“I am not affected by criticism”: highly successful producer Jack Antonoff discusses his detractors – and praises Taylor Swift’s talent.


Singer-songwriter Jack Antonoff has only been in London for less than a day, arriving from New York to discuss his latest album as Bleachers. However, keeping his focus during our meal at the popular celebrity spot and upscale hotel Chiltern Firehouse is like trying to navigate a bumper car. He becomes fixated on a forgotten baseball cap, my beer, and the possibility of contracting Covid in the crowded dining room. “Do people still get Covid?” he inquires. “Should we go outside?” (Despite the freezing weather.) He worries about background noise interfering with my recording, eyeing the couple next to us and an empty table nearby. “Do you want to ask them to move over there? I couldn’t do it, but you could,” he jokes.

He is experiencing jet lag and appears to be tense, but the root of his restlessness is not easily identifiable. It may be attributed to the lighthearted anxiety that Antonoff openly expresses in his music with Bleachers, which is inspired by Springsteen and filled with self-mythologizing. Alternatively, it could be due to his self-awareness of being a well-known pop producer who collaborates with the likes of Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, St Vincent, and the 1975. At one point, we engage in a word-association game similar to therapy, which reflects Antonoff’s approach to songwriting. When I say “Mother,” he quickly responds with “Want!” We are both taken aback by our responses. “Looks like we need Dr. Freud,” jokes Antonoff.

Despite his quick and easily distracted nature, Antonoff is an enjoyable companion. This lends credibility to the online speculation that he is a very fun person to be around and may be the reason for his popularity with female pop stars. Antonoff, originally from New Jersey, began his music career in the 2000s with the lesser-known indie-rock group Steel Train. In 2008, he joined Fun, who gained fame with their Queen-inspired hit “We Are Young” in 2011. His production career began in 2012 with popular Canadian artists Carly Rae Jepsen and Tegan and Sara.

He rose to fame in the media due to his five-year partnership with Girls creator Lena Dunham. In the meantime, Swift asked him to work together on her acclaimed pop album 1989, solidifying his reputation. Antonoff went on to produce half of her 2017 release, Reputation. “There were some people who didn’t understand it and I remember thinking, ‘If you can’t appreciate this, then I don’t know what to do.’ Because it was incredible,” he recalls.

During their conversation, Antonoff exudes a tremendous amount of energy, reminding me of a scene from Swift’s 2020 documentary Miss Americana. In the scene, she and Antonoff effortlessly create the song “Getaway Car” for the album Reputation. This moment showcases their incredible creative chemistry, comparable to the Beatles’ iconic performance in Peter Jackson’s film Get Back.

However, despite Antonoff’s accomplishments in influencing the musical landscape of the last ten years, he is a divisive figure. While highly regarded by his colleagues, he has faced criticism for allegedly producing lackluster albums for artists such as Lorde’s recent release, Solar Power, which some fans believe to be subpar compared to her previous work. This critique also extends to perceived similarities between the sounds of these artists. It should be noted that Antonoff has an extensive list of credits, working with a diverse range of musicians including Florence + the Machine, the Chicks, Grimes, Pink, Troye Sivan, Diana Ross, and Spoon. Additionally, there are distinct differences between Lana Del Rey’s sultry contemporary hits and St Vincent’s edgy S&M disco style.

Reviewers have criticized the artistic quality of his creations. In a widely-circulated article in July, it was dubbed “Antonoffication”, alluding to the perceived “shallow, grandiose” nature of Antonoff’s work. While Max Martin and Rick Rubin have also had a significant impact on pop music, it’s difficult to name any other producer, past or present, who elicits such polarizing reactions as Antonoff. Meanwhile, Bleachers has received a lukewarm reception from critics. As the New Yorker aptly stated, the general sentiment surrounding his career is: “Why him?”

Jack Antonoff on stage with Taylor Swift on her Eras tour

Antonoff is fully aware of these discussions. “Since I have multiple roles, it can be difficult for people to comprehend it,” he explains. He sees the coverage as an attempt to piece everything together, like navigating through a never-ending maze of how he operates. “The work speaks for itself; it’s not my place to define it.”

He is frustrated by the criticism that his work sounds repetitive. He questions if anyone truly believes this. He points out that the same critics who criticize also include his work on their “best-of” lists. Despite claims that he is suddenly everywhere, he rarely releases a full album. He admits that sometimes he starts to believe the distorted image of himself. As he connects the dots, he realizes there is no substance to it. When addressing the criticism, he acknowledges that there are recycled ideas, but this doesn’t bother him. He has grown used to being misunderstood and it doesn’t affect his sleep.

Despite being able to disregard the opinions of critics, Antonoff’s latest album with his band Bleachers, released under the label Dirty Hit (also home to the 1975), shows him grappling with the image he has always seen reflected back at him. Up until now, the Bleachers project has revolved around Antonoff’s identity as someone who has experienced loss. In 2001, his younger sister Sarah passed away from brain cancer at the age of 13. Then, in the midst of 9/11 and the Iraq war, Antonoff’s cousin was killed. These events had a profound impact on Antonoff, who was only 18 at the time and already making strides in the music industry.

At the age of 39, Antonoff expresses his desire to create space in his life for more than just the losses that define him. His album, Bleachers, was inspired by his concept of “tribute living” which refers to living in honor of a loved one who has passed away. He explains that the album was about a character (himself) who was stuck and seeking something beyond living in tribute to someone else. However, as he wrote the songs, he realized they were actually very present and not solely focused on grief.

Bleachers’ last three albums have been driven by the idea of seizing the day, featuring themes of shotguns, rollercoasters, heart attacks, and open roads – all with a cinematic touch of love and loss. The titles are self-explanatory: “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 better way to express oneself than screaming outside a bedroom window, and no argument that can’t be resolved in the pouring rain.

The latest record presents a calmer and, according to Antonoff, more mature portrayal of love. In August, he tied the knot with Margaret Qualley, known for her role in Maid (and daughter of Andie MacDowell). (Swift is said to have given a lively 15-minute speech at the wedding.) On Jesus Is Dead, Antonoff reflects on seeking solace in domestic happiness, watching Phantom Thread while the world around him is in turmoil. Me Before You is a gentle, Streets-of-Philadelphia-inspired track about the personal growth required to foster a fulfilling relationship, highlighting the contrast between Antonoff’s past emotional turmoil and his current contentment as Qualley asks when he will be home for dinner. It’s a more subdued and open album, with less of Bleachers’ signature booming drums and 80s-style reverb. Antonoff even sings in a lower range, with his usual powerful choruses reduced to a distant yell.

Jack Antonoff with his wife, the actor Margaret Qualley, at the Grammys in 2022

According to Antonoff, his previous perspective on love was not only emotionally immature but also emotionally damaging. Looking back on his past self now, he is horrified by his mindset. He admits that at the age of 20, he was in a tumultuous emotional state. However, he has since learned that if your gut instinct tells you something is wrong, then it probably is. Unfortunately, he did not have any positive influences in his life at the time. He was misguided by societal norms that portrayed arguments as passion and uncertainty as the desired outcome. He used this distorted view of love to fuel his artistic expression, romanticizing the idea of working late into the night. This eventually led to a serious hospitalization for pneumonia at the age of 26. Antonoff confesses that he has been hesitant to make positive changes in his life because he feared it would affect his work negatively.

He recently discovered how his upbringing influenced his views on relationships and his parents’ complicated marriage. His sadness over Sarah’s passing had become a general 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 amazing thing is when you meet someone and all you want is for them to be happy.” It’s not a simple concept – it’s significant, debatable, and unpredictable – but it’s easy in its simplicity.

In their new single, Bleachers and Del Rey touch on the idea of leaving town, with lyrics like “joking about blowing town tonight.” In the past, it seems that Bleachers would have been ready to hit the road at a moment’s notice. Lead singer Antonoff agrees, stating, “It’s so true. We’re leaving town, with a picture of your mother in the backseat, who may have been awful to you – but there she is!” According to Antonoff, the song captures the experience of collaborating with Del Rey, with background sounds like paper rustling and snippets of conversation adding to the atmosphere.

He revisits my portrayal of his passion, which he refers to as “the relentless hold of rheumatoid arthritis, attempting to capture a specific moment, the weight of it all.” He had not considered it from that perspective 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 becomes uninteresting. All of the songs I’ve ever written, they feel like something that terrifies me and is profoundly meaningful, and I discover it as I’m in the process of making it.”

The latest album has a more casual and outward focus, with some humorous elements. The song Modern Girl has similarities to We Didn’t Start the Fire, with its fast-paced critique of modern life and a lively saxophone riff. Antonoff didn’t appreciate my comparison to Billy Joel (“You could have just as easily said End of the World As We Know It, which would have been better”), but does agree that this album is a step in the direction he wants to go. He jokes, “Are you calling it an arrival? Do you dare?” and adds, “To me, it feels like an arrival.” That’s why he chose to self-title the album, something he says he’s proud of.

Jack Antanoff in a diner, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper

However, it is uncertain if the public’s perception of Antonoff will also change if he feels like he has evolved. Fans of Taylor Swift have already interpreted the new album’s track list, particularly “Hey Joe,” as a tribute to her former boyfriend, British actor Joe Alwyn. Antonoff jokingly states, “There is a group of individuals who may be quite disappointed when they realize that it is actually a reflection on my father and his friends trekking the Ho Chi Minh trail in their 60s.”

Antonoff’s frustration is aimed at the shallow misunderstandings and the sources that promote them. He points out the return of live broadcasts and weekly episodes on streaming services as examples. According to him, most disruptions simply aim to break something in order to rebuild it exactly as it was before. Instead, he urges for improvements in areas such as food quality and reducing plastic usage in our daily lives, as well as addressing larger issues of injustice in the world. He expresses his disinterest in having more options for releasing albums or watching movies, unless they come from a genuine artist.

Modern Girl plays with these paradoxes and nonsensicalities. It serves as a satirical take on contemporary culture, sparked by the stark contrast the creator noticed between the serious tone of current events as portrayed online and in the media, and the chaotic reality he witnessed in his surroundings. “As I walk around New York City, I can’t help but notice people constantly engaging in both intimacy and conflict.”

Antonoff acknowledges that some may perceive his words as condescending, but he takes issue with the pandering that lacks any sense of wonder. His successful career as a producer is a result of his natural instincts and sharpness, coupled with his idealistic tendencies. However, this has also made him a target for cynicism and mistrust. Sincerity, earnestness, and emotion are common themes in his work, but these are often met with discomfort from others. Antonoff explains that while some may think he’s joking, he is serious about his work. He agrees that our society has a low tolerance for sincerity, often putting individuals through rigorous tests to prove their authenticity. This is why context is crucial. He also believes that society tends to suppress sincerity in people to test their genuineness.

Antonoff discusses the urge in his latest track “Self Respect.” The lyrics, inspired by a line from Florence Welch, convey his exhaustion with the pressure to conform and stay in line. He expresses a desire to break free from societal expectations and live life on his own terms, without constantly policing his actions or feeling morally superior.

He firmly believes that he has no particular aspirations or worries about his successful era as a producer coming to a close. He dismisses it as a topic for others to discuss. Antonoff’s main goal is simply to exist, he explains. He wants to concentrate on what he can influence in his work and what truly matters beyond it. He admits that his main pursuit is finding that fulfilling feeling, as he spends most of his days sifting through the unnecessary to reach it.

Source: theguardian.com

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