Jack Antonoff Is Everywhere: The Rolling Stone Interview
Jack Antonoff has always been a serious, handshake-avoiding, airplane-seat-wiping germophobe, but the past year didn’t phase him much. “I was fine,” he says, “because I was preparing for this.” Instead of freaking out, the songwriter-producer-frontman spent the year hanging with his parents in New Jersey and making music with his usual crew of insanely famous and talented women — Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde, among others — not to mention finishing the third album by his own band, Bleachers, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night.
“If you actually look at the work I do,” he protests, “it’s not as much as you think. I’m just sort of doubling down hard on a few things.” But his work is, pretty inarguably, ubiquitous; with the rise of Olivia Rodrigo, there’s even an artist who sounds like she works with him without actually doing so (unless you count her interpolation of the piano from the Swift-Antonoff track “New Year’s Day”). The signatures of an Antonoff production are harder to pin down than it might seem. He’s known for Eighties-style synths, which he still can’t resist, but he’s recently moved, along with his collaborators, back toward the sound of organic instruments played in real time. (He laughs off the label “maximalist,” which hardly applies to Lorde’s “Liability” or Swift’s “The Archer.”)
July 30th’s Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, which ranges from the Shins-style acoustic pop of “45” to the exuberant E Street-busker blare of “How Dare You Want More,” is Bleachers’ best album so far, with songs sturdy enough that Antonoff’s hero-turned-pal Bruce Springsteen takes over some vocals on the hazy synth-rock anthem “Chinatown” without throwing the whole thing off its axis.
Antonoff, who grew up comfortably in Bergen County, New Jersey, played in a punk band called Outline, fronted the folk-rock group Steel Train, and eventually joined fun., where he was a writer (but not the main one, he says) on their smash “We Are Young.” He quit to start Bleachers (which is sort of a one-man band, except that he played with his touring musicians on the new album), while aiming to become a hitmaking songwriter and producer, a goal he achieved rather rapidly.
On two afternoons in early May, Antonoff sat on the roof of Electric Lady Studios, talking about his singular career. His arm was covered in streaks of red pen, thanks to hours spent sending cut-up pieces of information on the Bleachers album to 4,000 fans who sent self-addressed envelopes to a P.O. box; his oversize designer glasses were, as usual, ever-so-slightly askew.
What was the start of this album?
I was writing for a long time. The early process was, I got out of a relationship [with Lena Dunham], and I felt an amazing amount of darkness and depression. I fell in there. But the moment it starts to open up and you see a piece of light is a really amazing place to write from. There’s a lot of desperation in these songs, and I realized, “Oh, that’s the same feeling of being from New Jersey, that desperation of wanting out, of I want to break through into another part of my life.”
So that’s when I started to see the framework. And then a really amazing thing happened when the pandemic hit. It was like the final piece of the album, because everything I’m talking about in the songwriting is about sort of dreaming of a next place. For the first time, we were forced to dream about energy, which reminded me of being a kid for the first time in a long time, of dreaming about playing for thousands of people. That crazy energy is only something that can happen when it doesn’t exist. And so I got [my touring band] in the room. We kind of brought the tour to the studio, in a way.
What song came first?
It was “Don’t Go Dark,” which was a literal account of the end of a relationship. I love that song. Lana [Del Rey] helped on that. Because I was just singing “Run, run, run, run with the wild,” and then she was like, [singing] “Do what you want.” And I was like, “Just don’t go dark on me.” It was one of those moments where you know, if someone was filming it, it would have been really special. And I was like, “Damn, that is a dynamite chorus.” So she’s a writer on that.
There was one moment like that caught on film, when you and Taylor Swift wrote the bridge to “Getaway Car” in like 30 seconds. How common are those moments?
It’s the only time in my life that a lightning-in-a-bottle moment, a pure moment of crazy writing, was caught on film. It’s rare that you just, like, blurt out a whole song. But there’s pieces, like that bridge, where we’re just going back and forth and yelling things. It’s sort of like, “Whoa! Oh, my God, what happened? It can happen like that?” That’s when it feels like a movie.
How did the album opener, “91,” come together?
Writing is a fascinating thing. Because you’re so powerless, which is why it’s hilarious. Sometimes you’re in your head, and you’re saying, “Oh, this is a weird feeling. I don’t like this feeling. We should write about it.” And so “91” is that quintessential song for me, where I was looking at my mother, looking at the relationship I got out of, looking at my future, and kind of cutting it up into pieces. I originally called it “Mother Ex-Lover,” but when I saw it on paper, I was like, “This is a problem” [laughs]. So I called it “91.” It’s my favorite piece of writing on the record. Also, because Zadie Smith, who I really love, kind of helped me frame it.
Wait, like, Zadie Smith personally helped you, or reading her work helped you?
Yeah, I was showing it to her. She started to help me frame it. Which is remarkable, because I’ve never worked with someone who wasn’t in music. That song is more of a story. The next part of the story of that song was I was in California, working with the Chicks, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were next door. I showed the song to [Bad Seeds member] Warren Ellis, and he started playing violin on it. The final piece of that puzzle was Annie Clark, St. Vincent. She heard it and started making string arrangements. So this song makes me feel like I’m being propped up by people I have a great amount of respect for.
How did you become friends with Zadie Smith?
I don’t remember. But I think last time I saw her, I ran into her on the street around here. And then she came by and was playing her stuff in the studio. There was even a melody thing she had a note on, which she was 100 percent right about. I get opinions from a small group of people who I respect, love, and believe are honest and noncynical. Because the worst thing that can happen as an artist is to get an opinion from someone who’s yelling in the mirror, you know? These conversations you have with people, where they’re really talking about themselves, are so disruptive. It’s very dangerous to an artist. And we see records get fucked up like that all the time. When people start shopping them around and this guy’s doing this, this person is that, all of a sudden, you’re not getting the cool drum sound from this person. You’re getting everyone yelling at you about how they feel about their own work through their harsh opinions towards your work.
Who else is in your feedback group?
The best records are made with a small group of people that really believe in something. My group is like me, my manager, my A&R person who doesn’t even work on my label anymore — he’s just a really close person to me. Then my family, and some artists like Lana. I always play some for Ella [Lorde]. Taylor, of course.
Bruce [Springsteen] is deeply in the group. I played him the whole record the other day. We took a drive and listened to it. If I was trying to make an album that everyone in the world was supposed to like, I would ask everyone in the world, but I’m trying to make an album that’s for my people. So I’m playing it for my people.
What kind of feedback do they give you?
Endless. I wasn’t totally sure about “91” opening the album. Bruce was like, “No, that’s the move.” Taylor was a big part of giving me a push to release “I Wanna Get Better.” I was sending her songs for that first Bleachers album. I thought maybe “Rollercoaster” should come first, which would have been such a bad idea, too safe.
“I Wanna Get Better” is a fucking life story in three minutes. And I listened, because I really respect her. But everyone in that world is sort of equal. My mom’s input is just as valid.
Bruce sings on “Chinatown,” and it seems like you’ve become pretty tight with him and his wife, Patti Scialfa. What’s that relationship like? I also heard you might be helping out on some music with Patti.
I’ve been messing with stuff with Patti. They’re remarkably artistically vital. And they also have real lives. They give me a lot of faith in relationships and that the path to being your best self, both in life and as an artist, is to be the most honest. They’ve figured a lot of things out, and we have a blast together when we all hang out.
So we’re hanging out one day at their place and everyone was playing stuff. I had this early version of “Chinatown,” and it turned into like, “Let’s go into the studio.” And then everyone was kind of singing on the song. If I had thought, “Oh, I want a song with Bruce,” it wouldn’t have worked. What took me by surprise was how well it worked. He comes in and fucking murders the thing, but it feels like my band and it feels like my friend’s singing on the song. That’s the part that is so special to me: That’s my friend singing on the song. That’s the guy I hang out with and make jokes with, and between the jokes he tells me some of the most beautiful stories of life and art. And also, man, he’s just better than ever. Those last couple records are beautiful.
“How Dare You Want More” seems to have a really core message in it. There’s a lot of guilt in there.
It’s like, “Be careful, don’t tempt the evil eye. Don’t try to have too good a life.” I want to have this big life and a big family and a big love, and even as I say that, there’s a literal voice in me, which is the “how dare you want more” voice.
The idea of tempting the evil eye is a real Eastern European Jewish thing.
Holocaust thinking. Depression mentality. It’s in my lineage. That’s a crazy road to go down. Because of the stories you’ve heard of your ancestors, like, “We went through this shit so you could play music if you wanted to.” Two generations ago, the highest form of success was to not be murdered. So you go burn it down for all the people that couldn’t do it. But don’t get cocky!
It feels like your production both for yourself and your collaborators has gotten more organic lately.
Yeah, for sure. It’s just different phases, different things. Five years ago, I loved nothing more than cutting up samples and playing them on my MPC. That thing has been in the closet for two years now. I think one of the reasons why there’s a group of people I can do good work with is because we’re all feeling a similar thing.
When you make something, you’re at your most valuable if you want something to be out there and you’re not finding it. And what’s not out there is this sort of, like, band-on-fire kind of New Jersey sound mixed with the way I write.
I felt that way. Lana felt that way. Taylor felt that way. And the Lana record and Folklore are very different kinds of organic than this Bleachers rec-ord. But it is on a similar tip of like, “Let’s start to do the thing not everyone can do. Let’s play in a room.”
Erik Tanner for Rolling Stone
Until Taylor let you produce, you were told you could never be a producer, right? It was like a screenwriter wanting to be a director.
Literally, we made “Out of the Woods.” I fucking put my heart and soul into that thing. Right at the moment when I was expecting some heavy was going to come in and do the production, she was like, “Can’t wait for this to come out!” And I was like, “That’s it?” She was like, “Yes, perfect.”
Overnight, you’re allowed to produce records, and it filled me with joy and fucking resentment because it’s a reminder of why I keep myself extremely separate from the business. It’s a reminder that all these herbs are ambulance chasers. Where are the ears, man? It’s happened over and over and over, every record I’ve made that has become a really important, big record. I mean, the stories I can tell you of what the herbs said about those when they heard them for the first time . . . cut to everyone high-fiving.
It’s not just that you work with female artists. Growing up, a lot of female artists were important to you, which isn’t the case for some other male musicians.
Yeah, I was never that way. I don’t really like cock rock. When I grew up in the Nineties, it was always Fiona Apple and Björk. I love Smashing Pumpkins, but there was nothing macho about them. I’ve had this conversation a lot in the studio that plays into what you’re saying. And I’ve finally been able to understand that it’s all about the difference between macho and tough. On one side of it, it’s magical. On the other side, it’s awful. Tough is amazing. Macho is bad. Fleetwood Mac is tough. Kiss is macho.
In that era, you were a big listener to New York’s pop radio station, Z100, which went through a period where it was a kind of pop-alternative fusion station.
Melissa Etheridge had a pop hit. Snoop had a pop hit. Green Day had a pop hit. Nirvana was on pop radio. Smashing Pumpkins. Dr. Dre. Toad the Wet Sprocket. Rancid. But then in the late Nineties, rap metal — macho, macho, macho, taking all that toughness and vomiting it out, right? That’s when I rocketed toward the punk and hardcore New Jersey scene, which was very progressive. At that age, you’re a little bit of a sheep, but I feel really excited that my sheep days had me taking cues from vegans who were reading Noam Chomsky books. I was one of those kids who was, like, yelling at my parents about Procter & Gamble and animal testing.
What was the deal with the bad acid trip you had as a teenager?
So I’m 18, my sister dies [of cancer]. I start touring. My life is falling apart, and my life is happening. It wasn’t much to write home about, but I did get a record deal. So literally my family being like, “Go live your dream,” was absurd because this horrible thing was happening. We were all 18, 19, we were in a band, driving around in a van, and everything was so euphoric. I just dove into music. And some of my friends were doing drugs.
I did acid and mushrooms a few times with my friends. For a kid who lost my sibling and was traveling around the world, it was the worst possible thing. It really fucked me up. I had this disassociation. I went to a really, really bad place and took a long time to come back from it. Now it makes perfect sense — I was in the hyper-early stages of grief. Last thing anyone like that should do is hallucinogenics — and this isn’t like 2021 mushrooms. This is something a friend had, and we just put them all in a pot and ate them all and drank tea. We probably took so much. It was horrible. I literally went to the doctor and told them what happened. I was like, “I don’t think I’m gonna come back.”
What did the doctor say?
He was like, “Well, it can trigger schizophrenia.” It really, really scared me. It can make me cry to think about it. I had so many hopes and my family had this big loss, and I almost fucked my life up. So now it’s become like a touchstone for writing — like, the most out of control I’ve ever been. I didn’t leave the house for a couple months. I got in a really bad way. It gives me horrible feelings, even discussing it. So I don’t do a lot with anything psychoactive.
It seems like as you went through all these musical phases, when Steel Train ended, when you quit fun., you never lost confidence that you would make music for a living.
You accept different things at different ages. When you’re 18 and your friends are going off to college and you’ve scored some small record deal, you’re a king. When you’re 21 and your friends are planning their lives and you’re smoking pot in a van, you’re a loser. When you’re 25 and your friends are going, “I feel a little stuck,” and you’re smoking pot in a van, all of a sudden you’re kind of cool again. I wasn’t able to support myself, move out, envision a life where I could do music and not live in my parents’ house. And it was that way until I was 27. I was on this blind-faith path. I call it a delusion, which I think is part of being an artist. My reality was, if I live in my parents’ house and am considered wildly unsuccessful in my circles, then that’s the deal.
When you were in Steel Train, you wrote “Better Love,” which calls out your high school ex Scarlett Johansson by her first name. She was already famous, so everyone knew who it was. That seems hilariously uncharacteristic. What was that about?
I think it was a really naive moment where I didn’t understand. I don’t know. Maybe some part of me wanted to just put the whole thing on blast. I can’t really access the part of me that was willing to just chuck a name in there.
Maybe you wanted the attention?
Maybe? Maybe I was disassociating. I mean, I was 19. It was a surreal time. I wrote songs on that album that were so hyperspecific, even about death, that they are uncomfortable to listen to. It was not an inviting body of work.
Someone made a PowerPoint about something they theorized happened in your personal life [it was alleged that Antonoff had an affair with Lorde]. It went viral. Is it weird to have people think they know something like that about you?
I don’t think people who listen to my music think they know that. There’s a whole other audience, people that have some pretty hot takes, but they might not actually be your audience. I could do a really tight five minutes on why [the affair theory] is absurd. But then I just sort of, like, go back to work.
When she had you onstage at Barclays Center, some writers online got worked up about the whole thing again.
We played a song together! Ella and I have a brilliant friendship and creative relationship. It’s like, “I read on a wall smeared in shit that you are not a nice guy. Care to comment?” “I went to the bottom of the ocean. And there was a colony of people there who are all eating each other. They’re like half-fish, half-human. And they said that you eat out of the dumpster. Care to comment?” [Laughs.]
Fair enough. To get back to the musical relationship, Lorde’s Melodrama was the first time you did a whole album with an artist. What did you take away from that experience?
It was the first time I did an album with someone where I was in . . . where it was mine. And it’s what I’m best at. There’s a whole recent history of people allowing me to be my best self. Whether it’s Taylor or Ella, it’s a type of person who took a leap of faith, because there wasn’t a proven track record.
We were finding ourselves together on Melodrama. She was in a remarkably fascinating place. The second album is a monster, and the second album is a mountain. And she had all these added pressures of what had happened in the first album, but had a very clear vision of what she wanted. I was finding myself as a producer, and I felt like we brought out the best in each other. I think my life would have been remarkably different without that.
You spent forever on “Liability,” I’ve heard.
Yeah, we did. To make the decision that a song is going to be a vocal and a piano, the vocal and the piano have to be perfect. And when I say perfect,
I mean, whatever it takes to evoke a specific feeling. Are the vocals super dry and in your face? Is there a slight knowing reverb to it, where the reverb represents the loneliness? If you use a grand piano, the shit’s gonna start to sound too self-serious. If you record it too low-fi, it’s gonna sound like you’re apologizing for what a beautiful song and sentiment it is. It’s a really interesting balancing act.
What about “Green Light”?
Another one with a really interesting balance, where the song asks a lot of you. “OK, so you want me to come close and hear the story. But then you also want me to, like, do a backflip and dance my face off?” It’s a really cool journey. It doesn’t make anything better or worse. There are certain things you know what to do with, and it’s a lot to do. It has nothing to do with how many tracks are on it. It’s got to do with what the song is asking you.
Were you surprised how huge Folklore was?
I was surprised at the level of it. I thought it was beautiful. I loved the work she was doing with Aaron [Dessner], I loved the work she and I were doing.
Antonoff with Aaron Dessner and Taylor Swift at the Grammys in March
TAS Rights Management 2021/Getty Images)
I thought it would speak to her people. I didn’t know it would become what it did. It was just her sort of like pulling it back, like, “Let’s try some shit.” And that’s the algorithm I focus on, the one in my head where it’s like, “If you make things you really love, you find your people for it.” That’s my experience of Bleachers. I’m not trying to get everyone on Earth. Are there 10,000 in every city, or is there a million in every city? I don’t know. That’s this whole thing, at its highest: Find your people. Otherwise you could be really, really big and no one could give a fuck. Remember how big fun. was? You’re not asking me about that. At the end of the day, it came and went because the conversation wasn’t long enough to build into something that stayed with you.
Reputation was the first time you wrote with Taylor in the same room; before, you’d sent her tracks. What did you take away from that?
I was like, “Oh, shit, we can do this too.” My creative relationship with her feels kind of boundless. I don’t work with, like, a large list of people. So these are pretty special creative relationships. And that’s obviously a big one.
Reputation is great; it’s a really underrated album, or at least it was initially.
Once again, the difference between people who are the audience and people who are driving by and have a comment. So much was going on culturally that it was easy to have a comment here or there. But I love it. I went back to it recently and loved it.
What have you learned from working with Lana Del Rey? She seems like a very different artist than some of your other collaborators.
Very different. It’s a tough one to answer because I see her and my work as just, like, in a different zone or something. I don’t even remember sometimes how a lot of those things happen because everyone has a different process of getting somewhere. And when we’re together, I feel like we just, like, fuck around, just play some stuff. But I did learn not to do anything with her that I’m not prepared to put out before we leave the studio. Because if she’s feeling it, that door’s gonna close. She’s very vibe-driven.
How did “Venice Bitch,” which is almost 10 minutes long, happen?
There was a more beat-driven three-minute version. My process with her is not super precious. It isn’t, until it is. I remember her being like, “What if you just go play drums on it?” I was like, “OK, well, I’ll play, and what if there’s a long outro?” The way I play drums is very much as a fan of music. I spend a lot of time in headphones playing along to records. So I was playing and having a really good time. And I was like, “This part’s quiet, this part’s loud, this part’s crazy, this part’s kind of like acid-y.” Lana’s fun because she’ll call a sound “beautiful,” or “disgusting.”
You’ve been asked many times why you gravitate toward working with women. Have you come up with any additional insights?
It’s never come up in my head outside of being interviewed.
The most reductive, possibly idiotic answer is here’s someone who’s lost a sister, seeking to . . .
I wouldn’t call it idiotic. I would call that, like, entry-level analysis. I don’t have answers for a lot of these things. There’s a lot of wonder there, and, I think, that’s something that is good for the process.
Like everyone else, you’re not without ego . . .
[Laughs.] Thank you, Brian.
But what I was going to ask is how you put your performer’s ego aside to become such an able collaborator, to accept that it’s not about you.
If you’re doing songwriting right, it’s hard to imagine feeling like it’s about you. I think it’s a common misconception. It’s come from years of artists who are so exhausted by not knowing when the next song is coming that they replaced it with ego. None of us are in control. To be a songwriter is to wake up every morning and pray that you’re hit with it. Sometimes you’re feeling it and you just can’t fucking get it. It’s maddening. And then sometimes you get it, and you’re working on it forever, forever and forever. It’s like this crazy puzzle that you can’t put together and you work on it for a year.
And then one day, you’re having lunch with a friend, and you get an idea in a split second that’s better than that whole year’s work. But the way I feel making my work and making other people’s work is the same. A wild blend of like, “I know how to do this, and it’s a part of my being,” and also an amazing curiosity. And if you can find those two things in something, then you should chase it until that goes away.
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