Justin Tranter had forgotten to prepare a speech.
The award-winning songwriter, who boasts credits on such hits as Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself,” returned to their alma mater, the Chicago Academy for the Arts, last Thursday (Tranter uses gender-neutral pronouns). The event marked the unveiling of the school’s new recording studio, which Tranter helped bankroll. It was a way of giving back to a place that changed their life: Tranter transferred to the West Town school after one semester at Lake Zurich High School, where they endured bullying and violence.
But amid the stream of commitments surrounding the celebration and ribbon cutting, Tranter said they hadn’t had time to plan what they would say. So they settled on a short introduction: “How the fuck are you?” they hollered.
“I used to walk around this place telling everyone what to do,” Tranter said. The 38-year-old, who identifies as gender-nonconforming, recalled starting the school’s AIDS Benefit, which still takes place 22 years later. Tranter then thanked friends and family for flying out for the event and finished with a performance of “Believer,” written with Imagine Dragons.
Tranter now lives in Los Angeles, and their life has transformed during the past few years as they’ve shifted to pumping out pop tunes. But they said they often get back to Chicago and to the academy. And Tranter credited the inclusive environment at the school for laying the groundwork for their success.
After the event Thursday evening, Chicago caught up with the songwriter to discuss their creative process and formative years.
How was transitioning from the experience at Lake Zurich High to Chicago Academy for the Arts?
Shockingly different. But the transition was luckily so easy. Not only is CAA so creatively inspiring and encouraging, but there are openly LGBTQ students. There are openly LGBTQ teachers. So it was the greatest transition I ever made. It was like heaven.
Have your Chicago roots inspired your work as a songwriter?
I think so, for sure. Wherever you grow up inspires who you are. And my journey specifically, being so suburban and then so extremely urban — having the two lives of public school and then the academy — my Chicago experience specifically shaped exactly who I am.
What is your writing process?
When I was young, I would just have big, dramatic feelings, and I would put them in songs. Now my job is to help other people shine. And my job is to help other people tell their stories and put their feelings into songs. So my process is I get in the room, whether it’s with another songwriter or whether it’s with an artist who’s also a songwriter, and we just talk about life. And I try to dig as politely and as safely into their life as I possibly can to try to figure out where the song is. And then once I find the song — or they find the song, or we find the song together — once we find that main idea, then the rest of it falls into place from there.
Do you have a favorite song that you helped write?
Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” was my first hit, and that’s the song that changed my life. So that’s a pretty safe one to say is my favorite, just because it started this whole new career.
Are there other things you look back at from school that you’re particularly proud of?
The AIDS benefit obviously is such an important part of where I realized that what makes me happiest is when I mix art and activism together. And that’s the first time I ever did it, and the school was so encouraging about it. I actually just remembered this now — I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone about this — but I got a humanitarian award at graduation. They kind of created an award for me because they wanted to make sure — the faculty and the people in charge — that I knew they thought that it was really cool that I created the AIDS benefit. That started something for me for the rest of my life: Activism is just as big a part of my schedule and my day as making music.