Jack Antonoff On Songwriting, Being An Emotional Baby & His Quest To Find Joy
Jack Antonoff is one of the world’s most in-demand music producers, writing and creating albums for artists such as Lorde and Taylor Swift
Jack Antonoff says he feels like a maniac. He looks relaxed. He’s sitting in his New York studio framed by an upright piano on his right and an acoustic guitar hanging from the wall on his left. He’s wearing a crisp, creamy Electric Ladyland T-shirt and sporting his trademarked chunky black circular specs that give him the look of an inquisitive raccoon or old-timey burglar.
For a maniac, he’s terrific company. Generous in his answers, honest and revealing and willing to wade into deep emotional territory.
He’s also a little bit rambly. He says he likes to walk. He says he loves his country. He says he hid behind the trauma and grief of losing his sister for so long that those feelings came to define him. He says he doesn’t have any hobbies.
We’re talking, and Antonoff’s feeling this way, because this week he’s stepping out from behind the production desk — which he’s manned for artists like St Vincent, Lana Del Ray, Taylor Swift and, of course, Lorde — to take centre stage with his 80s-inspired, college-rock-style band, Bleachers.
I say band, but Bleachers is a solo project in all but name. The new record is called Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night and it’s exceptionally good, packed full of addictive, soaring, sing-along pop rock tunes that could fill stadiums as well as your own personal emotional needs.
“It’s a very specific feeling to work on something and bare a lot of yourself within it,” he says of the album and the upcoming release. “You think it’d be this slow release based on what it is and what it means to you, but one day it’s just born. It’s amazing. It’s bizarre. It’s thrilling. It’s truly all the feelings I’ve been able to have, all wrapped up in this.”
All of the feelings is Antonoff’s speciality, his calling card. It’s why the globe’s biggest pop stars call on him to produce their records. It’s what fuels Bleachers. It’s what he spends his life thinking about, working through and — if he gets it right — growing from. He builds his songs and those he collaborates on out of catchy hooks, glorious earworm choruses and raw truths.
“The moment I really started to understand this album I had a vision of a doorway and myself with all this stuff trying to get through the doorway,” he explains, before a grin spreads across his face. “You know, a pretty basic metaphor.”
It is, but it’s the simple things that prove universal. He says he couldn’t shake this picture. He’d realised he wanted to move on to the next portion of his life but was carrying so many traits and flaws that he literally couldn’t.
“I got obsessed with this idea of defining periods of life based on what you choose to leave behind and what you choose to take forward and not becoming so heavy that you can’t get through that door,” he says. “I’ve written so much about grief and loss that, for the first time, I wanted the joy of the other side.”
Then he sighs and says, “I didn’t get there. I mostly wrote about the joy and the pain of trying to get to the other side.”
Musically, the album is largely joyous and in conflict with Antonoff’s pain, which is present in his words.
For example, it’s impossible to resist the bouncy, Bruce Springsteen-inspired party track, ‘How Dare You Want More’. It’s a song that rips forward on a propulsive riff, killer saxophones and the album-defining, introspective lyric, “Who am I without this weight on my shoulder? / Oh God, I’m dyin’ to know,” before it ramps up to its rousing, repeating, crowd-chanted outro that’s part admission, part self-help mantra: “Hey, lonely wants to stay forever / But tonight we’re gonna do a little better.”
“You don’t write about things you know, because they’re very boring. I write about things I want to know. Things I can feel, but can’t articulate,” he explains. “That’s why they’re worth writing about, because they bring me a lot of discomfort. They’re pulling at a piece of me that’s saying, ‘Oh, this could be a hurtful place to go,’ so you want to go and you want to find out what the hell’s happening.”
For so long that hurt and discomfort centred around the loss of his sister when he was 18. He viewed everything through that lens; his life, his relationships and his work.
“Only recently, for the first time, I’m sitting here trying to get through that doorway and thinking, ‘There’s DNA here that goes well beyond this tragedy’,” he admits. “There are issues in my nuclear family. There are issues with myself and how I function.”
He says, in a weird way, his grief or trauma became a safety net, somewhere for everything in his life to live.
“I get panic attacks? It’s because of that. I’m bad at relationships? It’s because of that. I can’t do this? It’s because of that,” he says. “You become an emotional genius with grief, but an emotional baby in other ways because you’re letting this be the cause of all your issues in life. I reached a point where I really started looking at what’s baked into the cake that didn’t have to do with that trauma. It was a real scary and strange place to go because there’s an absolute quality to saying, ‘Oh, I’m messed up because this thing happened’.
“Big traumas in your life are defining moments, but they’re also a place where you can put a lot of things and not examine them,” he explains. “I’m very ambitious in my work and my music. I’m always trying to push forward, push forward, push forward.”
Then, he laughs and says, “Only recently did it occur to me to attempt that in my personal life.”