Jack Antonoff: bringing brutal honesty back into pop
Analysing the production methods of this high-demand producer.
You might have noticed a particular sound taking over barbeque-Spotify playlists and political conventions before you learned his name. We are talking about Jack Antonoff influenced songs, the ones stuck in your head for the last couple of years. It almost seems like the singer, songwriter, Grammy-winning producer is everywhere. And some say he’s a welcome breeze in the ever-heated pop music scene.
So what is it about Jack Antonoff making him one of the most sought after producer and songwriter at this moment? And how come his songs are so catchy and relatable that you feel like you know him or vice versa, him knowing you. Turning music journalists into rational creatures, analysing and scrutinising every song trying to find and underpin the deeper meaning.
In this series of influential producers, we take a look into the songwriting and production process of Jack Antonoff. The number of interviews with and about him is enormous, getting you swamped easily. So we’ve collected the most important aspects of his work methods and learnings, giving you an insight into his approach to songwriting and producing.
Finding his voice – A bit of background
The best way to get a better understanding of his work and his writing process is to analyse his track record, which starts with his love for songwriting. He always wanted to write. With his first punk-pop band Outline, he was already writing original songs. Something that was not particularly the coolest thing to do as a teenager. After snowballing through various bands, he ended up in pop-punk band Steel Train that got a small record deal, bringing him, starting at the age of 14, the thing he almost lives for; Touring! In an interview, he explained his love for touring lyrically “That’s when you get to celebrate a thing that took so much out of you. Because the music-making part” he explains, the marrow-and-all intimacy he turns into pop magic, the stuff that will make a capacity crowd of Brooklyn hipsters unselfconsciously lose their [mind] tomorrow night, “is the loneliest activity in the world.” (GQ)
From that underground pop-punk scene, he got into the band Fun. (mind the dot), having their big breakthrough with the album ‘Some Nights’. Their popularity exploded with help from a Chevrolet Super Bowl spot that licensed the album’s lead single “We Are Young,” (Wikipedia). This ultimately leads to two Grammy Awards for best new artist and song in 2013.
Since that breakthrough, Antonoff has built quite an impressive resumé, as one of pop music’s most in-demand songwriters and producers. This started with his own project called Bleachers. While touring with Fun., Antonoff wrote all the songs for this particular project. In silence, since the whole project, including the album, was kept secret until the day of release, only known to his inner circle. The songs for the album evolved in different countries while spending time in hotel rooms, backstage, on the tour bus, right before soundcheck and doing some vocal tracking in the hotel room afterwards. Bleachers released two albums so far, which can be seen as sonic laboratories for the songs he will later write with other artists. (Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods,” for example, included a sample of the Bleachers song “Wild Heart.”)
Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Erasure helped Jack Antonoff produce Strange Desire, the 2014 debut album of his band Bleachers, so it’s no wonder the songs have, in the front man’s own words, “an ‘80s John Hughes movie feel,” with “I Wanna Get Better” being the flagship track of Antonoff’s jubilant, neon-soaked manifesto. – The Vulture
2017 was definitely the year of Antonoff. Four of 2017’s best albums were co-written and produced by him, bringing change in the musical sound of female artists like Lorde, St Vincent, Pink and Taylor Swift, and can be defined as liberation and songs of empowerment. One of the albums was his own record, Bleachers’ Gone Now, demonstrating his personal ambition; he needed the music he makes to be a part of him.
So what defines Antonoff’s hit songs?
“What does a Jack Antonoff production sound like? There are definitely sonic hallmarks — arpeggiated made-in-the-’80s synths, cavernous choruses, and routine moments of pin-drop intimacy.” – The Ringer
First, there is his ‘strange desire’ for the ’80s. Being technically a child of the ’80s, this era plays an important role in his songs. Arpeggiated made-in-the-’80s synths and typical 808 drum patterns and associated kicks are no strangers to him. But his fascination goes deeper: “To me, the ’80s were epic and sincere. Music was large and grand and unapologetic,” said Antonoff in an interview for USA Today. Elements that became essential parts of his signature and trademark songs. He adds “I don’t feel connected to the apathy of the ’90s.”
Second, Antonoff works mainly from home, for which he has his clear reason; “It’s where I’ve had the most success. It’s not like I think everyone has to work that way, but it’s about knowing yourself.” (GQ, 2018) His studio is very much his comfort zone, right down to the fact its walls feature the same wallpaper design from his childhood bedroom. As Antonoff explains: “I just like to have [stuff] around that reminds me of me. […] When you’re home, all your stuff keeps you in you.” And yet, childhood nostalgia is a crucial part of his brand. In celebration of Bleachers’ second album release (Gone Now), he brought his childhood bedroom on tour with him, giving fans the opportunity to enter the ‘moving, living art exhibit’ and listen to the album prior to its official release.
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Third; For each album that Antonoff works on, he firmly believes in creating a so-called ‘sound world’. This means that certain synths or combinations of sounds will feature more than others. “They’re all record-specific,” he explains.“The first Bleachers album and the 1989 Taylor stuff were really centred around the [Roland] Juno 6. That instrument has such a sadness and a glory all at once.”
And the latter creates a bridge to the most essential part of his music and hallmark hits; the emotional layer in his songs. Because one of the most unifying forces in Antonoff’s work is his ability to foreground the distinct personality of whoever he’s working with.
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Video: Jack Antonoff explains how he wrote ‘Everybody Loves Somebody.’
Writing as a therapeutic experience.
“To say he changed my outlook on music would be an understatement.
He changed my outlook on life.”
– Annie Clark (St. Vincent) talking about working together with Antonoff on her album
St Vincent’s album Masseducation, written by Annie Clark and Antonoff, was heralded for its directness and honesty – something she credits Antonoff with helping her achieve due to their emotional connection. The result is an album discussing various distressing relationships, which Antonoff theorised that she’s mourning a past on the record. And not without success; last month St. Vincent’s “Masseducation” won the award for Best Rock Song at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards.
The Guardian ones characterised his songs as “the saddest, most upsetting, most real things someone might go through, and then finding a way to sew those into pop songs”. And that’s quite spot-on. We almost dare to say that thanks to Antonoff, brutal honesty found its way back into pop music.
It’s almost undeniable that Antonoff does something special here, and his obsession for writing played a crucial role in his development. Finding his own way in the emotional process of songwriting, as he describes as ‘the loneliest activity in the world.’
“The whole idea of writing a song is you write it because you feel alone, and then you share it because you wonder whether you really are alone so when you cast it out into the world, and people basically say ‘oh I feel that way too’ it’s really intense, especially people on the other side of the world.
That’s pretty deep for me.”
Jack Antonoff (RNZ Music interview)
Nowadays, pop songs are often written by whole teams of people or during songwriting camps. Most of the times written for other people or artists. But Antonoff is the current king of collaboration. He doesn’t write songs for the artist, he writes them with the artist. His success makes artists queuing up to spend time with him, locked in his home studio. Because Antonoff brings them to another level, an emotional one. He starts with asking the question: “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” and takes them to the darkest corners of their being, exploring their deepest truths… while turning it into catchy pop songs.
In contrast with the cold, near-scientific approach to songwriting favoured by titans like Max Martin and Dr Luke, Mr Antonoff strives for a gut-level, emotionally probing therapy experience. – NYT
Annie Clark isn’t the only artist Antonoff has shepherded towards new career highs.
On the Lorde album, the inner journey resulted in a moving look at loneliness and rejection. It led to Taylor Swift revealing how negative portrayals of herself in the press have tormented her on Look What You Made Me Do. And it made Pink explore her self and find beauty in it.
In 2017 Pink tweeted: “Tomorrow I’m releasing the title track to BEAUTIFUL TRAUMA,” she tweeted on Wednesday evening (Sept. 27). “I wrote the song with a very awesome person @jackantonoff and named the album after it (because) life is f*cking traumatic. But it’s also incredibly beautiful, too. There’s a lot of beauty still and beautiful souls. Enjoy.”
… scoring the year’s highest first-week sales for a female artist
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It all describes where Antonoff is taking the artists he is working with. From trauma to finding a sparkle of beauty seems to be his trademark. As Gabriela Tully Claymore wrote for Billboard’s Stereogum; Antonoff has “proven himself to be very good at working with women who have a strong point of view, who will always sound like themselves regardless of who assists them. Antonoff has built his career on being a friend; he’s the kind of man people feel OK sharing their feelings with.”
Writing with brutally honest women.
The fact that Antonoff works pretty much exclusively with female artists is no coincidence. “In no way do I feel like a woman, I feel very male,” he says in The Guardian. “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.” And “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.”
But it also influences the writing part in a particular way: “I write a full octave above where I sing,” Antonoff explained to Pitchfork. “I think about Kate Bush and those registers when I’m writing because I always imagine that vocals should be dancing on top of the track. There’s just a lot of melodic DNA that works better for women than men.”
His fascination for Kate Bush is a recurring event in his interviews: “I don’t know Kate Bush, but I’ve learnt so much from listening to her music. Artists like her give me this real power to assume that even the strangest voice or story or sound can be understood by people. I feel that way about Björk. These artists prove that people are smart and that when you treat them as smart, you can have a real conversation with the public.” (i-d.vice)
Changing a pop culture
Thanks to Antonoff, having a real conversation through brutal honesty is back in pop again.
Later this year, Norman Fucking Rockwell, the sixth studio album by Lana Del Rey, is expected to be released. She wrote it with Jack Antonoff.
As Lana explains on her website:
“For the first few months I worked with [Antonoff], he would play me like 5 chords in a row that would end up becoming a new song each time, and I would ask him like – I would legitimately ask him – “are you sure I’m allowed to have this? Like, do you not wanna save that progression for yourself?” and he thought that was hilarious he was like “No, I’ve been dying to like meet you and give you this”.”
This concludes, besides being a great writer and producer, Antonoff seems to be a very nice guy as well. Earlier this year, Antonoff has informed the world that new Bleachers material is on its way.
2019 seems to be the next in line of becoming a successful year for this impressive artist and producer. We can’t wait to hear and feel where he is taking us.
Sources and references:
‘I’m drawn to female artists who are brutally honest’
The childhood bedroom he calls an art project
You may not know Jack Antonoff, but you probably love his music
Jack Antonoff and his studio in Sound on Sound Magazine
Featured image: Photo credits Lindsay Byrnes for RollingStone Magazine
Max Martin about Jack Antonoff: There’s that wild Max Martin quote, secondhand, about him telling Lorde that the math on her song “Green Light” is wrong, calling it ‘incorrect songwriting’. Which turned out, was actually Martin complimenting Antonoff’s work. Read more about Max Martin in our previous blog post