Making Music Isn’t the Same in the Age of COVID-19. Just Ask Justin Tranter.

"I was like, 'This feels crazy, trying to write a song about heartbreak right now. Everyone needs to go home.'"

Before states across America enforced a lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus, Justin Tranter was urging LGBTQ nightlife workers to stay home. As an added incentive, the queer pop songwriter even offered to pay them their night’s wages.

On the evening of March 15, Tranter (who uses they/them pronouns) gave money to DJs, drag queens, and party promoters who were suddenly jobless, and to those still reporting to work because they couldn’t afford to forgo their income. In fact, they sent a full night’s pay to so many workers that, Tranter says, “I’d reached my limit on Venmo.”

Tranter felt compelled to get involved after witnessing LGBTQ bargoers casually hanging out on the patio of Rocco’s Tavern in West Hollywood earlier that day. “Dear LGBTQ community and Roccos WeHo, you are way smarter than this. Shut this shit down now,” they posted to Twitter. Soon after, JustJared.com threw Tranter and Rocco’s owner, Lance Bass, into the ring when the site featured a story on the 39-year-old pop hitmaker expressing concern that Rocco’s and other bars were still operating despite the global crisis.

NewNowNext caught up with Tranter, who has written songs for the likes of Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani, and Dua Lipa, to talk about their alleged beef with Bass, what happens to pop music when collaboration isn’t possible, and why it’s okay not to feel artistically inspired right now.

What made you call out LGBTQ bargoers who were partying on the patio of Rocco’s Tavern?

It was more of a call in [laughs]. It was hopefully more of a “we can do better.” I have so much love for our community. We are thought leaders and creative leaders and business leaders. We are fucking leaders. To see an LGBTQ bar packed to the brim kind of broke my heart, to be honest.

There was some weird internet drama of people trying to pit me and Lance Bass against each other. I didn’t even know Lance owned the bar. Once I found that out, I made sure to tweet that he’s done amazing things for our community, so please don’t pit us against each other. We don’t need two queer people being pitted against each other. Everyone’s trying to do the best they can.

What made you decide to Venmo money to nightlife workers?

I worked in nightlife for so long in New York City, and during my first three years in L.A., my band [Semi Precious Weapons] survived by throwing parties at different clubs and lounges and venues. I got by for almost 10 years because of nightlife, so I really understand how it’s paycheck by paycheck or cash by cash. And if I’m gonna make a statement, I need to be able to not talk the talk but walk the walk.

Justin Tranter
Christopher Patey
Justin Tranter.

Has music production just shut down?

I keep getting calls to work, and certain people are like, “Everyone’s sleeping. We gotta go harder and find so-and-so a song,” and I’m just like, “I don’t know about that.”

So the music community wants to come together to create right now?

I co-signed an op-ed that [music producer and songwriter] Ricky Reed headed up asking people to stop doing sessions. We know how hard we had to fight to get these careers and how hard people in this business are trying to get where they want to be and stay there, and we understand how important it is for creative people to create to relieve anxiety, but when managers are calling me about trying to hustle something for their artist right now, that is not good.

If you need to create and be artistic, you need to find a way to do that at home. It’s tough, though, because pop music is so built on collaboration, which I think is one of the most beautiful parts of it—it really is one of the most collaborative art forms. There are so many people making pop music together in one room. But we can’t do that now. We gotta be smart about this shit.

What about alternative ways to approach pop-music collaboration?

I’m sure it will start happening soon, but right now my main concern is making sure my family is okay. Songs can wait. Pop music can wait.

Has your publishing company and recording studio, Facet House, shut down?

We shut Facet on March 12, so pretty early. I had a meeting on March 11 and was like, “This doesn’t feel right.” Trump had just announced the travel ban. I was like, “This feels crazy, trying to write a song about heartbreak right now. Everyone needs to go home.”

Selena Gomez and Justin Tranter.
Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage
Selena Gomez and Tranter.

Maybe people don’t need heartbreak songs right now.

It’s tough. Every time there’s a fire in Los Angeles, it’s really hard for me not to talk about what’s actually happening, so I have written many “fires in Los Angeles” songs because I just don’t know how to sit in a room and not talk about how scary that is.

I’m a workaholic. I work more than almost anybody I know in my field, but it’s really hard for me to even think about writing. Phone calls are coming in, emails are coming in, and I’m just like, “What are we talking about right now?” And I know for some people that’s how they cope. They need to do something normal and keep making music and move on. I’m not judging anyone, however they want to get through this. But for me, personally, it’s really hard to answer emails about pop music right now.

Did you have to cancel sessions at Facet House?

I canceled my personal sessions, canceled all my writers’ sessions. Obviously we can’t control what writers and artists want to do with their personal time, but we did write an email to everyone encouraging them to stay home if they can.

Do you think at some point you might be inspired to write about our current state of the world?

Maybe. I get so much joy and feel so fulfilled by the activism and fundraising I do. There’s a couple of creative music projects I’m working on, and those are the things I want to focus on when this is all over, because it quickly puts into perspective how much the system we live in is complete bullshit.

Justin Tranter
Phillip Faraone/FilmMagic

What have you been turning to for comfort during all of this?

We’ve been making lots of “beverages,” which has been fantastic. [Laughs] We’ve been doing themed days for movies. We did a day of controversial movies from the ’50s, and then we watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and then we watched Body Double and Basic Instinct because they were very much inspired by Hitchcock and Vertigo.

What’s your go-to comfort music for these times?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Patty Griffin and Ani DiFranco. I’ve been going deep on the songs I’ve loved for 15, 20 years for comfort. Also, Patty Griffin, Ani DiFranco, and so many of these women’s songs talk about some real shit, but there’s still hope in all of it, which is what I think we really need right now.

Have you written a song that you think would be good for people to turn to right now?

No [laughs]. I don’t think anything I’ve written that has been released could do the trick.

But social distancers still need songs that make us dance ourselves silly in our living rooms.

That is true. I have many of those [laughs]. I think “Believer” by Imagine Dragons has that hopefulness, even though it’s pretty hard-hitting and dark. But I think in these really troubled times people need to turn to the masters.

Detroit-ish based writer-editor, Meryl Streep stan. Thought I'd retire after Mariah Carey called me a "dahhling," but here I am.
@chrisazzopardi