A few months ago, Jack Antonoff and Bruce Springsteen got into a car together and drove to sunset in New Jersey. Antonoff – producer / muse of Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Lorde and others – was eager to hear Springsteen’s opinion on his Bleachers project’s new album, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night.
But the meeting was as much on the vibrations as on the air. For both musicians, the opportunity to hit the road with another rock nerd from Garden State was just too good to resist. They turned up the volume and hit the tarmac. “There are these little places in the world. Jamaica, Ireland and I think New Jersey that have these massive, massive musical influences that are so much bigger than their size, ”Antonoff said on Zoom.
“If you think of Jamaica’s cultural influence, it’s amazing. I feel the same about New Jersey and Ireland. Irish music is very close to what I consider New Jersey music to be. There is so much sadness and so much hope.
Antonoff was thinking a lot about Ireland last year when he and Taylor Swift, along with The National’s Aaron Dessner, gathered at Dessner’s Long Pond studio in upstate New York to work on the Folklore record. by Swift. This album answered a very specific question: what if Taylor Swift made an indie LP covered in mist and it was really, really good? Much of the fun, says Antonoff, stemmed from the opportunity to channel what he sees as the essence of the Irish musical soul.
“The music of your country has had a huge influence on me. He is filled with joy and sadness. It’s definitely cooked in [Folklore]. Working on the track in August, in my New Jersey way, I imagine Ireland in my head.
Antonoff is perhaps the most influential producer of his generation. In person, he has a slightly cheesy figure, with oversized Rivers Cuomo / Buddy Holly style glasses and the pale complexion of a young Woody Allen.
Yet in pop right now he’s a titan. In 2019, he co-wrote and produced Norman F ** king Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey, arguably her best record. Twelve months later, he was popular as a collaborator on Swift’s Folklore and Evermore.
This year, he recorded credits on Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club and on “chamber pop” prodigy Clairo’s Sling. The month of August sees the release of Lorde’s Solar Power, his second meeting with the New Zealand artist. A single of the same name – the one with the Midsommar-esque video and the Primal Scream fade – has already registered 17 million views on YouTube.
With a streak like this, it would be easy to conclude that Antonoff was destined to conquer pop. In fact, he struggled for many years to get his foot in the door. And this despite a track record as a producer of his own projects – including his first group Fun and, since 2014, Bleachers.
He reveals that he owes everything to Taylor Swift. Seven years ago, she asked him to help her on two issues of 1989, the album that crowned her as a global pop star. “I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter and performer. And producer, ”explains Antonoff from the studio in his New York apartment.
“The point is, you can go and play and write songs. But if no one lets you produce their records, it’s a bit difficult to call yourself a producer. Taylor was the first person to say “oh yes, I agree”. Your name is on it and if she had been a little artist, that would have been the start of my status as an official producer. She turned out to be a very great artist. So it had an even bigger impact. Just like a wedding, you need someone else to agree, “it happens”.
Antonoff (37) started Bleachers around the same time he started his musical relationship with Swift. He had been in bands since the age of 15: Music has always been a way to overcome life’s challenges, including the death of his younger sister from cancer at the age of 18. As a third party of Fun, he went there. until landing a hit when their 2012 single We Are Young topped the charts in Ireland, US and UK.
New Jersey Roots
Bleachers is different in that it coexists with and is arguably overshadowed by Antonoff’s accomplishments as a producer. Take away the sadness from Saturday night is one example. It’s an exciting concentrate of Antonoff’s melancholy sensibility, his roots firmly anchored in his native New Jersey. Springsteen duos on Chinatown; Stop Making This Hurt offers a saxophone solo straight out of Born to Run.
The album also follows in the rich lineage of oppressed indie pop New Jersey. Its melodies in minor and tinkling chords evoke everyone from Feelies to Yo La Tengo. At times, Antonoff even taps into My Chemical Romance’s emo desire.
And yet, it seems inevitable that he will be eclipsed by his blockbuster production work. Clairo’s Sling has just been released and received rhapsodic reviews – perhaps the best album ever inspired by an artist’s dog.
Teenage sensation Olivia Rodrigo, for her part, officially acknowledged her debt to Swift and Antonoff by giving the duo writing credits on two of the tracks from their debut album, Sour. Solar Power, meanwhile, looks set to hit levels of supernova buzz, thanks in part to Lorde’s performance of the title track from a top of a Manhattan rooftop for Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.
Solar energy is about going from darkness to light. Like, in a way, take the sadness away from Saturday night. The LP has its origins in Antonoff’s difficult breakup with Lena Dunham, the creator of the Girls TV show, with whom Antonoff had a five-year relationship. She was not his first famous girlfriend: in high school, he briefly dated his classmate Scarlett Johansson. Nonetheless, Dunham’s split – accompanied by a bit of media circus and unfounded speculation that Antonoff was in love with Lorde – was heartbreaking.
“To be low is to be low and to be high is to be high,” he said. “The best place I’ve ever been able to write is at the end of the hollow. There’s that time when you’re trying to get out of something. It’s an intense feeling. It is filled with a lot of darkness.
One of the first songs he completed for the project, Don’t Go Dark, came from a conversation with Del Rey. “We had been in the studio to work on a bunch of his records. I remember saying, I had these words that I couldn’t get out of my head. It’s that specific kind of breakup song: “I don’t miss you, I don’t love you, I don’t hate you … I just want you to not bring that darkness … here because I ‘have mine’.
His instinct was to rewrite the couplet. Del Rey told him to follow his instincts and stick to that first draft. “She helped me frame everything. It’s interesting when someone can do for you what you can do for others at other times, which is just pushing in the right direction.
Is he ever surprised when a record takes off? As in, when he completely dominates the pop news cycle? Folklore started out as a lockdown mission for Swift, but has arguably grown into one of its most defining versions. Lorde’s Solar Power doesn’t really have a chorus until the end, while the sensitivity throughout Primal Scream’s Loaded meets George Michael’s Freedom! ’90. And yet it is unavoidable.
“I’m not surprised how much they mean to people because they mean so much during the process,” he says. “All the records I make. . . they’re not like “hey, we just threw it against the wall”. They are very intentional in terms of depth and care. But every time I’ve been a part of something that touches that kind of cultural moment – it’s a little more surprising and amazing because you can’t trace it and you shouldn’t be trying to trace it.
Antonoff’s job description may be “producer”. But what he brings to the process is as much emotional as it is technical. Before he agrees to work with someone, he will sit down with him and determine what he means and why. Before co-producing Sling with Clairo, for example, they met for ramen in LA. Jokes quickly gave way to psychoanalysis.
“I cried all this lunch,” Clairo, real name Claire Cottrell, told Rolling Stone. “He confirmed things that I felt that I didn’t tell anyone about: being depressed, even though I managed to have a music career. I felt so guilty for being terribly sad when the best thing that ever happened to me in my life happened to me.
The secret of success
Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Lana Del Rey – not to mention St Vincent, who collaborated with Antonoff on 2017’s Masseduction – aren’t just hits. They are unique and iconic. Antonoff thinks he has discovered the secret of their success.
“There are brilliant and brilliant songwriters who know how to tell a story and how to work with the melody and the lyrics and make it happen. But when someone can do it but also has the ability, and also the desire, to tell a hyper-personal story in a hyper-personal way, then they’re creating something that no one else could, ”says -he.
“You might like Bob Dylan or not. You might like Joni Mitchell or not. You may like Tom Waits’ voice or not, or D’Angelo’s voice or not. You can’t even envision the idea that there is no one other than one artist who can do what they do.
Considering he’s so enthusiastic about Ireland and musicians who can only sound like them, would he consider producing U2?
“I would say Springsteen and U2 are great examples of ‘tough’ and not ‘macho’. These are artists who would have cried and cried on stage. They don’t play with any of the machoness versions of the company. I love U2.
That doesn’t mean he’s desperately waiting for a call from Bono. “It’s always interesting – I kind of feel the same every time someone asks me, ‘Oh, would you work with this person?’ When you work with someone, it starts with a conversation about the future. If I imagined being in a studio with U2, my only knowledge was their records. And that’s the past. I love U2. But I don’t know them. I only know where they were. So it’s almost like an empty concept.
Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night will be released on July 30