The Rise of Jack Antonoff, the Taylor Swift Whisperer
Jack Antonoff came out of nowhere, and now he’s everywhere.
Seriously though, he’s everywhere. He’s all over the radio. He’s in every song that’s stuck in your head. And, thanks to his relationship with girlfriend Lena Dunham, all over tabloids and your Instagram feed, too.
Soon, if there’s any justice in pop culture, his name will be as recognizable as the people you know his association to: his girlfriend, the most polarizing creative in Hollywood; his band Fun., the earworm bandits who took over the radio in 2012 with their hits “We Are Young” and “Carry On;” Sara Bareilles, with whom he penned last year’s empowerment smash, “Brave;” and, especially now, his good friend and collaborator Taylor Swift, with whom he wrote a handful of songs for the star’s smash album 1989.
It’s a good time to be Jack Antonoff, you see, and not just because of his recent success helping to shepherd Swift’s controversial transition into pop music—a transition that’s yielded the biggest album in a decade. (One of Antonoff’s collaborations with Swift, “Out of the Woods,” which was released early to drum up interest in the album, was a big driver in that.)
In addition to penning songs for the biggest music star in the world, Antonoff is the lead singer-songwriter of Bleachers, a solo effort that he spent two years working on while touring with Fun. Strange Desire, his first album as Bleachers, was released earlier this summer to critical acclaim—The Huffington Post called his first single, “I Wanna Get Better,” “the catchiest song of 2014.”
Antonoff has been touring as the act ever since, stopping in New York City Thursday night to perform alongside the likes of Sam Smith, CHVRCHES, and A Great Big World at VH1’s “You Oughta Know” concert, a showcase of artists the network has flagged as music’s next big thing. And considering his massive music-industry thumb print, that “you oughta know” Jack Antonoff is an understatement.
Thankfully, his music as Bleachers helps you get to know him. In the grand tradition of two of his greatest muses—Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham—Strange Desire is honest and deeply personal. It’s also unapologetic and epic, essentially blending the bombast of Fun.’s anthemic choruses with Swift’s talent for songwriting that manages to be both confessional and carefree.
With his work with Swift—in addition to “Out of the Woods,” he co-wrote 1989’s “I Wish You Would” and “You Are In Love”—scorching the pop charts and Bleachers’ recent “you oughta know” coronation, Antonoff might be one of pop music’s most prolific stars right now. Accordingly, we chatted with him about those magical Taylor Swift songwriting sessions, the pressure he felt releasing Strange Desire on his own, and all that’s great and all that’s terrible about pop music today. (Shield your eyes, Katy Perry.)
Over the summer when Strange Desire was just coming out, you talked a lot about the emotional weight you were carrying, having spent two years working on this on your own. Now that it’s been out there for a few months and you’re performing it, has your relationship with it changed?
It’s changed a lot. I would say it’s a little less terrifying. I feel like when you put the thing out there you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Were you really terrified?
I wasn’t necessarily terrified. I was anxious. It’s a weird process. You work on something for two years and then one day—not just one day, but one minute—it’s just there. And in one second it’s like a baby born. You know, you go through this huge process of being pregnant, the woman carries the baby, and then in one second this is it. All of a sudden you can do everything in the world to fuck it up, because it’s a real thing. That’s the same with records. When you’re making something, it doesn’t matter if it’s seven minutes before it comes out or two years before it comes out, you’re still in a stage where you can technically change it or you can technically shift and rearrange it. But when you put it out, you’ve lost all control. It exists, and you have to take care of it in a real way. So I’m in that stage.
Another thing I noticed when you first started releasing music as Bleachers is that everyone was calling this a “side project” and that seemed to really, really frustrate you. Why was that?
It’s just stupid! A similar analogy is that if someone had a second child, you wouldn’t be like, “So, what is this child? The other child? Your side child?” How are you going to categorize your child? No one would ever say that, because it’s very obvious that you’re children are multiple things that you love. With music, what I learned talking about it is that people were looking for some sort of either drama or way of categorizing. The more I reflected on it and thought about it, it felt like people were coming from a place that was like, “You can’t just have two bands. One has to be the main one and one has side one.” That’s what pissed me off.
So it didn’t just frustrate you. It made you angry.
Like, what’s the problem here? Is making art when you feel inspired to make it something that you need to categorize? It’s really odd because I never thought about it once while making the album. It never occurred to me. I was never like, “I wonder how people are going to categorize this?” I was just making an album the way I would normally make an album. And it fascinated me because it wasn’t just a couple of people. Everyone I talked to needed to understand what it was. They couldn’t just hear it as a body of work. To tell you the truth, I haven’t come to terms with what it means yet.
The other thing, too, is not just people’s need to categorize and label the project, but to label you, because this is the closest thing to a solo project that you’ve done. One label I saw in a New York magazine headline was, “A Pop Star Even a Mother Could Love.” What do you think of that label?
It just seems like the more successful something gets it, the more people need to understand it really quickly. There’s less of a conversation. If I was going to talk to you about The Weakerthans, which is one of my favorite bands, no one talks about them in passing. We’d talk about the lyrics and who they are and what they sound like. But a lot of people talk about Nicki Minaj in passing. Or Sam Smith in passing. Like, in soundbytes. “He’s British. He’s got a Morrissey vibe…” So maybe the easiest one they could come up with for me is “Pop Star Even a Mother Could Love.” But it is funny, because I don’t consider myself either of those.
You don’t consider yourself either of those?
Do you consider what you’re doing pop music, though?
Umm…to me, pop music is more of a science term than an aesthetic. To me, it’s always just what’s most popular. When I was growing up they called Green Day and Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins “alternative pop.” They’re just words that are thrown around. I don’t really know. That’s another question. I think the days of “is pop a bad word?” are over. I think no one gives a shit anymore. Everything I do I think is some version of alternative, just because that’s the world I grew up with. But I think it gets harder and harder to define what things are.
The best example of that would be your friend Taylor Swift. When music off 1989 came out there was this whole debate about her transition to pop music. What did you think of the obsession with that?
I think she’s doing the most important thing that an artist can do, which is constantly change. Constantly push forward. Push boundaries. And do something that makes everyone ask questions about her. It’s all about buzz around an album. Is it country? Is it pop? It’s all chatter, and it’s all good. Because it all leads back to the body of work, and eventually someone’s like, “Well I need to hear this thing for myself.” They put it on and are listening and they’re not thinking to themselves, “Is this pop? Is this a side project?” They just hear the music and have an emotional reaction. So I think the worst thing that can happen—I won’t name names—is that people put out albums and no one even gives a fuck to try to define it because it’s so innocuous. That’s very much the opposite of the things I’m trying to get involved.
You’ve talked about your aversion to that kind of pop music before and how you shy away from collaborating with those kinds of artists and prefer working with artists like Taylor, Sara Bareilles, and Tegan and Sara. You’ve mentioned Katy Perry before as one of those artist making the “innocuous” music you were just railing against.
Yeah, I didn’t say that specifically. The words get mixed up. I never have and never would get specific about people I don’t like. I’d rather just talk about people I do like.
Well then let’s talk more about Taylor Swift. She posted that adorable Instagram when “Out of the Woods” was released that was a screenshot of your texts to each other about how excited you both were. Why is that song so special to you guys?
It’s just such a special song. Musically, it’s extremely intense and emotional. For me and for her, too. The production and the sound of it, I remember when I first did that track I was so excited about what I was hearing. And for her, lyrically, it’s just so real. It’s not often that you write a song that you know right away that it’s so special. I sent her the track and she sent me her idea right back, and I knew that this was going to be one of my favorite things.
You recorded it at your apartment, right?
Some of it. It was done on the fly in a lot of different places.
What is working on a song like that like with Taylor Swift? I think people are fascinated by your creative relationship with people like her. There’s the base-level curiosity about a 30-year-old guy gelling into the female mindset of a 24-year-old girl.
She does all the lyrics, so it’s not like I’m jumping into her perspective. But the way I write is the way I wrote when I was 15 or 17, and I think that’s why it works. Because when I got into collaborating with other people and not just doing my own work, I started to understand the many different angles of that part of the music industry. And on the one hand it’s beautiful when two people get together and do something interesting. On the other hand it can be terrible.
How is it terrible?
I’ve done these sessions where they throw a bunch of writers together and have a reference for what they want to do, and it’s factory-farming bullshit. But anytime I work with Taylor or Tegan and Sara or Sara Bareilles or anyone I’m working with right now—I was with Grimes yesterday, who I love—it’s just the two of us in a room having a really good time. Or a really emotional time. We’re throwing around ideas and sounds so that the result is 1 + 1 = more than 2. That’s why it’s really cool to collaborate.
This Bleachers album has gotten you, I think, loads of musical credibility. But it hasn’t been as commercially successful as your stuff with Fun. or your stuff with Taylor. Do you wish maybe it was more commercially successful, since it’s so personal?
It’s interesting to look at that. Taylor’s the biggest artist in the world. When Fun.’s Some Nights was big, it was the biggest album in the world. I try to keep that in perspective. The first Bleachers single went to number one in alternative and all the shows have been sold out lately. To me, what matters, is whether it’s one person or 100,000 people all I care about is connecting. And so far the response to Bleachers has been more incredible than I could even imagine.