Taylor Swift producer Jack Antonoff: 'I'm drawn to female artists who are brutally honest'

Taylor Swift, Lorde, St Vincent and Pink have all benefited from collaborating with the songwriter, producer and Bleachers frontman – and that’s just this year. So what is the driving force for this one-man pop factory?

In a cramped London hotel room, Jack Antonoff is gleefully reminiscing about the release of Look What You Made Me Do, the staggeringly successful song he produced and co-wrote with Taylor Swift. “I knew that was going to be a really intense moment,” he grins – as well he might. Whichever way you look at it, the Swift single was a pop music milestone: the track broke records (for the most plays in a day on Spotify and most-watched music video in the first 24 hours) and charted at No 1 in 19 countries. Perhaps more impressive was the frenzied online reception – the song and its video were dissected by the press and public in forensic detail.

Not that Antonoff seems at all freaked out by this. “We knew that was going to happen,” he says matter of factly. “I remember saying: this is going to make thinkpieces on thinkpieces on thinkpieces!”

Did Swift mind the rather alarming tsunami of personal scrutiny that followed? “That was what it was designed for,” Antonoff replies, looking at me like I’ve failed to grasp the concept of a Taylor Swift track. “That was the whole point of that song.”

Watch the video for Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do

Swift isn’t the only musician Antonoff has shepherded towards new career highs this year. He co-produced Lorde’s hugely sophisticated and heartbreaking second album Melodrama. He did the same for Masseduction, St Vincent’s ambitious commercial breakthrough, and wrote for Pink’s seventh album Beautiful Trauma (No 1 in 12 countries). And that’s just 2017. In between fronting his own music project Bleachers – which he started while on the road with his previous band, Fun – Antonoff has collaborated with pop trailblazers such as Sia, Grimes and Carly Rae Jepsen. (His impeccable associations with zeitgeisty women aren’t limited to his career: Antonoff’s girlfriend is Lena Dunham; at school, he dated Scarlett Johansson.)

The fact that Antonoff works pretty much exclusively with female artists is no coincidence. “In no way do I feel like a woman,” he says. “I feel very male. But when I’m writing I don’t think about Lou Reed or Bowie. I think about Kate Bush, Björk, Fiona Apple. I’ve always been extremely drawn to female artists who are being brutally honest. That is so much more attractive to me than a lot of the weird paths certain male songwriters lead you down, that hide and mask emotions.”

Antonoff with Lena Dunham
Antonoff with Lena Dunham. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Thanks to Antonoff, that brutal honesty is back in pop in a big way. He describes his songwriting method as rooting out “the saddest, most upsetting, most real things someone might go through, and then finding a way to sew those into pop songs”.

On the Lorde album, that resulted in a moving look at loneliness and rejection (“The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy / ’Til all of the tricks don’t work any more / And then they are bored of me,” she sings on Liability, which was co-written by Antonoff). It led to Swift revealing how negative portrayals of herself in the press have tormented her on Look What You Made Me Do, and St Vincent’s Annie Clark discussing various harrowing relationships on her recent record, one with a now-homeless friend and another with pill-popping lover.

Clark’s album was heralded for its directness and honesty – something she credits Antonoff with helping her achieve. “To say he changed my outlook on music would be an understatement. He changed my outlook on life,” Clark says, summing up his ethos as “go for the heart, go for the jugular. Irony is emotional death.”

Watch the video for Lorde’s Liability

If Antonoff is determined to harness pop music’s ability to articulate pain and sadness, that might be because his own music-making is informed by a major trauma: when he was 18, his 13-year-old sister Sarah died of brain cancer. “You write about lots of different things but there’s always this central theme, and for me ever since then it’s been loss,” he says of his songwriting.

There’s a retro feel to his own band Bleachers’ music, recalling both Bruce Springsteen and the wistful, beta-male guitar pop that soundtracks John Hughes films (the wild dancing Antonoff does on stage seems to nod directly to Duckie’s histrionic Try a Little Tenderness routine from Pretty in Pink). But Antonoff says it would be wrong to view Bleachers as nostalgic or backwards-looking. “One thing about loss and grief is that a part of you sort of freezes,” he says. “I don’t see my music as nostalgic – I’m reflecting on this piece that froze, which is still with me.”

Talking to others about this feeling through his music is how Antonoff makes sense of his loss. “I’m not looking for other Jewish kids from New Jersey who lost their sister when they were 18,” he explains. “I’m looking for people who feel like they can’t find this perfect balance of moving forward and holding on to the past. But that’s what pop writing is – find something that no one can relate to and make it something that everyone can.”

These days, Antonoff feels passionately about the power of pop, but it wasn’t always so. “I was like: fuck pop music,” he says of himself as a teenager in the late 90s. It was a particularly horrible time for the charts on both sides of the Atlantic: the turn of the millennium was marred by the unholy combination of nu-metal bands such as Limp Bizkit and poor-quality pop that “really pushed a lot of us to find indie music,” he says. “The East Village indie scene, the eventual Brooklyn, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear indie scene, that was all birthed out of a common distaste for pop radio in the late 90s.”

As a result, Antonoff spent his teenage years in a punk outfit called Outline and jangly indie band Steel Train. Then, in 2008, he joined Fun, whose ridiculously catchy 2011 song, We Are Young, went on to sell nearly 10m copies. It catapulted Antonoff into the pop firmament – a place he says has changed a great deal. “I think it’s different now. When the mainstream is good, there’s less of a need for smaller scenes. A lot of the biggest stars, like Beyoncé and Kendrick, they’re fucking incredible, so if you talk to your average kid, we can agree on that. If you asked any kid in 1997 what they thought of the radio, they’d be like: that shit sucks.”

Watch the video for Bleachers Don’t Take The Money

Kendrick and co might be bringing people together, but bad pop can still have a devastating impact on the wider world, says Antonoff. “You can’t get away from pop music; it’s on at the airport, it’s on in the cab, it’s everywhere. So when you hear stuff that is stupid, it hurts.” Not that everyone in the music industry takes that threat seriously. “You have some people who think, fuck it, let’s just make the dumbest melody and the dumbest production just so we can capture everyone,” he says. “And then you have other people, like myself, who think the most beautiful thing that can happen is when the world is captured by something of quality.”

The question, he says, is how to balance populism with intelligence. “I could get a lot of press if I tweeted a picture of my dick, but that would be stupid. It’s like Trump. So how do you capture a large group of people without being stupid?”

In person, Antonoff is equal parts puppyish and antsy, bounding around the room with a big goofball smile, but also clearly anxious; for the first 10 minutes, he barely makes eye contact. It’s a dichotomy he funnels into his work: an Antonoff production is characterised by both sincere and intensely personal lyricism and a restless undercurrent of “strange feedback ticking away at the back”, as his collaborator Lorde recently described it.

Watch Bleachers perform Hate That You Know Me in 2017

At a recent Bleachers show in London, Antonoff broke off the gig to deliver a lecture on that very feedback, describing the sound – the product of a Roland Juno 60 synthesiser – as “the backbone of the band. It’s sad, but there’s a hopefulness to it”, he told the crowd. That maelstrom of joy and misery isn’t reserved for the stage – Antonoff says he brings it into the studio too. He describes his collaborations with high-profile pop stars as tumultuous: “It’s like a relationship. It’s wild. You’re gonna fight and you’re gonna be scared and sad and thrilled and all those things. I don’t think it’s very different to making a leap of faith with someone.”

On paper, a male producer working with the number of female acts that Antonoff does could conjure up images of a morally dubious svengali figure, pulling strings and forcing artists in certain musical directions. But Antonoff is not only obviously horrified by the sexism of the music industry (“everyone’s got a crazy story, I’ve never met anyone immune to it”), he is also crystal clear about who is really in control. “The women I work with are powerhouses. I’m not in there telling them what to do,” he says. “I’m on a ride with them.”


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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