For former Semi Precious Weapons front man and in-demand collaborator Justin Tranter, the key to songwriting is to “elevate the essence” of the artist’s truth. “At this point in my life, it’s so beautiful to help amplify somebody else’s guts,” says the 37-year-old, who, alongside longtime writing partner-turned-2017 breakout artist Julia Michaels, has had credits on colossal hits for stars like Justin Bieber (“Sorry”), Selena Gomez (“Good for You,” “Hands to Myself”) and Gwen Stefani (“Used to Love You”), a status that has earned the two (both published by Warner/Chappell) a seat at the table among the industry’s top-tier hitmakers.
Tranter cites an invite from production duo Stargate and Benny Blanco to join a weeklong writing camp as the moment when his surreal circumstances fully sank in: “It was like we were getting to see the masters at work.” There, Tranter and Michaels’ mammoth “Issues,” which Michaels released as her debut single earlier this year, took shape. The track’s very real inspiration — a day-of fight between Michaels, 24, and her (now ex-) boyfriend — finally convinced the musician to embrace her own pop star metamorphosis. “Every executive in the business was trying to convince Julia to be an artist since the moment she showed up,” Tranter says. “Issues” peaked at No. 9, according to BuzzAngle.
Sans Michaels, Tranter had a hand in a second monster hit this year, Imagine Dragons’ poignant “Believer,” co-penned alongside the band’s front man, Dan Reynolds, and Swedish production duo Mattman & Robin at Reynolds’ home studio in Las Vegas. Describing what draws listeners to the “aggressive, spiritual” single, Tranter cites its sound. “Every band has their own church,” he says of the rockers’ specific concoction of hip-hop-tinged alternative rock. “‘Believer’ is very, very, very different from anything that’s been on radio for a long time. For Dan’s big magical insane voice to be screaming the word ‘pain’ over and over is pretty special in today’s climate.” The single scored the band first No. 1 on pop radio airplay and peaked at No. 4 on the BuzzAngle chart.
Tranter’s close relationship with Interscope chief John Janick and head of A&R Aaron Bay-Schuck also fostered a full-circle moment for the songwriter, whose own band was dropped by the label. “I’m really close with Interscope because of Selena and Gwen Stefani,” he says. “Selena actually had a show in Vegas when I was there writing with Imagine Dragons, and I heard from those guys, ‘We’re so happy with what you’re doing.’ I didn’t know if it was going to be the first single or just a single, but I just knew that everyone was super excited.”
Both outliers in 2017’s pop landscape, “Issues” and “Believer” surged by avoiding trends altogether. “They’re not dancehall,” Tranter jokes. “They’re just honest songs that cut through.” The chart-toppers had another similarity: Both were slow builders. “It took a little longer for people to wrap their hearts and their minds around them,” he says. “But when they did, it really took hold.”