Academy… oh my God, I just realized: It was all red-haired women who changed my life! Annie, Ariel, and Marie Cinquemani, who was the head of the music department at the Academy. She walked in on me playing a song I had written one day and said, “What is that?” I said just a song I’m playing around with, and in a blunt, tough-love way she said, “You’re much better at that than you are at musical theater. I think we should talk about you writing songs.”

So much of songwriting is about people’s stories and experiences and feelings. Do you use any psychology or anything to bring that out?

No, it’s not that twisted (laughs). I like to talk — as you can tell — so a lot of it’s just talking, figuring out what they’re thinking and feeling. I normally prefer to take a little time, but one of my favorite stories is, I was so excited to work with Leon Bridges. [Producer/songwriter Ricky Reed was doing the album with him, and he texted me one morning: “Is there any way you can come in today?” I had a session at 2 that I couldn’t move, but I came in at 11:30 and said, “We don’t have much time, so let’s cut to the chase: Are you in love?” He said “Um, no, but I just met somebody and I think I might be going there.” So we wrote the song “Beyond” — “You might just be my everything, and beyond.” One question, and there was the song. Normally, you get to know each other and beat around the bush before you get to the hard questions, but sometimes you’ve just gotta go for the jugular.

Did you enjoy being an artist, as frontman of Semi Precious Weapons?

I fucking loved it, I loved being on stage, it’s so fun. I loved being a part of the visual side of things — my band’s merchandise was these necklaces that I made in my apartment and they blew up and ended up being sold in Barneys in a gold and diamond version and Urban Outfitters all over the world. So I loved all of that but I had no desire to make an album or go on tour again, and that’s why I love having a label so much, because I get to be a part of those conversations again. I want the artists to lead the way, but I’m there to support and elevate and focus all of it — if they want me to help.

As a label head and publisher, your experience as an artist and songwriter is probably an asset?

Definitely, because if an artist really wants to change a lyric because they can’t imagine themselves singing that line onstage for the rest of their lives, I understand how serious that is, and I understand record company pressure. I think I’m one of the best people to lead those hard conversations, because I’ve been through it.

But aren’t you in the record company’s position now?

Yes, because I think I’m good at knowing when that hard conversation needs to be had. Save them for when you’re really going for it — if we’re not talking about a big single being pushed to radio, why bring that fear into their lives? I have an amazing staff, but I am now the only boss for Facet Publishing and Records and I have found this new passion for it, and I feel like we’re about to have a couple of very bright months and years ahead.

Co-founder Katie Vinten isn’t involved anymore?

We are still great friends — that woman changed my entire life and I will be endlessly grateful to her for that. She was the only person who believed there was life after Semi Precious Weapons — we were signed to Warner Chappell [Publishing], and when the guy who signed the band left, Katie was brought in to take his spot, and we just hit it off from day one. I will always be grateful and celebrate her, but when it comes to Facet Records and Publishing, it is me all by my glamorous lonesome.

What’s coming up on the label?

Shea [Diamond] has a new single coming out called “Smile,” it’s the best song she’s ever done, pure joy but still acknowledging some of the insane bullshit she’s been through — also some huge synchs that I can’t announce yet. Then Jake Wesley Rogers, whose major label debut single just came out, like Elton John 2025 with Harry Styles and Florence and the Machine — just this huge vocal, insane songwriting talent and a fashion sense that will blow up TV screens. Sean Wasabi DJ-producer extraordinaire, one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with, the coolest sound choices but comes from a classical piano background, so lots of true musicality — new song coming in July. And we have Edie, fierce young Australian-Filipino multi-instrumentalist and sings her ass off and has a lot to say.

You were announced as the executive producer of Britney Spears’ next album, but that’s not happening?

I think Britney’s comment on Instagram the other day summed it up, when she asked everyone to please stop talking about her life for her. It’s not my story to tell.

You’ve spoken in support of the Pact, a songwriters’ advocacy group launched earlier this year. Do you think it’s necessary?

It’s necessary and it’s already working — I’ve had conversations with almost every big manager, or someone else in the Pact has, and people are waking up and saying “Yes, you’re right, we can do better and there can be a fair and meaningful trade of publishing.” The Pact is necessary because creating a community will allow up-and-coming writers be less afraid to ask for what they’re worth and not be taken advantage of. I think it’s already a success story — for me personally, I feel more confident saying no to all sorts of things. So if the songwriters are not a part of the conversation, there is no way for us to be respected.

Talking about a different kind of advocacy, counterintuitively, songwriters are at the bottom of the totem pole. What can be done to change that?

Simple things — like if you are an executive or artist or manager, you can keep songwriters up to date on what is going on with their songs. You wouldn’t believe the number of songs that came out before I’d heard them., or an artist cut the song and decided not to use it and no one told us for a year, so a song that could have been making money somewhere else, for people who need the money, sat for a year — and if that song was trend-related song, that trend might be gone. Once the song is written, we are removed from the conversation, so it’s about communication: treat the songwriter with the same respect you treat artists and producers.

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