Jack, Out of the Box: An afternoon with Jack Antonoff
In the Venn diagram of modern pop, all circles seem to overlap with Jack Antonoff. There he is in the studio, collaborating on the latest zeitgeist-rattling opus by Taylor Swift or Lorde or Lana Del Rey. Now he's in a Cadillac, with Bruce Springsteen riding shotgun on a bittersweet duet for his long-running project, Bleachers; or beaming across the globe from a Grammys podium, hands wrapped around yet another golden statuette. (He has five so far, including two each for Swift and the band that first put him on the map, erstwhile rock trio Fun.)
"People have different outlets," shrugs the New Jersey native, 37, eyebrows knitting like parentheses behind his signature horn-rims. "For me, I write songs, I sing songs, I play songs, and I produce songs…. In every career there's some barrier of entry that you've got to break through, and it takes brave people who believe in you and are willing to die on that hill if they were wrong. But if you really break it down, what you're trying to do is take a feeling and put it on tape. You're trying to add one plus one plus one — but it doesn't equal a few, it equals a million."
Though he may be referring to a more mystical kind of arithmetic, the chart numbers don't lie: Since Fun. first broke through nearly a decade ago with titanic hand-over-heart anthems like "We Are Young" and "Carry On," the musical polymath has proved to be both a Swiss Army knife and stealth MVP in an industry that rarely allows one artist to occupy so many lanes, at least not simultaneously. So it makes some sense that Bleachers, born from the ashes of Fun., would vibrate at a lower frequency on the Antonoff fame scale than, say, his contributions to Swift's cottage-core smash Folklore, or a much-documented five-year romance with Lena Dunham, with whom he amicably split in 2017.
While his band's greatest hit to date remains the breezy-bleak 2014 confessional "I Wanna Get Better," their latest album, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night (out July 30), serves as a sort of expert distillation of everything percolating in its creator's famously fertile brain: a canny commingling of indie-pop jangle and unabashed arena rock, steeped in the winsome synths and galloping guitar riffs of a lost '80s movie soundtrack. ("I don't recognize myself if I start to get cynical," he admits, of Bleachers' trademark cockeyed sincerity. "And some people make really good work from a cynical place! It's just not something that I can do.")
The title of the record, he explains, "just felt like this amazing rubber band between my past, present, and future. That was me as a kid in a band, writing songs, trying to find people to play with because I had this weight on me that I couldn't define. Everyone's out doing s--- on a Saturday night, and I'm home writing songs." It also doubles as a callback to the geography of his youth, one degree removed from a Manhattan that glittered on the horizon, so close but so far. "Growing up I remember thinking, 'Everything's happening right there over that river, but I'm here.' It's the opposite of the New York theme, which is reporting from the center of the world."
Call it poetic justice, then, that "Chinatown," the wistful ballad from whose lyrics Sadness takes its name, is also the one that features arguably the Garden State's most famous resident on backup vocals, crooning harmonies in his trademark who's-the-Boss rumble. But getting Springsteen on tape, Antonoff swears, "was an incredibly organic experience. We were all hanging out and just playing a bunch of different records and stuff we were all working on. I played them the song, and then 10 minutes later we're in the studio, and Bruce is singing. I remember going home and listening to it and thinking to myself, 'Damn, this really actually works."'
Befriending your hometown heroes has its privileges, like riding in the aforementioned Caddy, captured for posterity in the VHS haze of the song's deliberately lo-fi music video. Those Jersey-boys moments aside, though, Antonoff has earned a reputation for connecting particularly well with female artists — most notably Swift, whom he credits with being "the first one who created no barrier and trusted me.... There's a reason why she's at the stage she is. It's because of a gut feeling she follows, and she followed it with me. I had a million conversations before that where I was like, 'I want to do this with the production,' and someone would be like, "Yeah that's great, but we're going to send it to a real producer." And then Taylor said, 'You're the producer,' and after that, people don't question it."
What matters most in the studio, he insists, isn't gender or genre but a kind of shared faith: "I'm not coming in like a cannonball with a vision and idea. I don't write songs for people, I don't come in and tell anyone what they're going to do. That's not hip to me, and never really enjoyed a lot of music that comes from that, to be completely honest. But I also don't work with people who aren't brilliant and who aren't producers themselves. We create these partnerships, and we try to make something together — whether they're the guys in my band or people like Bruce or pop stars or whatever."
"The only quest, really," he leans in urgently, surrounded by the various tools and toys of his Brooklyn studio, "is how magical can we make something feel and how close to the emotion can we get it and how much can we be in conversation with someone from the writing and the recording to wherever the hell they're listening to it, with their friends or alone in the car... We're constantly knocking on this door, just sort of praying toward the song."