Rolling Stone

“None of us are in control. To write songs is to pray every morning you’re hit with it.”

Jack Antonoff On the art of producing and songwritin­g


Jack antonoff has always been a serious, handshake-avoiding, airplane-seatwiping 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 songwriter­producer-front man 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 synthrock 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 hitmak

ing 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 marker, 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-ina-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.

“We made ‘Out of the Woods,’ and right when I was expecting some heavy to come in to do production, Taylor was like,

‘It’s perfect.’”

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 record. 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.”

How do you feel about the fact that as successful as Bleachers may be, it’s pretty dwarfed by a Taylor or Lana?

It can be a bit of a mindfuck. By all stretches of my hopes and dreams, Bleachers is a huge band. But I make records with people who are on a whole different level of huge. But I look up to someone like Jeff Lynne. Because it’s usually one or the other. Someone’s a producer-writer, and then they kind of do their vanity thing, or someone’s an artist, and they want to get into production and writing. Jeff Lynne did the thing. ELO is the real deal, and his production­s were the real deal. I listen to his production­s, and I listen to his band, and I get lost in both of them separately.

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 [

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