“Every year ends, and I think to myself, ‘That was a little crazy!’ ” Jack Antonoff says with a laugh. “It shouldn’t feel familiar, but it does.” That’s because the 39-year-old studio polymath has rarely experienced a quiet 12-month period over the past decade, juggling multiple production and songwriting projects while fronting his own band, Bleachers.
During the past year, Antonoff has helped steer Taylor Swift’s mega-selling Midnights, Lana Del Rey’s sweeping Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd and The 1975’s ultra-catchy Being Funny in a Foreign Language, while also prepping Bleachers’ fourth full-length. He has signed a new label deal with Dirty Hit Records, brought in label founder Jamie Oborne as manager and inked a new deal with Universal Music Publishing Group. (“It doesn’t feel like anything’s shaken up, just that the team’s got a couple new members,” Antonoff says of the moves.) All the while, he’s eyeing a potential fifth consecutive producer of the year, non-classical Grammy nomination and third straight win, which would be the first three-peat in the category this century should it occur.
Two years ago, Antonoff shared with Billboard his seven habits of highly effective producers. As he hunkers down in the studio for the next few months — finishing Bleachers’ follow-up to 2021’s Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night and generally “chipping away at stuff” — he revealed his latest takeaways from his past year’s work.
Don’t Let Commercial Gains Distract in a Creative Space
Case study: Taylor Swift, “Anti-Hero”
Midnights scored the biggest Billboard 200 debut of Swift’s career and her Eras Tour became the summer’s hottest stadium ticket, but Antonoff says that he marvels at how his frequent collaborator keeps her level of superstardom very much outside the studio. “There’s not a lot of panning back in the room — ‘Whoa, look at this [achievement], look at that!’ — because that would feel like popping the balloon,” he explains. “When I work with Taylor, there’s still just this person who has these life experiences and this remarkable gift of writing about them.”
See: “Anti-Hero,” the lead single from Midnights that sardonically prods at Swift’s insecurities. “When we made ‘Anti-Hero,’ I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s so honest and funny, and also so sweet and so sad,’ ” Antonoff recalls, adding that the song, which became Swift’s longest-leading Hot 100 chart-topper earlier this year, wouldn’t have worked if they had been preoccupied by her radio appeal during its creation. “It has this weird beat going through a tremolo — no part of me was like, ‘F–king A, that’s the song to take over the world!’ ”
Sometimes the Spark Takes Time…
Case study: The 1975, “Part of the Band”
“Who would you want to work with?” It’s a question Antonoff often hears, and one he finds impossible to answer. “I can only want to work with someone based on knowing them and seeing where they’re going,” he says. When Antonoff met The 1975, he envisioned a creative partnership where he could add to the band’s sound on its fifth album — but still experienced “that weird kind of early-relationship stuff” on Being Funny in a Foreign Language, his first project with the British rock group.
“Part of the Band,” the restrained, stream-of-consciousness lead single, helped alleviate some of that awkwardness. “It wasn’t the first thing we did,” Antonoff recalls, “but there’s a big difference between the first thing you do and the moment that you’re like, ‘Oh, sh-t. We have that ability.’ Anyone can get in a room and carve out a song and make it sound halfway cool, but the idea of collaborating with people is doing something bigger than the sum of the parts.” Ultimately, “Part of the Band” unlocked the rest of Being Funny in a Foreign Language, which spun off five top 40 hits on the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart.
…And Sometimes a Hit Can Take a Really Long Time
Case study: Taylor Swift, “Cruel Summer”
“That was always one of my favorite songs I’d ever done,” Antonoff says of Swift’s Lover standout, a synth-pop fantasia that became a fan favorite upon the 2019 album’s release. “Cruel Summer” didn’t become a hit single during the Lover album cycle, which was curtailed due to the pandemic, and Antonoff made peace with its cult-classic status. But earlier this year, as the song became the centerpiece of the opening of Swift’s mega-selling Eras tour, “Cruel Summer” began soaring in streams, then in radio play, and climbed all the way to No. 3 on the Hot 100, morphing into one of the defining songs of the summer of 2023.
“It was just like, a huge thumbs-up from the universe,” Antonoff says of the song’s viral resurgence this year. “I take it all as a reminder to do what you believe in, make the songs you believe in. You never want to do anything that you don’t believe in for the sake of success, because the only thing worse than doing something you don’t believe in is being recognized for that thing! … With [‘Cruel Summer’], I loved that it existed, and didn’t need anything more from it. It’s just this bizarre icing on the cake.”
Ambition Comes in Many Forms
Case study: Lana Del Rey, “A&W”
Antonoff says that his most frequent collaborators share the characteristic of “becoming obsessed with understanding what their ambition is and how to access it constantly” rather than resting on their laurels. That creative curiosity manifests itself in different ways: For Swift, after the indie-folk storytelling on folklore and evermore in 2020, “There was this sense of blazing out of the cabin” with the personal pop of Midnights. Meanwhile, The 1975 came to Antonoff after several winding, esoteric full-lengths, and he helped push Being Funny in a Foreign Language into uncharted territory for the band: a tight, interlude-free pop-rock record.
For Del Rey’s Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, the seven-minute centerpiece, “A&W” — which begins as a folk lament before flipping into a trap refrain midway through — resulted from experimenting with other album tracks like “Peppers” and “Taco Truck x VB,” mashing up sounds until arriving at the most innovative structure possible, according to Antonoff. “This sprawling thing was the most ambitious thing to do. A song like ‘A&W’ is just an example of what happens when you just know people so well that you can really support each other into strange places.”
Make an Entrance
Case study: Bleachers, “Modern Girl”
Bleachers’ upcoming fourth album, which Antonoff and his six-piece group made with co-producer Patrik Berger and a few special guests, translates the jubilance of the band’s live show into a studio setting. Not every song is as boisterous as “Modern Girl,” released in September as the project’s lead single, but for Antonoff, its 1980s-indebted mix of jittery vocal energy and uncorked saxophone blasts captured “enough left-field sh-t that speaks to where the album is going” and was the obvious introduction.
“Putting out albums is like pulling at both the past and the future, and ‘Modern Girl’ just felt like this perfect shock and comfort moment, both honoring where Bleachers has been and where it’s going,” he says of the new album, due next year. “I’ve always believed in this ‘house’ mentality of just understanding what an album is, and ‘Modern Girl’ just feels like the biggest front door.”
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