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Best of 2014: Jack Antonoff on Bleachers, working with Taylor Swift

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Jack Antonoff
Autumn de Wilde

Jack Antonoff of fun. and Steel Train fame had a big year: He debuted an album with his new project Bleachers and helped out Taylor Swift with a few songs on her new album including the chart-topping “Out of the Woods.”

Antonoff released Bleachers’ first single, “I Wanna Get Better,” and announced the existence of Bleachers itself all on one February day—before that, he didn’t tell anyone he was working on a new project except for close friends and family. The entire album, Strange Desire, came out in July and the band’s been touring since.

EW talked with Antonoff about why he initially kept Bleachers a secret, how Yoko Ono got involved with Strange Desire, and what it was like working with Swift on 1989.

Click here for more of EW.com’s Best of 2014 coverage.

As told by: Jack Antonoff

[Keeping Bleachers secret] was only difficult emotionally because no one was expecting me to do it, so no one was looking for it. But as for the decision to keep it a secret, that was more out of necessity. It was more, I think looking at the whole project, and saying, all right, I’m coming from another band that people might have some sort of preconceived idea of what this could be. So the most important thing is for people to hear music first. It’s got to lead with the art and the work.

So, okay, I knew I wanted the music to come first. Then I had to ask myself, if music is going to come first, then I have to finish the entire album before I release any music, even one song, Because how can I know what the right introduction is without hearing the entire body of work? Then I realized, well, f–k, okay, if I have to do whole thing before I release any music and I’m not going to talk about it before I release any music, then that basically means that I can’t do anything until this entire thing is completely done.

This meant Antonoff spent a lot of time writing on the road while he was on tour with fun. and got used to writing “anytime the feeling came.”

You don’t really know when it’s going to hit you. You don’t know what’s going to make sense. For a long time, I would go on tour and I just sort of accepted the fact that part of me is dead when I’m on tour. I’m so busy and so drained, blah blah, and when I get home, I’m going to write. But I kind of realized these past two years that’s kind of bulls–t in that you can write in any scenario.

I had this idea in my head for this lyric, “I wanna get better,” because I thought, that’s what I think about every day when I wake up. I think that’s what everyone thinks kind of all day in some weird way, and I think it’s a very high form of consciousness to want to get betternot necessarily to be better, but to want to get better. And then I started thinking to myself, how do I give that phrase weight?

So it kind of dawned on me, I’ll tell the darker side of my life story in three verses, so then that became putting together a puzzle that was f–king crazy to put together. It just took forever. And then when you put that kind of content into a song, it all kind of has to makes sense in this weird juxtaposition of the sound being really bombastic and exciting, and the lyrics being really dark. It took months.

To me, [“I Wanna Get Better”] stood for everything that the album and the project and I really stand for. It’s basically me shouting my life story. It couldn’t be more personal or straightforward. With a single, I think people get too wrapped up in, “what’s radio gonna like?” or what’s this or what’s that or what’s digestible. The way I always look at singles is, if you could put a million people in a room and you have three minutes to play them one song, what song would you play? And at that time, that constantly changes, but at the time I was releasing the single, there was no question that that song was “I Wanna Get Better” for all those reasons. And so I said, okay, that’s gotta be the first single.

The tracks on Strange Desire“I Wanna Get Better” included are personal, but Antonoff never has second thoughts about putting his whole life into his music. 

There’s never any hesitance while I’m doing it. Because while I’m doing it, if I were to hold back, I’d just hurl myself off a building because then it’d be like, what’s the point of doing this if I start holding back and deciding what is okay to talk about and what isn’t. But it dawns me on later, sometimes if I’m on tour or when people start talking about it or things like that, it’s like you can’t write things that are very honest and personal and then go out and phone it in. You have to relive it every time you sing it. And if you don’t, then it’s going to be extremely depressing to say those words that mean so much to you and not put all of yourself into it. It’s like buying a pet or something, it’s a huge commitment. It’s just something you have to take care of.

Antonoff had Yoko Ono in mind while he was working on “I’m Ready to Move On/Wild Heart Reprise”… so he asked Yoko Ono if she wanted to get involved.

I wanted to have this reprise sort of version of “Wild Heart” where it drifts into this digital weird space. And I kind of had this idea for like an eerie, spoken song kind of poetic moment. And in my head, I kept thinking, something that Yoko would do. I was working on it, I was working on it, then finally I was like, can someone just call Yoko and see if she’ll do it? And so they sent Yoko the idea for the song, and then the next day she wrote back, she was like, “I really like this, I’d love to be a part of it.” It was very simple.

And she came to the studio, and I remember because everybody had the flu. And it was me and Laura, who was engineering, were like half-dead, specifically Laura — I didn’t get it that bad. But like Yoko was there, and she just went in and started screaming and making noises and talking and singing and doing all these wild things for 20 minutes to the track, things that she was just feeling. It was perfect. That’s what I wanted.

Antonoff first worked with Taylor Swift when they wrote the Golden Globe-nominated “Sweeter than Fiction” together in 2013. They collaborated again for a few songs, including “Out of the Woods,” off Swift’s latest album, 1989.

The way we worked was the same way I would write songs with a friend when I was 15. It’s how it should be. She’d come over to my apartment in Brooklyn and we’d sit around and work on something and have lunch, like almost the exact opposite of the cliche bulls–t of being in a big studio with entourages and crap like that. It was just the two of us sending emails back and forth, talking about things that were inspiring us and just working on music.

We get to see each other every so often and we were kind of celebrating in a different way before [“Out of the Woods”] came out, just because artistically it was such a success before anyone heard it. But then also having it be a commercial success is… When you do something that you really believe in artistically and then lots of people hear it, it just makes you feel like you understand the world or something. Or like you all have something in common. There’s been a lot of excitement about what’s happening.

This was the best year of my life. So far, no one’s died that’s been very close to me. I’ve so far been healthy for another year. You gotta think about how f–king incredible it is every time you survive another year. Artistically, I got to do work that I really really believe in. I got to put out the Bleachers album, which has meant more to me than anything I’ve ever done. I’ve worked with Taylor, I’ve been working with a bunch of other artists. It’s been a really nice year. And I feel grateful.

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