As Me with Sinéad — 17: Justin Tranter
As Me with Sinéad 17: Justin Tranter transcript
[00:58] Sinéad Burke: Hello. Welcome to As Me with Sinéad. I am just back home from a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles. I got to do some really incredible things, from spending time with friends who are living in L.A., convincing me to move to sunnier coasts, to recording an episode of Kelly Clarkson Show, which will be available to view very soon. I was a little bit nervous, but only hope that if you get a chance to watch it, you really can’t tell. But it was a wonderful experience. And Los Angeles is actually the place where I first met this week’s guest, at least in person. You see, when I was in my early 20s, I had a blog. It was predominately about fashion, but I was interested in people, too. And through that blog, I interviewed one of the people I was besotted by and curious about. They were the lead singer for a band called Semi Precious Weapons. And I saw them storm the stage in Dublin in six-inch heels, and in just a T-shirt. I interviewed Justin Tranter for my blog. And back then I had no idea that some years later I’d be sitting in front of them in a studio in Los Angeles talking to them for my very own podcast. I felt changed after this conversation, and I’m so excited for you to hear it. Also, you might not be overly familiar with Justin Tranter’s name, I don’t doubt that every song that you’ve listened to in the past three to five years and loved, Justin’s name is attached to it. I love particularly the ways in which Justin has forged an identity not only for themselves, but also while creating and telling other stories through songs.
[02:36] Justin Tranter: I realize this crazy power in not making everything about yourself. Because as a songwriter who’s writing songs for and with other people, it’s not about you. Other songwriters do different things, but for me, I approach it as I want to try to get to somebody’s truth as quickly as possible. And I want to create a space that is safe enough and give them confidence to tell that truth. And that truth can be told in so many different ways.
[03:03] Sinéad Burke: Are you ready? Let’s go!
[03:09] Welcome to As Me with Sinéad. On today’s episode, I am sitting across from somebody who I have admired since I was a teenager. And I’m going to tell you the story of how we were introduced — despite this being the first time that we’ve met — in a while. I am sitting across from the person who possibly every song that has been an earworm for you listening to this over the past five years is this man’s craft and responsibility. It is the extraordinary songwriter Justin Tranter. Just, thank you so much.
[03:39] Justin Tranter: Thank you for having me. I’m so honored to be here.
[03:42] Sinéad Burke: It’s such a treat. It really is. And the first question that I like to ask in this show is how do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
[03:51] Justin Tranter: How do I describe myself personally and professionally? Personally, I am a great friend, or try to be. I try to be a great sibling, try to be a great child. I identify as queer and gender nonconforming, as you know, because the first time you came across my path, I was looking much different than this. And then professionally, I identify as a songwriter and an activist.
[04:14] Sinéad Burke: And speaking of the first time I came across your path, that was Dublin 2010?
[04:18] Justin Tranter: I’m guessing it was Dublin 2010.
[04:20] Sinéad Burke: And I was in the 3Arena to see Lady Gaga. And this band I’d never heard of called Semi Precious Weapons were introduced. And I think being a warm-up act is always quite tricky. And coming to Europe where you’re not known. But you came out in spectacular knee-length gold boots, with like a vest and fishnets on. And I came away from that concert enjoying Gaga — we love you, Gaga — but singing like “put a diamond in it, put a diamond in it, put a diamond in it and bite down.” And I remember, you know, for weeks afterwards, friends I went to school singing and were like, “what are you singing?” This is a really long story — but it was just feeling seen in a way that your confidence onstage, you were wholly yourself.
[05:08] Justin Tranter: Thank you.
[05:10] Sinéad Burke: And Dublin has come a huge way since 2010, from inducing marriage equality to legislation around abortion and women’s rights. But yet you were here in 2010 going, “I don’t care what you think of me. I’m me.” Even if you were worried about it.
[05:23] Justin Tranter: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting is that, you know, ever since I was about 15 years old — and so if it was 2010 when you saw me perform, I was 30, which is crazy. Makes me feel really old and young all the same time. But ever since I was 15, I’ve been serving like a very gender nonconforming — I’ve been living my truth that I have on the inside on the outside. And there was always moments where it was dangerous for me, whether I was in Chicago, whether I was living in Boston, living in Brooklyn, on the road at a truck stop in the middle of Texas, or in Ireland. In those moments of danger, for some reason, like I’m always like delusionally positive. And I’m like, everything’s gonna be fine. And I’ll never forget, actually, when I was in Dublin, me and Jimmy — who is a friend of mine and who has worked with me since then, he still works with me today — we were walking through like an outdoor mall thing. There was cobblestone streets and I was in my six-inch gold heels and people started surrounding me and saying horrible things. And what’s so funny is I’m so positive — because there was like two or three shows in Dublin — and I was like, oh, they must have all been at the show. And then I was kind of getting through their accents, I was like, “oh, they’re not saying anything nice. This is actually really bad and quite dangerous.” But I think I’m really grateful for that delusional positivity and that confidence that I have. You know, it’s definitely something I worked on, but it’s also something that I was born with.
[06:51] Sinéad Burke: Was it nurtured?
[06:52] Justin Tranter: My parents and my brothers are all amazing. You know, my brothers, of course, we were kids, they would say stupid shit. But like, if anyone else said stupid shit about me, their lives were over. Not literally. And my parents — they didn’t like support my femininity, they celebrated it. Everyone in my family thought it was fabulous and though it was cool. And so my confidence and my positivity was definitely nurtured and supported. But I am aware of the fact that it definitely was — I was born with it, and then it flourished from there.
[07:22] Sinéad Burke: And have you had a conversation with your family and friends since to realize — like, I’m a little person. So my father’s a little person. And that transformed things enormously for me, because growing up, I was just like my dad. And everything was going to be OK because my dad survived and thrived. So if he could manage it, so could I. But I have conversations with my parents now about decisions that I made as a child, or like the confidence that I had, and they were nervous about it, but they never expressed that to me. They just wanted to be as positive and as enriching as they could.
[07:49] Justin Tranter: Yeah, well there’s two things in there, one I think that’s so interesting you talk about, as I always say, as queer people for the most part, you are born a minority in your own home. So you’re not just a minority in the world, you’re a minority in the own home that you’re born into. Which I think is why there’s so much, so many levels of shame for everyone that feels like they’re an other and is an other. But for queer people, it’s like there’s no one in your family, for the most part, that can even walk you through this crazy fucking process. There was moments I definitely remember when I would be nine or 10 years old and I would be insisting on only wearing pink things and covering everything I own in like glitter puff paint. And I remember a couple times my mom, in the sweetest way that you possibly can, be like, “I just — I love it. I think it looks great. I just want to make sure that you’re aware you’re already getting bullied beyond belief at school. I don’t think glitter puff paint is going to help that.” And I was like, “well, I think it looks great.” And she’s like, “well, so do I. Then go.” There was I remember a couple moments of her wanting to warn me that my choices to live so confidently and live so freely might bring me trouble. And I just didn’t give a fuck because I’d rather be who I am than be safe.
[09:03] Sinéad Burke: That is such a brave statement to say. And how did that manifest in places like school?
[09:10] Justin Tranter: I mean, school was a bitch. Yeah, school was horrible. But what’s so funny is that I always had a great time. You know, there was the moments where I knew every year — I never had close enough friends where we would last past a grade. It would only be like for that one year. And it would kind of be like I would just look at the other person in whatever my class was, find the other person who was getting bullied beyond belief for whatever other reason. Of course, there was queer people, but no one else was living as loudly as I was, so I never remember anyone else getting made fun of in my school experiences for being queer, but for whatever all the other reasons were, which, you know, its kids, there’s a thousand other reasons. So I’d find that one person like, “Oh, you’re my friend for the year!” So I’d always have so much fun with that person. And for the most part, it was always, you know, someone who identified as a woman and or as a girl. And I just remember always having so much fun. And there would be those moments where it’d be like, OK, so boys in this line, girls in this line. And I knew no matter which line I chose, it was gonna be a shitshow. Or, you know, always wanting to sing and then finally getting the guts to join the chorus. And I was in seventh grade and I was still singing soprano in seventh grade. I wish I could still sing soprano now. So there was always those moments and it was bad. And I always found ways to, I don’t know, have fun and be positive through it.
[10:37] Sinéad Burke: Was joining the choir this like transformative moment?
[10:40] Justin Tranter: So it was in seventh grade, which I guess I think like 12-ish. And the couple of friends I had in sixth grade — and it was the first time I thought like these friends might last past the year, but then they added another junior high to our school district. And so the friends I had all went to the other school. And so seventh grade happened and I was like, well, this is just — I had nothing left. And they announced that the musical was gonna be Annie. And Annie was one of the most important movies of my life. Pieces of art of my life as a kid.
[11:09] Sinéad Burke: Why?
[11:10] Justin Tranter: Just seeing these young women be so strong and powerful and endless metaphorical middle fingers to the status quo. So much hope. Maybe so much hope. You know what I mean? And I was like, well, they’re doing Annie, I don’t care if this makes my life even worse, I have to do it. And I did. And it was amazing. That changed my whole life. That was it, because I was — I’m the only person in my family that doesn’t make their living playing tennis, or coaching tennis, or running tennis things. And so I was playing tennis when I was young. And once I got the courage to audition for Annie, I literally never picked up a racket ever again. I was like, this is it. I’m done.
[11:47] Sinéad Burke: I’m done. I found my excuse.
[11:50] Justin Tranter: And it was life changing. And then from there, it was a theater camp that summer. And then eighth grade, I did that. So, yeah, it was a huge moment. And then I went to one semester of public high school, and that’s where the bullying got so bad that it became — it was always kind of physical, but like being pushed or pushed down steps, which is not a good thing to happen. But like I can survive it. But it got so physical my freshman year of high school that I had to find another place to go, which was the best thing that could have happened for me. I went to an arts high school, the Chicago Academy for the Arts, and that was like people, you know, like who are other in any way when you grow up and you make your own magical family. I was handed that at 15 years old, which doesn’t — well, 14, I was still 14. And so that changed everything.
[12:39] Sinéad Burke: How did Semi Precious Weapons then come from that timeline?
[12:43] Justin Tranter: I mean, that’s — I love that you’re asking about Semi Precious Weapons because no one asks about that anymore. It’s like a whole other past life.
[12:51] Sinéad Burke: I think we should just do a Semi Precious Weapons karaoke night. I’d be in.
[12:58] Justin Tranter: So I went to college in Boston for songwriting. Crazy, right?
[13:03] Sinéad Burke: I just love the idea of you telling your tennis family that I’m going to college for songwriting.
[13:08] Justin Tranter: They loved it. I mean, my parents go and see live music like twice a week. They’re obsessed. So went to college for songwriting, moved to New York. I thought New York was going to be like the New York of my dreams, like the Warhol CBGB situation.
[13:24] Sinéad Burke: You were Bianca Jagger.
[13:25] Justin Tranter: You know, I just thought that was gonna be what was happening for me and for all of us. Then I got there and it was like very — it was starting to become very finance. I love Sex and the City, but all the girls wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw and not Debbie Harry. Which is fabulous, but I wanted everyone to be Debbie Harry. So I was like, well, screw it, I’ll just start a band that represents the New York that I thought was supposed to be here. And so I was already serving full makeup and looks, but Semi Precious Weapons, that becoming my job eventually just took it to a whole new level.
[13:56] Sinéad Burke: It was extraordinary.
[13:57] Justin Tranter: Well, I appreciate you saying that.
[13:59] Sinéad Burke: No. And just even like the lyrics of Semi Precious Weapons. The title track and that idea that you couldn’t pay your rent, but you were gorgeous. That those two things don’t have to be in conflict all the time.
[14:10] Justin Tranter: Yeah. Well, and what’s so fabulous is that, you know, whether it’s you telling me this now or a couple moments while the band was happening — and for the most part it would always be queer people or women that would come to me and be like, “the things you’re saying, it means so much to me.” And I was like, “well, I was just stating, to me, I think I look gorgeous.” And even though literally the landlord is evicting us, I just think it’s a fabulous, ridiculous thing to say. And so it means so much to me now — then it meant a lot, but now it means like the fact that you, who have done such amazing things that, you know, it’s all crazy. Because I was just trying to be ridiculous and I guess it helped people.
[14:48] Justin Tranter: But also being yourself, and unashamedly so. Because I’m cisgendered and I’m straight. But I found home in a queer community because of my disability. Because much like your experience in school, I would go out into straight clubs and people would come up and they would physically lift me up in the air and throw me.
[15:07] Justin Tranter: I don’t mean to laugh, it’s just so shocking.
[15:08] Sinéad Burke: No, or men would stand in front of me and unzip their fly in my face because of the height that I stood at. And I remember feeling really unsafe. And the first time I ever went to a gay club in Dublin, I was like dancing to Madonna’s Vogue, doing the full choreography and turned to my non-disabled friends and I was like, “is this what a night out is like for you? I get it! Like, this is amazing!” And there was a competition in Ireland called Alternative Miss Ireland, and I entered because of my size. I retold the story of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, but from my perspective, but to pop music. So it opened with “once upon a time in a land far away, lived a little girl who actually wasn’t gay. But why did she enter? I hear you all say, is she alternative? Well, yes, she was born this way.” And I was standing on a four-foot platform with a seven-foot Snow White skirt. Gaga’s Born This way started, which I didn’t pay for, sorry. Seven tall dwarfs came out on stage, ripped the skirt and lifted me down. But it was the last time that competition had ran in Ireland. And I won. But I won. And I entered as like a vehicle for gratitude to the queer community for allowing me to be myself within this inclusive space, because I didn’t experience it anywhere else.
[16:17] Justin Tranter: That is so beautiful.
[16:19] Sinéad Burke: No, but I think that’s why what you do is so important.
[16:22] Justin Tranter: Well, thank you.
[16:23] Sinéad Burke: You’re welcome.]
[16:24] Justin Tranter: You know, there was moments I would realize back then that, you know, it’s like — because I wasn’t ever talking about politics during the band. Of course, I was asked a question about bullying, or how I identify — I never hid anything. I mean, I couldn’t hide. I looked like I look, but I was like my existence is political. And now —
[16:41] Sinéad Burke: Is it a question of if that’s enough?
[16:46] Justin Tranter: Right. And now it’s you know, whether it’s because the political climate has changed so much, or now I have a very different platform — even though I don’t sing the songs anymore and other people sing them — I have a bigger platform. I have a whole new levels of privilege. And I always feel like if you aren’t paying your privilege forward, then what the fuck are you doing with your time?
[17:04] Sinéad Burke: Absolutely. But how did you go from that point of somebody who is very confident and very proud of themselves as an individual and enjoying reveling in the spotlight at the front of a band to then being less visible and the band not being in existence anymore? And you are behind the scenes rather than holding the microphone. Like how how did that change you?
[17:26] Justin Tranter: It changed me in ways I would have never imagined. I have silver, sparkly sneakers. And when I go to a special event I still serve a full glam look. If you’re listening to this, look on my Instagram, dig through. Anytime there’s GLAAD Awards, I look flawless. But it changed me in a way where I realized this crazy power in not making everything about yourself. Because as the songwriter who’s writing songs for and with other people, it’s not about you. It’s about — for me, the way I approach it, other songwriters do different things — but for me, I approach it as I want to try to get to somebody’s truth as quickly as possible. And I want to create a space that is safe enough and give them confidence to tell that truth. And that truth can be told in so many different ways. You know, whether that’s something really serious and emotional, or whether it’s something really goofy. Like after working with Joe Jonas for a couple days on the DNCE project, and getting to know him and be like, you’re just really goofy and really hot. Let’s write a really goofy, sexy song. And we wrote Cake by the Ocean. Or there’s more emotional things, whether it’s Imagine Dragons’ Believer — and you know, Dan Reynolds for Imagine Dragons is an unbelievable writer. He doesn’t really need me, but I’m fortunate enough to help kind of when I’m there, I can cut to the core maybe a little quicker for him. So it changed me in a way I realized this power I had in not making everything about me.
[18:53] Sinéad Burke: Did you have to work with your ego within that process, though? Well, you’re at the front of the band and like ego is the main vehicle that you need in order to exist. So all of a sudden you’re like, oh, it’s not about me.
[19:04] Justin Tranter: Yeah. I always say it definitely was meant to be that I came in to this side of the business. I worked my ass off, and I still do. But it happened accidentally. I didn’t go, “I’m going to try to write songs for other people.” A door opened and I ran through. And then I always say, I don’t know if I’m the best, but I know I can outwork all you motherfuckers. But so I ended up in this process and I was about 33 years old when it started happening. And I’m 39 now. And I am just so grateful that this door opened for me when I was older. And obviously I’m still not old, but in the entertainment business, 33 is old.
[19:41] Sinéad Burke: More after the break.
[22:02] Sinéad Burke: And how do you pair your personal kind of politics and advocacy with an industry like pop? In many ways — because it’s quite feminized, like the fashion industry — it’s immediately critiqued as facetious or not having the same value as rock and roll. So how do you bring something that is so serious and important, like advocacy, to something that the world describes as frivolous?
[22:24] Justin Tranter: For me, there are some songs that I get to have magical little secret meanings in, or not so secret meanings, you know. Dua Lipa’s Swan Song we reference Act Up, the HIV and AIDS activist group from the ‘80s and ‘90s. I mean, they still exist today, but that’s what they were saving lives all day, every day. And then there’s more subtle things like, you know, I’m really proud of songs like Selena Gomez’s Good for You, where I wrote with Julia Michaels. And that song is very much Julia Michaels’ baby. But I’m proud of it because it’s this very three-dimensional, fully-fledged thing of in the verses she is calling herself — you know, she has the Midas touch and she’s 14-karat gold and she’s a fucking diamond and she’s all these things. But then she’s also saying you know, tonight, I want to look good for you. And not — to me, when that song came out, there was some discussion online like, “she should want to look good for herself.” And I remember feminist writers being like, “no but she knows that she’s hot, and she knows that she’s awesome, and she’s strong and it’s OK if she wants to look sexy for somebody else. It’s a choice. So there are moments in my pop music that I actually get to create narratives that maybe haven’t been told before in pop music.
[23:35] Sinéad Burke: Are you still l frustrated by the system and perhaps wanting to push it further?
[23:39] Justin Tranter: I think — I mean, sometimes I’m frustrated the system, but I find that I get away with a lot. And to answer your earlier question, which I loved about the advocacy, is that there are a lot of things that need to change in the music business. There are way too many men, the way too many straight people, there’s not nearly enough racial diversity. And I’m talking about behind the scenes. In music, too, it’s the pop stars, but behind the scenes, it’s just the whitest, bro-iest thing you’ve ever seen in your life. So a lot needs to change. But I am met with a lot of open arms when it comes to my advocacy.
[24:12] Sinéad Burke: Why do you think that is?
[24:13] Justin Tranter: I think that because I make people feel like if they don’t help me, then they’re bad. Or like I approach it with so much joy that I think it makes people want to be involved. I think it’s infectious. It’s hard for me to say that about myself, but fuck it, I’m going to own it. I think that my confidence and my joy from my advocacy is infectious.
[24:37] Sinéad Burke: And would you choose not to work with someone who wasn’t infected by your infectiousness?
[24:44] Justin Tranter: I have chosen not to work with people who are doing things that are bad for culture. Or have done things inappropriate personally. When the Me Too movement hit executives in the music business — especially with the first one, I was the first and one of the only — the billboards say “boldface names” to show support for the survivor. And so I of course I’m never gonna work with that person again. Luckily, they don’t work in the music business anymore, so that was dealt with. But I make those choices. If the people have done things that I think are bad for culture, because some things can be just neutral for culture. And if I can be a part of that and somehow make money off of it and that money I can use for the things I want to make the world a better place.
[25:29] Sinéad Burke: But it must be hard to keep a consciousness on that, because I imagine when you’re writing music or in this studio, you’re so entrenched in what’s happening in that moment that to constantly also be keeping like a global lens on what’s happening and where you need to be, or how could it affect the world —
[25:44] Justin Tranter: It’s exhausting. Yeah, but I find it like such a beautiful challenge. And I find joy and fun in all of this. And like, I think that there is joy in the good fight. Like ever since I started an AIDS benefit when I was 17 years old at my high school that still happens now every year, 22 years later, which is crazy. And in that moment I learned like we were having — you know, it was 1997, and so there was drugs coming that were making the AIDS crisis not as scary, but it was still fucking scary. And we had very close friends of our family dying of HIV and AIDS complications. And in creating this benefit and doing what we could, me and my friends in high school, like it was in that moment where I realized how much joy there is in fighting the good fight.
[26:34] Sinéad Burke: We’ll be back just after this break.
[27:21] Sinéad Burke: What’s the monologue that’s in your head that keeps you going?
[27:25] Justin Tranter: Oh god. You are just so good. Normally I have all his stock answers ready to go because people ask the same damn questions. What is the monologue? This is me trying to buy myself time. The monologue in my head is I guess it’s the legacy I want to leave behind.
[27:48] Sinéad Burke: Which is?
[27:49] Justin Tranter: Which is pay your privilege forward and leave this world a better place than you got it. Or at least try, because I don’t know if I can do it.
[27:56] Sinéad Burke: And I’m conscious that we’re both white sitting across each other and we talk about these things — yeah, I’m Irish. I’m very white. A lack of vitamin D. And we talk about this notion of like paying your privilege forward. How can it actually be done? Like for a person sitting listening to this and thinking I wanted to do something.
[28:12] Justin Tranter: Yeah, well, to quote Roxane Gay. She says, if you’re listening to this, you have some kind of privilege. And that was a loose paraphrase. No one come after me. And so I feel like, you know, when I was a kid in high school, me and my friends who were — luckily the arts high school I went to was diverse in every way it could be. We used everything that we possibly could to help people. And so I feel like, of course I understand — I walk in this world with many different kinds of privilege, obviously white privilege. Even though I identify as gender nonconforming, most days I walk through the world with cis privilege. You know, even in the queer community, I am still viewed as a white queer man, which gives me privilege inside my own community. And now I have financial privilege. And I have platform privilege and I have all these different kinds of privilege — that I’m just making up names for, but they’re real — that I try to use the best that I possibly can. But I think that anyone can make a difference even in a very community level. The benefit that I started at my high school was very community-based. That was what we could do in those moments with the resources we had as teenagers, you know.
[29:18] Sinéad Burke: But it’s it’s in the small moments, too, that, you know, if you’re walking down the street with your friend and somebody says, oh — uses the word “gay” or uses the word “midget,” it’s like you’ve a job there to say, “actually, that’s not okay. I don’t think that’s the word you should be using.” And I think we all need to get better with even our loved ones at the dinner table conversation and something is said. And you’re like, “actually, that’s not the correct language.”
[29:41] Justin Tranter: Yeah. And I think that’s really important to do. And I think that, you know, because I face things like that in the work environment a lot where things are said in a writing session that it’s not OK to say. And of course, if someone — if the context is really horrible, I’ll just leave. But if it’s just misinformed, or I feel like maybe there’s no reason to just blow the whole thing up and maybe educate, I try to find really non-confrontational ways to do it. After the BMI Awards, which are the songwriters awards, I got in the conversation with some guy in the lobby and I didn’t handle it well. I overheard him say something stupid and I just — me and my mother both just told this man he was a horrible misogynist and should rethink his entire existence. And looking back, do you deserve it? Yes. But is he going to grow from that moment? I don’t know.
[30:34] Sinéad Burke: But constantly having to police your own reactions is exhausting. You know, if somebody calls me a name, or somebody takes a photo of me because I’m a little person, you want to react in a way that is whatever emotion you’re feeling. But you’re also realizing that as much as I don’t represent everybody who looks like me, unfortunately how I react in the situation is going to impact upon how they view every other single person who looks like me. And that’s not fair. But it’s reality.
[31:01] Justin Tranter: So how do you handle those moments?
[31:05] Sinéad Burke: My background is in teaching and in education, which helps. But it’s a bunch of things. So I do some work with the Irish Police Service to encourage empathy and insight about hate speech and hate crime. And then it’s also about going into schools, because I think — even if in that moment, you know, I’ve had instances where I’m walking down the street and a car will pull over and literally everybody in the car will wind down the window and take photographs and videos of me. And it’s again about your personal safety. So what am I gonna do in that moment that’s not gonna bring me into more danger than already is happening? But then you can’t change everybody. Not everybody wants to be changed. And unfortunately, sometimes you try and you try and you try again. And if they’re not open to being inclusive, then they’re not worth your time. But realizing that those conversations need to happen earlier. Because they happened in the schoolyard. The word “gay,” the word “faggot,” the word “midget” happens in the schoolyard. So that’s when you need to change it, not when they’ve already become conditioned. So doing it at lots of different levels.
[32:04] Justin Tranter: Yeah. I remember — speaking of the school yard — I remember a moment — and I think it was fifth grade — and these girls surrounded me in the playground, like five or six girls. And they all just started kicking me, like as hard as they possibly could. And I remember in that moment — it was this crazy thing I think I’ll be grateful for forever and ever and ever — in that moment, I, like, forgave them like immediately. And I was like I just feel so bad for them because they’re going to have to live with this forever. And I am fierce, so I’m gonna be fine. But then also I had the privilege of being safe at home.
[32:41] Sinéad Burke: Which makes an enormous.
[32:42] Justin Tranter: Enormous difference. Because if you aren’t, especially queer people, if you’re not safe at home, those situations at school, are even more unsafe. But I remember in that moment, like being like, I’m not going to try to explain to them why this is wrong. I just forgive you because you have to live with this moment forever and I’m fucking fine.
[33:00] Sinéad Burke: My mother used to say to me, if somebody needs to make you feel small to make themselves feel big, you’ve discovered really quickly that they’re not the kind of people you want to be around. And you had no choice over this. It’s nothing to do with you. It’s to do with them entirely. And whilst that’s really difficult to deal with in the moment, what a gift.
[33:18] Justin Tranter: Yeah, total gift. You know who that person is now.
[33:20] Sinéad Burke: And you don’t have to be their friend. That’s great. It’s really selective. But of all the things that you’ve done, what are you most proud of?
[33:27] Justin Tranter: I am most proud of my relationships. I don’t mean romantic because I’m married to myself. But I am so proud of — I do my best to take really good care of my relationships. Family, friends, work. I guess I’m most proud of trying to be respectful of the other human beings in my life, especially the ones that respect me.
[33:47] Sinéad Burke: And do you have to carve out time to do it? Is it like part of your calendar and schedule, or is it a bit more nuanced?
[33:55] Justin Tranter: Yes, a bit more nuanced. Everyone’s really understands that I’m on a mission and multiple missions. And so everyone’s really forgiving of sometimes my lack of availability. But people ask like, where do I find the time between music and TV projects I’m working on and activism and fundraising, blah blah? I just I don’t know what y’all are doing, because I still get to watch my favorite TV shows. I still see all my friends at least once a week, if not twice. But there are things, if my friends, if we block off the time to do something, I try my hardest.
[34:27] Sinéad Burke: What are your favorite TV shows?
[34:28] Justin Tranter: My favorite TV shows are, well let’s just go through recently. I loved Dead to Me on Netflix. I thought that was amazing. Fleabag is like —
[34:37] Sinéad Burke: The sexy priest.
[34:38] Justin Tranter: Ahh. I loved that. I love Pose, of course, is magical. I love Sex Education on Netflix. I watch a lot of TV has become like my real passion now because I am determined to somehow figure out how to make TV.
[34:53] Sinéad Burke: The skills are the same. All of the shows you’ve just listed are about narratives that we haven’t been exposed to before, written by the people who have first-hand experience, which is exactly what you’re doing in pop, no?
[35:04] Justin Tranter: Exactly. So I have a rule. I don’t write songs for women unless there is a female co-writer in the room. So if the artist is an amazing writer, obviously her and I can write the song together. Great. If it’s a song we’re writing, just writers writing it for an artist, it’s a rule I have. There has to be a woman in the writing process, because not only is it the right fucking thing to do, but it is better for business. Because the truth sells. The truth sells. It’s like so funny to me when people like — because a lot of my early pop stuff was with Julia Michaels. We still work together all the time, but she’s traveling the planet cause she’s a superstar now. But a lot of my first big hits were all with her. And when I get asked about “why do you think those early songs connected?” — by the way, early, it was like fucking four years ago —
[35:55] Sinéad Burke: The music business works fast. It flies.
[35:58] Justin Tranter: It does. And I’m like because Julia was a 20- to 23-year-old woman writing songs for 20- to 23-year-old women. So it just felt cooler. It felt more honest. It felt more real. Of course, her talent is at the highest level. I’m not take anything with her talent, but like when you pair the talent with the honesty.
[36:18] Sinéad Burke: But that’s a really difficult space for you to go into, no? Because you’re asking people who are — based on music industry standards — quite young, you know, have this enormous amount of fame and you’re going into a room at them and saying, like, tell me your truths, tell me what scares you, let’s make yourself the most vulnerable you can be in the most public way possible and let’s make money out of it. And let’s have a great time. You look at somebody like Billie Eilish, who is 17 and has a line in a song, like, “I want to end me.” And you’re at a concert and there’s 6,000 young women singing “I want to end me.” But in a way that they’re not even cognizant of all of the meanings and metaphors. So like how do you manage the emotions of that, of bringing somebody in and being like, let’s speak truth to power?
[37:01] Justin Tranter: What I find for the most part is that the first step is I just have a conversation. And I’m not sharing secrets because Bebe Rexha has told the story in the press on her own. But she didn’t want to — she wanted to cancel the session. But she said I can’t cancel I wanted to work with Justin for a couple years now. I have to go. And it’s the first time we met and she’d clearly been crying when she got there. And she was just, like, “I’m so sorry I’m late, and I don’t know if I’m going to be any good today because I’m just a fucking mess.” And so we wrote — I was like, well, that’s our song. Let’s just write a song called “I’m a Mess.” And, you know, it’s — I think now double platinum. Not bad. And it was just like, wait, we can do that? Let’s just tell the truth. If you feel like a mess today, why are we gonna pretend and write some sexy party song? Let’s just tell your truth.
[37:51] Justin Tranter: That’s kind of how it always starts for me. So it’s an easy, comfortable way in. And it’s almost always met with, “wait, but can we actually just say that?” And I’m like, let’s just say it. How fun is this? We can’t just say it! And everybody in the room gets so excited, especially the artists, because they’re like, OK. OK. Let’s do it! And I’m always like, and here’s the thing, if at some point we’re going too far for you to where you aren’t going to feel safe putting this in the world, we change it a month from now. But like in this moment, let’s just enjoy just telling nothing but the fucking truth. And it’s normally met with so much excitement and freedom.
[38:30] Sinéad Burke: Which session has surprised you most, if you can talk about it?
[38:34] Justin Tranter: Which session has surprised me the most? I mean, a couple have. You know, I think there’s so many women in this industry, because they are pop stars, because they look glamorous, whatever it is, the world doesn’t really ever want to tell the story of what great writers they are. So Bebe Rexha is a great example of that. You know, she’s one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with. Camila Cabello, fucking incredible artist, pop star from a girl group, then her solo thing. No one’s talking about how this woman, this very young, brilliant woman is an unbelievable songwriter. The first time I walked in, Camila was like “let me just go freestyle some melodies.” And she freestyled these melodies and I was like, “oh my God, I’m out of a job!” Like, fuck this.
[39:23] Justin Tranter: So it’s those moments where I get so pleasantly surprised. And then and then I get angry because I’m like, why isn’t every publication talking about how you write your ass off? And it’s when dudes co-write, everyone talks about what great songwriters they are. But when women co-write the second, there’s another name on there besides her’s, usually a man’s, she’s no longer the songwriter. It’s very, very interesting and frustrating, but I’m going to push through it.
[39:57] Sinéad Burke: And do you think the industry — since you’ve known it, since you were 16, 17 — do you think it’s changed for good now?
[40:05] Justin Tranter: Yes, I do think it’s changed for good. I think that we are, you know, just like how media is changing for good — movies, TV — we’re letting people tell their own stories. And I think the music business is doing that. And I have a label now, partners with Warner Brothers —
[40:27] Sinéad Burke: No big deal.
[40:28] Justin Tranter: No big deal. Me and my business partner bring up names of — whether it’s people who are over 30 that we want to sign, or whether it’s queer people of color — whatever it is, we are never met with — and it might be just because they know better when they’re talking to me, but I’m still going to take it as positive change. We’re never met with, “Uhh, I mean, can like a 30-something year old woman really break? Or like what is the trans woman of color going to do?” We’re never met with that. We’re met with like, “what’s the story? What’s the songs? Do they play something?” We’re met with questions about the music. So to me, that’s a positive change.
[41:07] Sinéad Burke: But the cycle has to continue because those things will only be allowed to happen if they are commercially viable. So like, what’s the responsibility of the individual at home who’s listening to music? What artists are they supporting? How diverse is their playlists? What are they open to, who are they following on the internet? Like going back to that piece where we can all do something, but we all have a job to do to make sure that these things remain different. We all have a job.
[41:34] Justin Tranter: Yeah. I’ll expand a little bit just speaking my own community. You know, I feel like there are so many amazing indie queer artists right now — or they may be on major labels too, but they’re given the indie vibe — that are so fucking amazing. And you know, I think queer people for the most part are still not listening to queer artists. Queer people are not supporting queer art. And it’s a very weird thing, because then it’s a hard sell when you’re talking to corporate business people. And again, that’s a big blanket statement. There are many queer people who are supporting a lot of queer art. But I think we can do better. I know I can do better. I’ll speak personally. I know that I could do better at it. Because you’re right, that’s how we can do something. Because if we want more queer artists to have a chance, then queer people should be supporting queer art.
[42:25] Sinéad Burke: Of all that you’ve learned from being in the industry and being such a prolific songwriter for these number of years, and being in L.A. for seven years, if you had to go back to Dublin when you were walking through those cobblestones — and my apologies for your experience in Dublin. But realizing that, you know, you’re being surrounded and people are saying things like, what would you say or do differently? Is there anything that you would do differently now?
[42:51] Justin Tranter: I don’t think I would do anything differently. I think being able to walk into any space confidently, even when I shouldn’t have been, I think that it was making the world a better place and I didn’t even realize it. Which, you know, you’ve been so nice to reinforce that idea for me today. So I don’t regret it. And there was times in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I remember — my band and I all lived in a loft for a period of time and I was walking home from the subway alone, and a bunch of dudes were chasing me and bottles started being thrown. And while running in six inch heels, called my band members and told them to please run out on the street.
[43:28] Justin Tranter: And like even in those moments where it was dangerous, I don’t regret it. Because I wouldn’t be here now. And, you know, it’s also that the idea of the strength that you need, even on a business level, the strength that I need to put out music that like the whole world’s going to pick apart, that requires a lot of strength. And so I’m glad that it had strength through all of it. Yeah, it just made me. And it’s also like I have fuckin’ fun while it was happening, you know. And I always remember — which again, it’s not that glamorous unless it actually comes true — but I always remember being like, “oh, you motherfuckers are gonna regret this one day, all of you. I just know it. I am going — I don’t know how I’m gonna win, but I’m gonna win. I’m not going to give up until I do. And you’re all going to regret treating me like shit.” It kind of worked out. But I’m just getting started.
[44:26] Sinéad Burke: What gives you hope?
[44:27] Justin Tranter: What gives me hope. What gives me hope is seeing people change. Whether it’s people close to me, you know, close family, friends voting for Trump. And after many long conversations with them, and having to really break down of, you’ve known me since I was born. You love me. And Mike Pence literally wants me dead. And you just put him in power. Like having these very hard, long conversations and seeing them finally realize, oh, fuck, I fucked up. That gives me hope because it’s, you know, if we are all willing to have the hard conversations, which is not our responsibility, but if we want to take it on just for a day or two. That gives me hope. What gives me hope as young people. You know, even though GLAAD just did a recent study and we have lost 10 percent of support among millennial males. So 10 percent less support us than used to just a year ago. So even though some young people are letting us down, I think for the most part, young people are keeping me hopeful. Young women are keeping me hopeful. The trans unity always keeps me hopeful. They started the entire gay rights movement for the most part. And to see my trans siblings keep fighting the good fuckin’ fight gives me hope. I wish other people would help them in this fight. I’m doing the best I can, but that gives me hope. What else? My mom gives me hope. My mom gives me so much hope, it’s crazy. She has always been an activist on a whole lot of things. She helps a lot of women get illegal abortions before — because my mom’s old.
[46:08] Sinéad Burke: She’s going to love that. A, she gives you hope. And B, that you’ve just called her old.
[46:12] Justin Tranter: She actually does love being called old. She always ages herself a year because she takes pride in it. This past year during the midterm elections we just had. She was like, I’ve never had the confidence to go door-to-door. I’ve never had the confidence to do phone banking. I just always helped in politicians’ offices in other ways. She’s like, but I feel like this year we just have to do everything, don’t we? And so my 72-year-old mother — if you ask her, she’ll say she’s 73 — my 72-year-old mother went and knocked on doors in Republican counties of Illinois. And, you know, did her best. And that gives me hope, that like at 72 that you can, like, conquer a new fear to try to make the world a better place. That’s fucking hopeful.
[46:53] Sinéad Burke: Something we can all learn from. This has been like sensational. The idea of like sitting across from you. Never mind you talking to yourself in Dublin. But I think if I could talk to me, who was sitting in the audience watching you, they’d never believe this. Thank you so much. Go and listen to Semi Precious Weapons. It’s on Spotify.
[47:13] Justin Tranter: Thank you. I love you giving promo to my band that’s been dead for like seven years.
[47:19] Sinéad Burke: That’s that’s my brand. Good positioning. Thank you.
[47:23] Justin Tranter: Thank you.
[47:25] Sinéad Burke: Next week, we’re talking to Ruth Madely, an award-winning British actress who is a wheelchair user. She is our first visibly disabled guest of the series. And we talk about everything from what life is like in her body, to representation, to access at the award shows and elsewhere.
[47:44] Ruth Madely: I’ve had some wonderful response about how proud I am of my disability. And some people say, “how can you possibly be proud to have spina bifida? It’s caused me such problems. It’s done this and this and this.” I’m like, yes, but I can use this as a tool to hopefully make the world more accessible. And that’s how I feel about it. And it’s always been part of me. And I don’t want to be sad about a part of me.
[48:07] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know ahead all things Super Bowl is Katie Sowers. Katie will be the first female coach in the Super Bowl. Ever. No, really. Ever. She’s the offensive assistant coach for the 49ers. And you can follow her journey on Instagram. And when we talk about these things, “if you can see it, you can be it.” Whilst you’re watching the Super Bowl this year, if you are watching the Super Bowl, take a moment to think who’s watching Katie on the sidelines and on the field, and for the first time thinking, “I can do that.” You can find Katie on Instagram @katesowers5.
[48:49] As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.