Musician Jack Antonoff has recently arrived in London from New York to discuss his latest album as Bleachers. Despite only being in the city for less than a day, he struggles to focus on our conversation amidst the distractions of the trendy and luxurious Chiltern Firehouse. He becomes fixated on a baseball cap left behind, my beer, and the risk of transmission in the busy dining room. He even questions if people are still at risk for Covid-19. Despite the freezing weather, he suggests we move outside to avoid the potential for ambient noise to interfere with our interview. He even jokes about asking the couple next to us to move to a different table, as he is concerned about the noise level.
He may be experiencing jetlag, but it is difficult to determine the cause of his restlessness. It could be due to the lighthearted neuroticism that Antonoff openly displays in his music with Bleachers, which is influenced by Springsteen’s self-mythologizing style. Alternatively, it could stem from his awareness of his fame as a pop superproducer who collaborates with renowned artists such as Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, St Vincent, and the 1975. During our conversation, we engage in a word-association game similar to therapy, which is also how Antonoff approaches his songwriting process. When I say “Mother,” Antonoff responds with “Want!” without hesitation, causing both of us to be taken aback. “Paging Dr. Freud!” exclaims Antonoff.
Despite his easily-distracted nature, Antonoff is a pleasure to be around and his presence adds credibility to the idea that he is a sought-after companion for female pop stars. Hailing from New Jersey, Antonoff began his music career in the 2000s as a member of the relatively unknown indie-rock band Steel Train. In 2008, he joined Fun, who had a brief moment of success with their Queen-inspired song “We Are Young” in 2011. Antonoff’s production career began in 2012 when he worked with Canadian pop artists Carly Rae Jepsen and Tegan and Sara.
He gained notoriety in the media due to his five-year romance with Girls creator Lena Dunham. At the same time, Swift asked him to work together on her successful 2014 album 1989, establishing his credibility. Antonoff also produced half of her 2017 album, Reputation. “Some individuals didn’t understand it and at the time, I thought to myself, ‘If you don’t comprehend this, then I’m not sure how to assist you,'” he recalls. “Because it’s amazing.”
During discussions, Antonoff exudes an immense amount of vigor, reminiscent of the moment in Swift’s 2020 documentary Miss Americana where she and Antonoff effortlessly create Reputation’s Getaway Car in a matter of minutes. It is comparable to the creative synergy captured in the Beatles’ performance of Get Back in Peter Jackson’s film.
However, even though Antonoff has been successful in influencing the music of the last decade, he is a controversial figure. While highly regarded by his colleagues, he has been blamed for producing subpar records, such as Lorde’s 2021 album Solar Power, according to the fans of these artists. This is despite his extensive list of collaborations with various artists, including Florence + the Machine, the Chicks, Grimes, Pink, Troye Sivan, Diana Ross, and Spoon. Additionally, there are clear distinctions between Del Rey’s sultry contemporary hits and St Vincent’s S&M disco style.
Many have criticized the artistic merit of his creations. In a popular essay published in July, it was dubbed “Antonoffication”, highlighting the perceived lack of depth and excessive grandiosity in Antonoff’s work. While Max Martin and Rick Rubin have also had a significant impact on pop music, no other producer has sparked such polarizing views as Antonoff. Additionally, Bleachers’ work has received a lukewarm reception from critics. As the New Yorker succinctly put it, the general tone of discussions surrounding Antonoff’s career is: “Why him?”
Antonoff is well aware of these discussions. He acknowledges that his involvement in multiple projects can make it difficult for others to comprehend. He refers to the media coverage as an attempt to piece everything together, comparing it to a never-ending maze of trying to understand his process. He believes that the work should speak for itself and it is not his place to define it.
However, he becomes frustrated with the criticism that his work is too similar. He questions if anyone truly believes this. He also points out that the same critics often include his work in their “best-of” lists. The idea that he is suddenly everywhere also fails to acknowledge that he rarely releases a full album. He even admits to sometimes believing the false image of himself that others project onto him. He compares it to connecting dots like a conspiracy theorist. When addressing the criticism, he acknowledges that there may be some recycled ideas. He has grown used to being misunderstood and it no longer bothers him.
Although Antonoff may choose to ignore the opinions of critics, his latest album for Dirty Hit, which is also the first under the label of 1975, reflects his personal reflections on his self-perception. Throughout his career, the Bleachers project has centered around Antonoff’s identity as a person who has experienced loss. In 2001, his younger sister Sarah passed away from brain cancer. This was followed by the tragic events of 9/11 and the Iraq war, in which Antonoff lost his cousin. At the age of 18, while already gaining success in the music industry, these experiences had a profound impact on him.
At the age of 39, Antonoff explains that he was interested in finding ways to incorporate more than just his past losses into his life. He used the concept of “tribute living” to describe living in honor of a loved one who has passed away. His album, Bleachers, was inspired by this idea and he began writing songs that were very much in the present. He saw his writing as not just a way to deal with grief, but also as a way to add to his life.
The previous three albums from Bleachers have all been driven by the idea of seizing the day, with themes of shotguns, rollercoasters, heart attacks, and open roads – all exploring the dramatic potential of love and loss. The titles speak for themselves: Don’t Take the Money, Let’s Get Married, I Wanna Get Better, Hate That You Know Me, and How Dare You Want More. In the world of Bleachers, there is no statement that cannot be shouted from outside a bedroom window, and no argument that cannot be resolved in the pouring rain.
The latest record presents a calmer and more mature perspective on love, as acknowledged by Antonoff himself. In August, he tied the knot with Margaret Qualley, known for her role in the film Maid and daughter of Andie MacDowell. (Reportedly, Swift gave a lively 15-minute speech at the wedding.) On Jesus Is Dead, Antonoff croons about finding solace in domestic happiness, watching Phantom Thread while the chaotic world continues to spin. Me Before You is a gentle, Streets-of-Philadelphia-inspired tune about the personal growth necessary for a meaningful relationship, highlighting the contrast between Antonoff’s past emotional turmoil and his current contentment when Qualley asks when he will be home for dinner. The album has a more subdued and open sound, with less of Bleachers’ characteristic booming drums and 80s-style reverb. Antonoff even sings in a lower range, his trademark powerful choruses reduced to a distant cry.
Antonoff reflects on his previous understanding of love, admitting that it was emotionally immature. He now sees it with a sense of horror, realizing that he was emotionally unstable. At 20 years old, he was a mess, not knowing how to handle his emotions. He has since learned that if your gut tells you something is wrong, it probably is. However, at the time, he didn’t have anyone to guide him and tell him it’s okay to say no. He was influenced by societal expectations that fighting was a sign of passion and that being unsure was the best outcome. This led him to pour his emotions into his art, romanticizing the idea of working all night long. This ultimately resulted in him being hospitalized for pneumonia at the age of 26. Antonoff admits that he was hesitant to clean up certain aspects of his life because he believed it would affect his work.
He has recently come to understand how his upbringing influenced his view on relationships and his parents’ complicated marriage. His sadness over Sarah’s passing had become an excuse for his unhappiness. Meeting Qualley and creating this album made him realize that he didn’t have to give up contentment for creativity. Antonoff says, “The most inspiring thing is when you meet someone and all you want is for them to be happy.” It may not be easy, and it may be a big and controversial idea, but at its core, it’s simple and effortless.
In Bleachers’ latest single featuring Del Rey, Alma Mater, there is a line that captures the idea of leaving town for the night. The pair jokes about this scenario. In the past, I believe that Antonoff would have had his car packed and ready to go. Antonoff confirms this by saying, “It’s true. We’re leaving town, with a picture of your mother in the backseat. She may have been terrible to you, but she’s still there.” The song also reflects the experience of collaborating with Del Rey, with the presence of background noise and their voices adding to the overall atmosphere.
He revisits my portrayal of his passion, which he refers to as “the tight hold of rheumatoid arthritis, attempting to capture a moment, the weight of it all.” He had never considered it in that manner before, he admits. “In reality, when you create music, you’re not consciously thinking about it – because if you are, you already know what it is and it’s not intriguing. All of the songs I’ve written have this sense of fear and depth to them, and I’m discovering them as I’m writing.”
The latest album has a more casual, outward-focused, and humorous tone. The song “Modern Girl” is reminiscent of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” with its fast-paced analysis of modern life, accompanied by a lively saxophone riff. Antonoff disagrees with my comparison to Billy Joel, but agrees that this album represents progress towards his desired direction. In a joking manner, he asks if I am considering it an achievement. “It definitely feels like one to me,” he adds with pride. This is why the album is self-titled, Antonoff explains.
However, it is uncertain if the public perception of Antonoff will also change if he personally feels different. Fans of Taylor Swift have already interpreted the new album’s track list, particularly the song “Hey Joe,” as a tribute to her recent ex-boyfriend, British actor Joe Alwyn. Antonoff jokingly mentions that there is a group of individuals who may be quite disappointed when they discover that the song is actually about his father and his friends hiking the Ho Chi Minh trail in their 60s.
Antonoff expresses frustration with the shallow misinterpretation of art and the technology that promotes it. He points out the trend of streaming services reviving live broadcasts and releasing weekly episodes, which he sees as a disruption that ultimately results in the same thing as before. He urges for focus on more important issues such as improving food quality and reducing plastic use, rather than creating more ways to release albums or watch movies. He supports various forms of artistic expression, as long as it comes from genuine artists.
Modern Girl plays with these conflicting and nonsensical ideas. Described as a “satirical cultural critique,” it was sparked by the juxtaposition the creator noticed between the serious reporting of current events, both on the internet and in the media, and the reality he witnessed in his daily surroundings. “As I walk through New York City, I witness people engaging in both intimate and violent acts.”
Antonoff acknowledges that some may view his words as condescending, but he takes issue with the pandering that lacks genuine curiosity. His instincts and sharpness have contributed to his success as a sought-after producer, but his idealistic tendencies have also made him a target of cynicism and suspicion. I suggest that sincerity, earnestness, and emotion are common themes in his work, but they can make us uncomfortable. Antonoff agrees, adding that he is serious about his work despite others thinking otherwise. He recognizes that our society has little tolerance for sincerity and often goes to great lengths to verify its authenticity. Context is crucial in this aspect, and he believes that sincerity is often suppressed in individuals as a test of their authenticity.
Antonoff discusses his desire to break free from societal expectations and definitions in his new song, Self Respect, which was inspired by a quote from Florence Welch. He expresses his exhaustion with conforming to others’ standards and instead wants to embrace his own messy and imperfect self. He values being happy, healthy, and present, but also wants the freedom to live his life without constantly denying himself or proclaiming moral superiority.
He firmly believes that he does not have any particular goals or fears about his successful producer era coming to a close. He states that it is a topic better suited for someone else to discuss. Antonoff’s main priority is simply to exist and to concentrate on what he can manage in his work, as well as what truly holds importance outside of it. He explains, “I am constantly striving for that sensation – I spend the majority of my time eliminating distractions in order to reach it.”