Jack Antonoff Is Just Trying To Be Honest With Himself

"I feel like I’ve been kind of a maniac for about a decade now."

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Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.

We think we know Jack Antonoff. He produces every female popstar under the sun; his band, Bleachers, sounds like Bruce Springsteen with more synths and drum machines. According to Pitchfork and portions of pop music Twitter, he’s a “polarising nice guy” — whatever that means.

When I log on to Zoom to interview him on a Friday morning, I think I know what to expect. I get some of that, but so much more.

It’s not that he’s not “nice” — but in person, Jack Antonoff doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t speak with a PR-friendly spin — he’ll happily answer with a blunt “no”. He’s either thinking through his responses in real-time, or telling you a truth that he’s come to through testing and questioning himself. To me, that’s the way he respects his audience. He doesn’t need to qualify his statements; he trusts that you’ll understand the message, or not.

We conducted this interview before the release of Lorde’s Solar Power — the fifth full-length album Antonoff’s worked on this year, after St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home, Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails over the Country Club, Clairo’s Sling, and Bleachers’ own Take the Sadness out of Saturday Night. Junkee’s Joseph Earp gave Lorde’s newest a deeply positive review: “The joy of Solar Power is the way that it breathes new life into even the most basic of sentiments; a stunning reclamation of hoary old phrases, like a new lacquer of varnish applied to an ancient set of drawers.”

But overall, as listeners and critics adjust to Lorde’s new-old style, the reactions have been curiously muted — not even polarised. In a sense, it means that Antonoff’s still capable of surprising us.

Bleachers’ third album, Take the Sadness out of Saturday Night, is easily their best, yet least overtly anthemic to date. It’s as romanticist as any Bleachers work, but with more brooding ballads and raucous, live-sounding arrangements. It’s an album that invites you to look inward and reflect, while urging you to get up and dance.

Some would have you believe that Jack Antonoff’s been doing the same productions for a decade now, since Fun.’s 2011 megahit ‘We Are Young’ brought him into the public consciousness. The truth is, we have no idea how many sonic eras and styles he’s progressed through since he started releasing music in 2000, when he was still in high school.

He doesn’t need to qualify his statements; he trusts that you’ll understand the message, or not.

Of course, there is a throughline from his own projects — Steel Train, Bleachers, Red Hearse — to his most famous collaborations: 1989, Reputation, Melodrama, Norman Fucking Rockwell!. But there’s never been a formula. He might seem like he’s been omnipresent in the broader pop music space, but he’s never been a Max Martin-style hitmaker, despite sharing space with him on two Taylor Swift records.

Antonoff works with cult artists who are already auteurs in their own right, who sometimes happen to be chart-topping popstars. He’s not making music for youth culture trends, nor the time capsule we think 2021 is supposed to sound like. He can condense big emotions and complex ideas into three-minute pop songs, but they always find a way to go against the grain. Much of the most compelling pop of the last few years has been made this way: from Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas, to Olivia Rodrigo with producer Dan Nigro.

Producing music isn’t just about making beats or arranging sounds. It’s about deep listening and empathy: helping an artist vocalise their deepest beliefs and philosophies — even when it’s your own. Bleachers is Jack looking in the mirror, working with himself.

It’s about intuition, and the hard work required to translate it into reality. Songs about difficult emotions don’t just materialise — they have to be earned through the recording process. The ones that do get done in one take are founded on years of learning from your mistakes. And it’s about community: the way a song like ‘I Wanna Get Better’ means nothing without a crowd to shout it back, to prove that the sentiment is true.

In our conversation, we touched on a lifetime’s worth of artistic ideas in just 14 minutes. You can only imagine what it’s like being in a room with Jack Antonoff and Lorde or Taylor — or inside his own brain. But I don’t think he’d say that he’s special. He’d tell you that you can do it too.

Music Junkee: In September, it’ll be 10 years since Fun. released ‘We Are Young’.

Jack Antonoff: Oh, wow! I didn’t know that.

MJ: What was your mindset at the time? Was the goal to make it as a member of Fun.?

JA: No. I had been writing my own music and performing my whole life, and Fun. was a side project. And when the band got really big, to be very honest, I was actually filled with anxiety because I didn’t want to be singing ‘We Are Young’ for the next 10 years. [Laughs]

I didn’t write the lyrics to that song, so it didn’t speak to me when I performed it. I had a band called Steel Train at the time, and I was starting Bleachers — I wanted to be out there on the road playing my own music.

MJ: So I imagine it took a few years to get Bleachers going?

JA: I was writing for a long time. It takes me a long time to make every record, because I go through the phase of messing around, and then the phase of seeing it, then putting it together, and then getting to this thing that I imagined in my head. But I did feel this urgency during that time period to get Bleachers going, because I needed to be doing what I’ve done my whole life, in conversation with my audience.

MJ: When did you started thinking of yourself as someone who might produce and collaborate with other artists for a living?

JA: I always thought of myself that way. It’s just the funny thing about being a songwriter. If you’re a songwriter and no one likes your songs, you’re still a songwriter. If you’re a performer and an artist, and no one comes to your shows, you’re still a performer and an artist. If you’re a producer and nobody lets you produce their records, it’s a little tough.

I always was a producer. But it’s hard to get in there because you need someone to vouch for you, almost. So it was it was a funny road to get to that that point.

I always was a producer. But it’s hard to get in there because you need someone to vouch for you, almost.

But you know, these are all different loves: the love of touring is different to the love of writing or performing, or producing. Some people love the road, but don’t like the studio. I happen to love the different angles of it, so it’s just this thing I’ve always done. It’s grown, in the level to which it’s happened. But my mind and body are doing the same thing I did since I was a kid: play shows, hear songs, produce them, write them, work with my friends.

MJ: Has the last year or so been busier than usual for you? I’ve counted something like seven full albums.

JA: No, it’s busy. But it’s also interesting — things stack up in funny ways. I think there’s a narrative that I’m busier than I am — I’m just focused on things and see them through. Depending on when and how they come out, there’s this idea that there’s more going on than there is. So no. But I feel like I’ve been kind of a maniac for about a decade now.

MJ: What was the genesis of Take the Sadness out of Saturday Night?

JA: It started with me seeing this doorway in my head, where I wanted to get to the next phase of my life. I became obsessed with this image, because I saw myself with all this baggage — all my emotional baggage. And I thought, “Oh, I want to jump through. There’s all this joy and beauty and hope on the other side, but I can’t get through with all this stuff. So oh my god, I’ve got to drop a few of these.” Whichever I drop, and whichever I take, will define me.

And you don’t want to drop, or take, the wrong thing. I realised it was a beautiful place to write from, because it was holding all the different feelings that exist in my music. Which is all of this hope and joy about what’s beyond, and then all of this darkness and sadness about the anxiety of being stuck.

MJ: I love how the album manages to be both really warm and weirdly chaotic. Did you go into the record intending to have more live-sounding arrangements?

But live music is there waiting for you, and you go out and find your people and you invest in them. It’s a church that you build and build and build.

JA: This is a big pandemic story, because live music has always been something that is yours [as a musician]. Everything else is fleeting. But live music is there waiting for you, and you go out and find your people and you invest in them. It’s a church that you build and build and build.

When that was proven to be fragile, something that could come off the table, in my corner of the world where that’s god — it was really heavy. My whole life had been putting my band in a room and saying, “play like there’s no tomorrow”. When COVID happened, we didn’t know when we’d get to play again, and if/when we do, if it would ever be the same… We need people sweaty, yelling, on top of each other — that’s what a Bleachers show is.

So we got in the room, and we didn’t even have to say it. We played like it was the last day on earth. It became a character: the album is the unhinged, chaotic sound of a band who’s fucking frustrated and teetering on the edge — and is this thing gonna fly off? You don’t know. And it doesn’t. That’s one of the beauties of this album.

MJ: How did you feel doing folklore’s long pond studio sessions with Taylor Swift? From the outside, it seemed like a deeply emotional experience.

JA: It was very emotional for a few reasons. The first reason is, that album obviously means the world to the three of us. And we made it under very strange circumstances — the three of us had not been in a room. So it was the first time the three of us were in a room. I’d met Aaron [Dessner] before, but it was the first time I’d really spent time with him. I hadn’t seen my friend Taylor in a long time, so I was catching up with her again, after we had done all this stuff together.

And it was also the first music I’d played with people since the pandemic. All our cynicism just drifted away. And you’re just left with the glory, of why you do what you do.

MJ: I’d love to know how collaborating with other artists has influenced your own artistry.

JA: There are lots of little things about other artists that influence me, but the biggest thing that’s a constant in my life is: I try to move through my art, my music with dignity and sincerity, and not bring cynicism into it. The more I can surround myself with people who see this work in the same way, the more I can stay on that path, and block out everything else. I feel like we become each other’s armour. They hold my fears, I hold their fears. It’s a really beautiful relationship that I have with a lot of my collaborators.

MJ: I have to ask how you got Bruce Springsteen on ‘Chinatown’.

Bruce is a dear friend, and he’s also someone who shaped my music before I knew him. He and his wife Patti are two of my favourite people — artistically and as humans. One day we were hanging out, playing records, showing him what I was working on. I had just written ‘Chinatown’, and I had a little demo of it. They’ve got a studio at their place, so they were like, “Oh, let’s go mess with it”. Everyone was singing on it, but I didn’t think too much of it.

I try to move through my art, my music with dignity and sincerity, and not bring cynicism into it.

Later, I heard it back and I was like, “goddamn, this really is beautiful”. It was this circular moment where this artist, who has emboldened me so deeply to write and make work in the first place, is showing up on this second chorus of the song. It sounds like Bleachers, but you also hear his influence tied together in this very beautiful way.

MJ: I know you can’t say too much about the music on Solar Power. But what were the recording sessions for that like and where you based?

JA: I hesitate to say too much, because when I collaborate on albums I feel like it belongs to the artist whose work it is. There was some in New Zealand, some in California, and a big chunk of it in New York City at the studio I’m at right now, Electric Lady. One of the more beautiful experiences of my life was making that album. I’ll reserve anything else until everyone hears it.

MJ: And what about working with Clairo for the first time, on her second album Sling?

JA: She’s absolutely brilliant. That is such a far-out, brilliant, ambitious album. When we started talking about it, she was telling me the level and her ideas of where she wanted to take things. We went to a mountain in upstate New York and just went nuts on the thing. That album could not mean more to me. I think she’s one of the greats of our time.

MJ: Do you find that it’s a different headspace when you’re working with an artist for the first time?

JA: It is different. What’s different about it is that there are upsides to both. When you know someone and you have a language together, that’s one thing. But you’re always redefining it record to record, album to album.

But there’s also this anxiety and wild energy of understanding someone in the moment and putting the pieces together while you’re working. It’s a different kind of high, to the high of knowing someone and seeing how far you can push each other. They’re different in the ways that you’d imagine.

MJ: It seems like it’s been a very intuitive journey for you thus far.

JA: It has to be. There’s really no other way to do this. And if you’re going to put it out and ask people to listen to it and come to the shows — it’s got to come from this gut place. Otherwise, you’re taking up space.

MJ: When you’re developing a new idea for a song, how do you know when it’s working? Or how do you know when to discard it and move on?

In my life, I’ve had trouble listening to that voice, but not in my art.

JA: That’s a real gut thing. It’s that deep voice that isn’t always convenient, and is often not what you want to hear. But you have to listen to it. Specifically in art, there’s always a voice. You can spend your life running from it, or you can surrender to it and be who you actually are. In my life, I’ve had trouble listening to that voice, but not in my art. From a young age, I heard it and I knew it. I knew it was my best friend, and had my best intentions.

That voice is loud if you’re listening. If you’re not listening, you can’t find it. But if you find it, it’s loud, and it tells you where to go and when to stop.

MJ: Do you have any advice for younger artists who are potentially looking to follow in your footsteps?

JA: Do the things that make you feel yourself, that you hear yourself in, and that you love. There’s a lot of noise out there about repeating what other people have done. But if you do the things that you really believe in, you can’t be wrong. The only challenge is going out and finding your people.

But you can’t just do anything in this work. It’s all about this faith and belief in what you hear and what you imagine, not what anyone else thinks.

Bleachers’ Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night is out now via RCA Records/Sony Music Australia.

Richard S. He is a musician, screenwriter, and award-winning journalist. He tweets at @rsh_elle.