‘Criticism doesn’t keep me up at night’: superproducer Jack Antonoff on his haters – and Taylor Swift’s greatness | Pop and rock

Jack Antonoff is fewer than 24 hours into his flying visit to London from New York to talk about his new album as Bleachers, but trying to hold his attention as we eat in the celeb hotspot and luxury hotel Chiltern Firehouse is like trying to handle a dodgem. He becomes preoccupied by an abandoned baseball cap, my beer and the transmission risk of the packed dining room. “Do people still get Covid?” he asks. “Shall we go outside?” (It is freezing.) He frets about “ambient noise” affecting my recorder, looking at the couple next to us and the empty table a little further away. “Do you want to tell them to go over there? I couldn’t, but you could,” he says, laughing.

He is certainly jetlagged, but otherwise it’s hard to identify the source of his twitchiness. It could be down to the playful neuroticism that Antonoff wears on his sleeve in his music with the Springsteen-inspired, self‑mythologising Bleachers; maybe it’s self‑consciousness about his celebrity status as a pop superproducer who works with Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, St Vincent, the 1975 and more. At one point, we find ourselves playing a therapy-style word-association game, which is also how Antonoff approaches his songwriting. “Mother,” I say. “Want!” Antonoff says, instantly. We are both horrified. “Paging Dr Freud!” says Antonoff.

For all his hair-trigger attention and frequent digressions, Antonoff is great company, lending weight to the online theory – one of many put forward to explain his popularity with pop’s leading ladies – that he “must be an incredibly good hang”. A New Jersey muso who crept up through the 00s in the little-known indie-rock band Steel Train, in 2008 he joined Fun, who became one-hit wonders with the Queen-aping We Are Young in 2011. His production career started a year later with the Canadian pop stars Carly Rae Jepsen and Tegan and Sara.

Modern Girl, the first single from the new album.

He began to grace the tabloids thanks to what would become a five-year relationship with the Girls auteur Lena Dunham; meanwhile, Swift invited him to collaborate on her 2014 pop breakthrough, 1989, minting his credentials. Antonoff later produced half of the 2017 follow-up, Reputation. “Some people didn’t get it and, at the time, I remember thinking: ‘If you don’t get this, then I don’t know how to help you,’” he says. “‘Because this is sick.’”

In conversation, Antonoff generates so much energy that I am reminded of the scene from Swift’s 2020 documentary Miss Americana in which she and Antonoff conjure Reputation’s Getaway Car out of thin air in minutes. As a record of creative chemistry, it’s on par with the Beatles landing on Get Back in Peter Jackson’s film.

But despite Antonoff’s success in shaping the sound of the past decade, he is a polarising figure. While prized by his peers, he has been held responsible for what fans of those artists perceive as underwhelming records – Lorde’s low-key 2021 album Solar Power, say – as well as similarities between their sounds. This is despite his wide-ranging credits – Florence + the Machine, the Chicks, Grimes, Pink, Troye Sivan, Diana Ross and Spoon – and the obvious differences between Del Rey’s smouldering modern standards and St Vincent’s S&M disco.

Critics have derided the tastefulness of his production. A viral essay in July coined it “Antonoffication”, referring to the “hollow, cinematic bigness” in which Antonoff’s work is supposedly steeped. Max Martin and Rick Rubin have influenced pop to the same degree, if not more, but it’s hard to think of any producer, past or present, who provokes such strong opinions as Antonoff. Bleachers, meanwhile, have received a middling critical response. The tenor of the coverage of his career, as the New Yorker put it, is: “Why him?”

On stage in New Jersey with Taylor Swift on her Eras tour. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

Antonoff is all too conscious of these conversations. “Because I do a few things, it becomes hard – rightfully – for people to understand it,” he says. He describes the coverage as “trying to put the whole thing together … an endless labyrinth of how I’m doing it. The work is the work; that’s not really for me to define.”

But he is impatient with the criticism that his work sounds alike. “Does anyone think that’s true?” The same critics “always put my work on their best-of lists”, he says. Even the assertion that he is suddenly everywhere obscures the fact that he rarely produces an album in full. “Sometimes, I’ll even start to believe the reflection of me,” he says. “You get to a point where you start to connect the red yarn and you realise: there’s no there there,” he says, gesticulating like a conspiracist joining the dots. Regarding the criticism, he says: “I do think that there’s a remarkable amount of regurgitated ideas.” But he has become accustomed to being misunderstood: “It doesn’t keep me up at night.”

While Antonoff can ignore the critics’ view, the new Bleachers album – his first for the 1975’s label, Dirty Hit – finds him reckoning with what he has spent a lifetime perceiving in the mirror. To date, the Bleachers project has been about Antonoff’s conception of himself as a bereaved person. His younger sister, Sarah, died from brain cancer at 13 in 2001. Then came 9/11 and the Iraq war, in which Antonoff’s cousin was killed. Antonoff, then 18 and already making headway in the music industry, was profoundly changed by it all.

Now 39, Antonoff says he wanted to explore how to make room in his life for more than his defining losses. His starting point for the album, entitled Bleachers, was his notion of “tribute living”, a term he coined to describe living for a late loved one. “It was about a character – myself, when I was sort of stuck – who wants to find something outside of this living-in-tribute, where every move in one’s life is for the person who can’t be here.” But what he actually wrote were “songs that were extremely present. I started to see my writing not beyond, but in addition to, the lens of grief.”

Bleachers’ past three albums hurtled forward on the steam of carpe diem, replete with shotguns, rollercoasters, heart attacks and open highways – the cinematic 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, How Dare You Want More. In Bleachers’ world, there is no declaration that isn’t best screamed outside someone’s bedroom window, no disagreement that can’t be litigated in the pouring rain.

The new album paints a more peaceful and, by Antonoff’s own admission, mature picture of love. In August, he married Margaret Qualley, the Maid actor (and daughter of Andie MacDowell). (Swift reportedly gave a “raucous” 15-minute speech at the wedding.) On Jesus Is Dead, Antonoff sings of retreating into domestic bliss, watching Phantom Thread while the world outside wobbles on its axis. Me Before You is a soft, Streets-of-Philadelphia-style song about the personal growth needed to begin a meaningful relationship, contrasting Antonoff’s historical emotional drama with his contentment at Qualley asking him when he will be home for dinner. It’s a quieter and more spacious album, with less of Bleachers’ trademark thundering drums and 80s reverb. Antonoff even sings in a lower register, his trademark battle-cry choruses reduced to a faraway shout.

Jack Antonoff with his wife, the actor Margaret Qualley, at the Grammys in 2022
With his wife, the actor Margaret Qualley, at the Grammys in 2022. Photograph: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

His past view of love wasn’t just emotionally immature, Antonoff says, with the pop-eyed horror of someone confronting his former self: “It was emotionally fucked. When I was 20 years old, my brain was on fire. I was really messy, emotionally. What I know now is this: if something in your gut says no, then it’s no. But I didn’t see anyone that was giving me all yesses.” He was led astray by cultural scripts characterising fighting as passion, or ambivalence as the best outcome. He channelled that into tortured artistry, attaching “romanticism” to working all-nighters – culminating in him being hospitalised with life-threatening pneumonia when he was 26. “I’ve been so hesitant about cleaning up certain parts of my life because it would affect the work,” he says.

He has only recently unpicked the impact of his upbringing on his approach to relationships and his parents’ “complex” marriage. His grief over Sarah’s death had become a catch-all justification for his dissatisfaction. Meeting Qualley, and making this album, showed him that he didn’t need to sacrifice contentment for creativity. “The most inspiring thing is when you meet someone and you truly just want for them to be so happy,” says Antonoff. “It’s not simple – it’s huge, it’s controversial and it’s wild – but it’s simple in how easy it is.”

The shift is captured in a line in Bleachers’ new single with Del Rey, Alma Mater, in which the pair “joke about blowing town tonight”. In the past, I suggest, he would have had the car packed and ready to go. “It’s so true,” Antonoff says. “Like, we’re blowing town, we’ve got a picture of your mother in the backseat and she was fucking awful to you – but, nonetheless, there she is!” (The song represents what it feels like to collaborate with Del Rey, says Antonoff: “You can hear paper noise, a bit of us talking, breathing – it just feels like the room.”)

He returns to my characterisation of his intensity, what he calls “the rheumatoid arthritis grip, trying to capture a moment, the heaviness of all of it”. He hadn’t thought about it that way before, he says. “The truth is, when you make records, you’re not thinking about it at all – because if you are, you know what it is and it’s not interesting. All of the songs that I’ve ever written, they feel like something that scares me and is really deep, and I’m figuring out as I’m doing it.”

The new album is more conversational, outward-looking and even funny. Modern Girl evokes We Didn’t Start the Fire with its rapid-fire dissection of modern life, freewheeling around a joyful saxophone riff. Antonoff takes umbrage at my Billy Joel comparison (“You could easily have said End of the World As We Know It, which would have been preferable”), but agrees that this record feels like a step in the direction he wants to travel. “Are you calling it an arrival? Do you dare?” he jokes. “It feels like an arrival to me.” That’s why it’s self-titled, he says, with evident pride.

Jack Antanoff in a diner, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper
‘Sincerity is something that we try to beat out of people to see if they’re real.’ Photograph: Alex Lockett

But if Antonoff feels as if he has changed, it remains to be seen whether the popular view of him will adapt in turn. Swifties have already seized upon the track list for the new album, reading Hey Joe as a paean to Swift’s recent ex, the British actor Joe Alwyn. “There’s a community of people that will be preeetty disappointed when they find out it’s a meditation on my father and his friends walking the Ho Chi Minh trail in their 60s,” he says, smiling.

Antonoff’s disdain is reserved for this kind of superficial misinterpretation and the platforms fuelling it. He cites streaming services bringing back live broadcasts and weekly episodes. “Most disruption is to break something to remake it exactly as it was,” he says. “Give us better food, find a way so that plastic isn’t in everything we eat. Find a way to correct all the horrible injustice in our world. Please don’t offer me 7,000 more ways to release an album or watch a movie. I am all for every machination of expression of art, as long as it’s coming from an artist.”

Modern Girl riffs on these contradictions and absurdities. A “big culture roast”, it was inspired by the contrast he saw between the sober narration of these times, online and in the media, and what he observed around him. “I walk around New York City and I just see people fucking and fighting, basically.”

It could sound condescending, but Antonoff says it’s the pandering to which he objects – the absence of “just the least bit of wonder”. I get a sense of the instincts and acuity that have made him a sought-after producer; coupled with an idealist streak, maybe it’s this that has made him a target of cynicism and even suspicion. The common threads through his work, I suggest, are sincerity, earnestness and emotion – three things with which we have an uncomfortable relationship. “Yeah – I’m not kidding,” says Antonoff, through a mouthful of fried chicken. “People think I am, but not about the work.” He agrees that we have almost no tolerance for sincerity. “We do crazy cultural due diligence to make sure it’s real. That’s why context is everything. I do feel like sincerity is something that we try to beat out of people as a means to see if they’re real.”

Antonoff addresses this impulse on new song Self Respect. Based on a line written by Florence Welch, it expresses his weariness at the demands on him to be coherent and consistent. It’s knowing, he says. “I’m tired of having self-respect in the way that anyone else defines it but me. I just want to get messy. I want to be happy and healthy and aware and here – but I also want to live my life, and I don’t want to spend my time a) denying myself things or b) expressing my moral superiority.”

He is adamant that he has no specific ambitions, nor fears of his superproducer era coming to an end, calling it “an interesting conversation for someone else to have”. Antonoff’s only concern is “just to be”, he says – to focus on what he can control in his work and what really matters outside it. “I’m just looking for that feeling – I spend most of my days carving shit away to get to that.”

Bleachers is released on 8 March on Dirty Hit






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