By Rob LeDonne
One of the most successful and prolific songwriters in modern pop, Justin Tranter has worked with a litany of the most important names in the genre today. Zig-zagging between helping bring to life confessional tracks from Halsey and Ariana Grande, pop confections from Justin Bieber, and the irreverent cuts from Cardi B, Tranter has constructed a chart-topping career on a crucial bedrock: a type of songwriting therapy session where he uses the deepest part of an artist's emotions to craft relatable smashes. "That's my approach to everything: Let's talk and find out what the truth is," Tranter told MTV News. "And the more specific we can be in our work and our lyrics, the more universal it becomes."
Tranter got his start as a member of the band Semi Precious Weapons before trading the microphone for a pencil, parlaying his talent into behind-the-scenes songwriting success. His interest in the human side of the industry is now extending into other endeavors. In an effort to discover and foster fresh acts, he recently launched his own record label and publishing company called Facet, with an overarching goal to empower artists. In addition, Tranter is busy with philanthropic efforts, including his annual GLAAD fundraiser timed to the organization's anti-bullying initiative dubbed Spirit Day. (This year's festivities kick off October 16 in Los Angeles.)
In celebration of the launch of Facet and his latest cut, the King Princess rock ballad "Ain't Together," Tranter took MTV News into the heart of some of his most notable hits.
King Princess: "Ain’t Together" (2019)
The context: Crafted for the singer-songwriter's upcoming album Cheap Queen (out October 25), Tranter and the 20-year-old crooner first connected shortly after her piano-driven breakout, "1950," became a viral hit. "I was shown the video after it had been out for about four days and was like, 'Oh my God. Who the fuck is this?'" Tranter said. "You could tell off the bat what a musician and songwriter she is, and she's obviously proudly queer, which is important to my whole life as well."
The heart: The song, concerning the ruminations of being in an undefined relationship, was crafted a week later. "I don't want to speak for her or her personal life, but I think it's pretty fair to say that that is what she was going through at the time," Tranter said. "I said, ‘Well, that has to be the song.'" Oddly enough, much of the discussion about the lyrics took place on a pickup truck outside the studio. "We needed some fresh air, and if an artist is talking about something that's super personal, I'll suggest to change environments. Plus, a lot of studios are dark and weird because people think that's what musicians want."
Ariana Grande: "Fake Smile" (2019)
The context: How does one collaborate with a superstar whose personal life is regular tabloid fodder? "When everything about a singer is out there, it doesn't make it easier or harder," Tranter said of working with Grande. Crafted in New York City during a "just fucking cool and inspiring" experience, "Fake Smile" and its subject matter came out of a conversation on the last night of a week-long session. "It was just one of those things when the song fell out. Ari's a legitimate co-writer on the song, and at one point she said, 'Stop playing, I'm getting in the booth right now. And boom! She sits down and recorded the vocals herself, which I've never seen a singer ever do."
The heart: Tranter harkens back to translating the specific emotion to a universal feeling. "We wanted to address the pressures of being a public person, but I think we handled it in a very relatable way," he said of the irony. "At some point, everyone is like, 'Fuck this fake smile,' whether it's at work or at a Christmas party or with your best friend's new boyfriend. I think we got specific enough that it became universal in its specificity."
Cardi B: "Thru Your Phone" (2018)
The context: "This one is 100 percent based on personal experience," Tranter said of the biting cut from Cardi's debut album Invasion of Privacy. "The last serious relationship I had, many years ago, when it was close to the end, I went through his phone when he was in the shower and found what I knew I was going to find: He was cheating."
The heart: Built on that painful experience, Tranter and co-writers Andrew Watt, Benny Blanco, and Ali Tamposi, penned the track's pre-chorus and chorus. "Then the verses were left open and Cardi did her thing on them," he said. The song actually breaks an unwritten rule of Tranter's: It alludes to modern technology in his lyrics. "The word 'text' will be in a song, or whatever it is, and it will make me cringe a bit. This is a little more modern in terms of the reference, but it feels super honest and real, so I think we got away with it."
Janelle Monáe: "Make Me Feel" (2018)
The context: This cut from Monáe's acclaimed third studio album, Dirty Computer, lyrically took on a life of its own. "When we were writing it and me and [co-writer] Julia Michaels referenced 'sexual bender,' we weren't thinking of it as gender-bending or bisexuality, but rather a sexual or drinking bender," he said. Lo and behold, when the video came out, Tranter was pleasantly surprised that the phrasing took on a whole new meaning. "The video has bisexual storylines, and turned into something we were not even thinking of."
The heart: Tranter gives full credit to Monáe, whom he calls "an artist's artist," for the interpretation. "That's when you're a fucking artist like Janelle Monáe: when your cowriters aren't even thinking of something and you turn it into an important statement in [the guise of] a party song."
Halsey: "Bad at Love" (2017)
The context: When it comes to this anti-romance pop ballad, which hit No. 1 on the Dance Charts in 2018, Tranter calls back to songwriting as therapy where "you try to create the safest and most confident space to be in." The result was this heartfelt ear worm on which Tranter helped Halsey pen the chorus and pre-chorus; Halsey handled the verses.
The heart: "This is another one I see myself in," he said. "In my twenties, I was so fucking bad at love. I probably still am, which is why I married myself. It makes for a much easier relationship." The track also utilizes both male and female pronouns, making it a low-key bisexual anthem. "I don’t know if there's another song like it, with male and female pronouns, to reach No. 2 on radio."
Justin Bieber: "Sorry" (2015)
The context: According to Tranter, his "whole fucking life motto is forgive and finesse, because forgive and forget is bullshit." Thus, "Sorry," the Bieber smash that became one of the most ubiquitous songs of 2015, was born. "The goal was to 100 percent tell a piece of Bieber's story he felt needed to be told," Tranter, who co-wrote the track with Michaels, said.
The heart: "That song is saying, 'We both fucked up and I need to say sorry too.'" One of the biggest songs of both Bieber and Tranter's careers, "Sorry" is a prime example of a hit he couldn't get away from if he tried. "If pop radio is on in a Lyft, I'll hear one of my songs, which can be super fun, because I'm sitting in the back of a car and the driver is singing a song I co-wrote and they have no idea," he explained. "It's a very weird thing when it's your work; you have to listen to it. If the song comes on and I'm alone, it feels amazing."
DNCE: "Cake by the Ocean" (2015)
The context: No, this isn't an anthem about cake. "It's about eating ass," Tranter said with a laugh. "Cake is slang for ass." Written for Joe Jonas's funky side-project DNCE, the track came about after Tranter had two thoughts after writing with the Jonas Brother. "I was thinking, this guy is really fun and really hot, so I knew we needed to write a song that was fun and sexy. On that day, in that moment, that was me trying to get him to that truth." The result turned into a Top 10 hit in 2016, despite its tawdry subject matter.
The heart: "We aren't writing these songs for ourselves, or else we would never release them," Tranter said. "The goal is that everyone hears these stories or metaphors, makes it their own, and decides what it means for them." So whether a listener thinks the song is about sex or eating literal cake, that's up to them to decide. It's probably why the song was later recorded by, um, Kidz Bop. "And it's one of their highest earners!"