There’s a moment in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest wherein the author lists a series of lessons one might learn when forced to examine themselves: “Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” And while he didn’t learn that lesson in a halfway house a la the mammoth novel’s protagonist, Jack Antonoff has relied on that vehement self-reflection to help unlock the deepest idiosyncrasies of prominent artists from Lorde to Taylor Swift, then helping those eccentricities resonate with millions who feel the exact same way.
Certain producers see doors and sprint across the threshold. Antonoff is not shy about taking every opportunity, starting when he leapt into the music world as a young teenager. He dug into emotional pop punk and indie rock as a way to express himself in the wake of family tragedy. “I wrote songs because I felt like I had to say something and see if anyone else felt that way,” he offers with a warm sincerity. After finding success with the outfit Steel Train, he moved onto fun., breaking into the upper echelons of pop stardom with anthemic hits “We Are Young” and “Some Nights”. Antonoff’s songwriting meshed impeccable hooks with entirely honest emotion, never sacrificing an ounce of personality or intimate confession for commercial appeal.
Even once he started making connections with the pop world, Antonoff continued to rely on intensely personal methodology rather than moving into track and hook songwriting. He didn’t emulate others or write on spec, but rather worked in close quarters with new collaborators, got to know them, and pushed ever further into his own and his co-writers’ realities. “All of my favorite songs with really great writing and production have something that speaks to everybody individually,” he affirms.
After penning hits with Sara Bareilles, Grimes, Sia, and more, the spread of Antonoff’s personal approach reached a saturation point in 2017. In a single calendar year, he co-wrote and produced the majority of Lorde’s Melodrama (our publication’s Album of the Year), a large portion of Taylor Swift’s Reputation, and chunks of St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION and Pink’s Beautiful Trauma — as well as releasing an album with his latest project, Bleachers.
But unlike other producers who have had years in which they’ve seemed everywhere, Antonoff’s production doesn’t have the signature formula like Timbaland’s rubber band bass and skittering hi-hat, nor does it have the ultra-gloss patchwork of Max Martin. Though his collaborators are spread from dance pop to art rock, Antonoff finds a way to accentuate the singularity of each. Rather than write for those artists, he writes with them, one-on-one, a sort of art by therapy or gently held hand to help lift the weight.
It’s telling, as well, that the vast majority of artists with which Antonoff has worked in his career — and in fact the entirety of 2017 — are fiercely independent and inimitable women. In an industry embroiled in abuse, assault, and generally inexcusable power dynamics, not only does Antonoff support these artists, but does so by encouraging their own strengths rather than insisting on his own. The only other person involved in the process is engineer Laura Sisk, another dynamic female voice in the sessions — “a very unsung hero,” Antonoff insists, in another moment of shining the spotlight elsewhere.
That duality — putting out a solo album while stepping out of the limelight, digging into incredibly personal material while hoping thousands of people connect — is a mercurial balance, the same alchemy that propels the chart-topping and critically beloved songs and albums he’s spread throughout 2017. By tapping into the deepest, unspoken belief that we’re all unique, he’s managed to bring so many together in passionate choruses. We spoke with Antonoff about 10 key takeaways from his journey, including being competitive with oneself, meeting his collaborators, never assuming people are stupid, and how he found himself at the center of the music that defined 2017.
Home is Where the (He)art Is
It doesn’t matter how you do it; it just matters that you do it the best way for you. That’s actually a very hard thing to realize: how you’re best. It takes many, many years and a lot of trial and error to be able to look at your work that way. Your whole goal in writing songs and making records is to capture a feeling. It’s no different than fishing, where everyone has a different hook that they like and they’re trying to capture this thing.
I have a landscape that’s very specific, where I feel like I’m totally myself, where I’m around all my things, and I can’t escape myself. I like to create there. But then I also like to take it all over the world and hear what it sounds like on a plane or in a different city. It’s nice to hear things in different places. New York is really home, but I come to Los Angeles to just sift through some of the things that I work on.
I’ve always loved writing on tour. I’ve always loved writing and recording at home and hearing it while I’m on tour, having that experience of being connected to live audiences and then taking that feeling home. Sure, I’ve gone to the woods and things like that. In my experience, if I leave the things that know me — the walls, the cities that know me — I can lose myself a little bit. Some people need that to find themselves. All that matters with writing is that you put yourself in environments that give you the best chance — and even then you still might not get fucking anything.
On Success and Evolution
Songwriting and making records doesn’t change with success in any way. The big change is that more people are paying attention. I’ve been writing, making records, and touring for 15 years, so the past couple of years have been funny for me. Physically, my body is doing the same thing; it has just changed in other ways. I feel focused on getting these ideas out and getting them out correctly. Writing songs that connect with people the way you do when you’re a kid alone in your bedroom is really no different from the way that you do when a hundred million people are going to hear it. That’s a really funny thing to realize because I think there’s this feeling that you’re going to get invited into some kind of winner’s circle. And it doesn’t exist, and it shouldn’t exist.
I never wrote songs because people wanted me to write songs or because the world said I was great at writing songs. I wrote songs because I felt like I had to say something and see if anyone else felt that way. When I started writing songs, it was for two friends. The feeling of playing a song for two friends and them saying, “Oh, I know what you’re talking about” is the same feeling as when the entire internet says, “I know what you’re talking about!”
It’s like your first panic attack. The first time you get a panic attack, most people think they’re literally having a stroke or a heart attack. They think they’re dying because they’ve never felt that way before. Whereas no one remembers the first time their knee hurt, because who gives a shit? So, I think that is the feeling of having interesting collaborative relationships that work. You find another person that understands this thing that you feel is not understandable. That’s also the feeling, to be honest, when one person or a billion people like or connect with a song you wrote. You get this moment of clarity that makes the world feel a little more connected.
The process is exactly the same. So that’s why I don’t like to be in really big studios; I like to be in a home studio or the hotel on tour. And to be honest, nothing I did had any team involved. I made my records at home. The Lorde and St. Vincent and Taylor and Pink were just made with the artists. There were no focus groups, no test audience. If I had the same year and less people noticed it, I would still feel pretty great about those albums. I love those albums. They mean a lot to me, and I loved making them. There’s no need to change that. There’s no better way to do it. There’s no first class of writing.
On Writing the Best Song Every Time
All of my favorite songs with really great writing and production have something that speaks to everybody individually. Millions and millions of people can all listen to the same song and just feel like it’s talking to them directly. That’s how I felt when I heard “In My Life” by The Beatles or “Unpretty” by TLC.
In the culture of writing that I come from, you don’t write a song unless it’s the best song you’ve ever written. It’s an insane competitive streak, but I’m only competitive with myself because I just want to find that song. When you find that song, when you actually get it and you actually hear it, and the production and everything makes sense, there’s no greater feeling in the world — but it only lasts for one second. Then you immediately think, “Oh no, was that the last one?” Then you go into this crazy deep dive trying to find the next one, and you don’t want the next one to be a fraction of this one. This has nothing to do with tempo or bigness; sometimes it’s a sad ballad, sometimes it’s a huge dance song. You just want to find that one song that really touches you. When you do, you have a split second of release. It’s insanely competitive and ambitious, so much to the point that it drives you a little crazy, but the trick is to stay only competitive with yourself, because nothing else matters. I just know that if you let yourself be inspired by others and stay really competitive with yourself, there’s a lot you can discover.
Nobody Wants to be the Biggest Songwriter
Nobody writes songs because they want to be the biggest songwriter in the world. They want to write songs because they want to access themselves and be able to share it with other people. The greatest success you could have as a songwriter or a producer is for something to sound exactly like it does in your head, which is so impossible. You hear something in your head, you have a vision for it, and then you spend all this time trying to actually make it real, make it exist. That’s your ultimate goal.
But a big part of the past year for me in general is trying to stay fully connected with the original goal. No one writes songs because they want to make money. It’s a very desperate act, songwriting and production. You have a feeling that you’re terrified that no one has ever felt it before, and you make this grand, absurd gesture, put it to melody and production, and then you cast it out into the world and just pray that one person says, “Oh, I agree.” That’s the whole point. That’s when we’re at our best.
The heart of making work is being misunderstood for no real reason. I’ve had a lot of things happen in my early life that I write about a lot, some extreme trauma, loss, and grief. But that’s just stuff that I feel compelled to share, not why I make work. Everyone I know who is any kind of artist, the one common thread is that they have always felt misunderstood and can’t really pinpoint the exact reason. You’re just dying to know if anyone else has felt this way.
The greatest songs come from this singular space, this very specific thing, and then are amplified by the ability for many people to relate to something that is not super common. The greatest love songs are a very specific take on love. In my opinion, there’s no reason to write a song about something incredibly common that everybody experiences.
On Being Understood
Media is a bizarre thing and has always been a bizarre thing, but that’s especially true right now. When I play a show and I talk to kids after, or if I go to a show and meet people, or I meet people on the street and talk about what I’m up to, I feel totally understood by the people who are paying attention to me. But I feel like if you’re not part of a very specific formula, people can latch on to one side or another. The inherent point of a lot of media, unless it’s the really, really good stuff, is to make something very simple. But by no means has my career and my work been simple, and I never intended it to be. I never set out to be super easy to understand by a large group of people. I didn’t start saying, “Okay, I’m going to wear these specific clothes, have this specific name, have this one sound, and that’s going to be that.” I didn’t go for a super mainstream audience. A lot of that found me later. I’m already who I am, so it’s just going to be vaguely confusing for anybody that’s looking for a really simple explanation — which is fine with me.
The people I’m most concerned about are the people that are paying attention. That’s all that matters. It’s part of why I love touring so much and why I never want to be someone who isn’t face to face with the kids. That’s what matters: that reaction from a kid buying a ticket to a show. There is nothing there besides the need to be in a room and celebrate a body of music that you care about. That’s my bible.
It’s weird. On one hand, you do this because you have to do it, but then on the other hand, you share it. And you don’t share it for no reason; you share it because you want to be in conversation with people in some way or another. So you can’t live and die by the expectations and opinions of people, but you also have to stay in that conversation if you want to be there. It’s a funny balance.
On Working in a Specific Way
What I’ve done my whole life is what I do now, whether I’m alone or with another artist: I look at the whole thing and just push this boulder up the mountain. I work in a pretty specific way. I don’t do random things like writing camps — not because I have a problem with things like that, but because I’m not good at it. All the work I do is me in a room, either by myself or with one other artist. The only second or third person that’s ever in the room is Laura Sisk, who’s a very unsung hero in my opinion. She engineers all the records I do, and she’s a big part of the process.
I’ve talked about this a lot, and people take it as me throwing shade, but it’s not that at all. I think five people getting together, bouncing ideas off of each other, and getting a great song is a beautiful thing. I just never found much artistic success doing that. So, all the records I make, by myself or with other people, it’s a very insular process.
I used to have more opinions than I do now. The only opinions I have now are about myself. The longer time goes on, there’s only one thing that I stay sure of: I can only know what works for me. I can’t in good faith work on someone else’s art if I’m not being my best self. If I’m somewhere and I feel like someone’s not getting 100 percent of me, then I leave because it’s not fair. It’s all a weird algorithm in your brain: Did you not have too many friends in high school? Were you able to socialize well? Whatever the reasons are, everybody has their own code of how they can be the most creative and how they’re not. The best thing you can do if you’re going to put art out into the world is to stay your best.
How I Met My Collaborators
All my most important creative relationships happened very randomly. I’ve worked with Grimes; I’m a really big fan. I met her at a weird, fancy party, and we sort of gravitated towards each other out of that kind of energy. I met Lorde at a Grimes show, and we started chatting about music; we’re both big Grimes fans. I met Taylor [Swift] at some weird music thing, maybe the European Music Awards, back during fun. days, like 2013 or something. I think our working relationship started because we both think that “Only You” by Yaz is the most perfect song ever written. Tegan and Sara are old friends. My old band, Steel Train, opened for them. Sara from Tegan and Sara introduced me to Sara Bareilles, we exchanged some emails, and then got together one day and wrote “Brave” in one afternoon. It’s always been just nice and simple. Annie [Clark, St. Vincent] and I had sort of met here and there at different things. I knew people that she knew. And then one night we got some food, and then we tried a couple of things in her studio, and then we tried some things in my studio in New York. It’s always a very gradual process.
I’ve never just sat down and said, “Okay, let’s make this whole album together.” It’s always a very gradual process. That’s what it was with Ella [Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, Lorde] when we started working on Melodrama. There were a lot of early recording sessions on that album where the box was so big of what it could be, and we just really defined it slowly. And that’s my favorite way to make records: to have a partner, whether that partner is another artist or an imaginary person in your head [laughs]. Then you just set out this entire body of work that has all the things you love about albums. It’s too big to fathom, so you just very slowly push that boulder up a hill.
Making An Album is An Endless Conversation
Making an album is an endless conversation. The people I work with are brilliant producers as well. Ella, Annie, and Taylor are brilliant producers. There’s this real partnership of believing in something together and never stopping until it’s right. But that’s what comes with a working relationship that goes on for some time: you start to develop this language. Sometimes the language is literal, a literal bank of sounds. When we first started making Melodrama, Ella would talk about things and I would understand a fraction of what I would come to understand a few months later. The same thing happened with Annie on MASSEDUCTION. You can talk and talk and talk, but then as a team when you find an actual song or sound that is that conversation, it’s a really beautiful thing that creates a framework.
Then one day you look back, and you think, “I don’t even know how we got here, but we got here.” While you’re doing it, it seems so impossible. The same thing with the Bleachers record: it’s so daunting and massive, the only thing you can do is a combination of holding onto a big dream and taking baby steps. You have to have both. In this neverending state of delusional dreams, you won’t let go of how great something can be, how honest and emotional. Then, on a day-to-day basis, you have to make tiny steps up that mountain.
It’s about understanding the space of something. For example, I did two songs on the Pink album [Beautiful Trauma]. I did two out of many songs, but the reason I felt so good about it was because in my experience with her, when we were working together, we would have these conversations, and it just felt so natural to turn these conversations, the things she was telling me, into songs. There are certain artists that are always going to have a singular vision. So, a lot of people that I work with, there’s not really a risk that they’re not going to have a vision. These are some of the most brilliant artists ever. There’s no world where that would ever not be the case.
Looking Back to the Future of 2017
I get a very intense feeling when I see the things that I’ve done this year, and it’s hard to describe. These albums mean the world to me. It just feels like a moment to me, this moment in my life.
It was never planned to have all this released this year. People I work with at labels may say, “Oh, we want to get it out around this time,” but what happens happens. A few months this way or that way is irrelevant compared to making the right or wrong album. All that matters is making the right album for yourself. My album wasn’t done until it was done, and that goes for all of the other stuff that I did. But it is in some ways symptomatic of the world and where I’m at.
Looking at the world, I’m sure everyone agrees that things are so hard to understand that you can only take so much. At some point, you have to go to the place where you do understand. I watch the news, I read the paper every day, and I know everything that’s going on, and I’m right here, but then the only way I survive is that everyday I write. And that’s very often not political writing; it’s almost always matters of the heart. But I can’t fully live in a place that I don’t understand. So, as horrible as that is, it really motivates me to stay in this creative space.
To be honest, shit’s always fucked up, but it’s obviously gotten really intense in the past two years — I’ve never been happier creating, either by myself or with other people. I think it’s because a lot of my creativity comes from harsh places. That’s kind of where I feel the most comfortable writing from anyway. I also know it’s not an endless well, so when it’s working, you have to follow it. I can’t control it. I always say this about songwriting: It’s a totally powerless art form. You spend five months racing down this path only to get to the end and find out there was nothing there. And then you turn around to walk back and write the best song you’ve ever written. It’s totally powerless. Anyone who says they know how to do it, that they have the secret, I don’t believe them. The closest answer I can come to is that it’s just about constantly trying.
It Shouldn’t Be Easy
Everything I did this year I did because I really believed in it, and it really mattered to me. Another thing that’s important is to not make too many plans. It might not seem like it, but I didn’t think too far into the future. I just said yes if I thought I could do a good job. If I think too far forward, there are some vague feelings of terror, but that might just be a cultural defect.
It wasn’t always easy, but there was never an option not to overcome it because that’s what making an album is. It’s a fucking delusion until it’s not. You say, “I’m going to do this” and then you just never stop believing, even when it seems absurd. Any project I’ve worked on, there have been moments of euphoria and moments of being utterly lost. If it was easy, everyone would do it. If it was easy, it wouldn’t matter. If it was easy, it would be like making a sandwich.
Never Assume People Are Stupid
The most important thing is the artistic success, and that’s strictly defined to you knowing whether you did it or not. You can’t fake that. I don’t think you can really pray to the gods of commercial success. I really, really believe that anything that’s an artistic success will find a version of commercial success. That doesn’t mean that if you make a great record everything ends up in an arena, but I truly believe that if you really achieve your definition of artistic success — without any bullshit, without making any excuses — that work will find a space. It’s a big world and there are so many different ways you can have success. I adore playing shows to big crowds. I love throwing a big party to celebrate songs. That’s something that feels very comfortable to me.
The bottom line is, if you design something to be commercially successful, I think you’ve assumed people are stupid. You should never, ever assume people are stupid, because they’re not. My least favorite phrase is when people say, “A person is smart, people are dumb.” I do not believe that at all. To have any commercial success feelings be part of the design of why you’re making work is such a losing game — like picking out five friends and saying, “We are going to have the greatest night of our lives starting right now!” It’s just not possible. The music industry is so funny because you’ve got an entire industry that is built to try to find out how to do that over and over again, and no one can! You can’t. All you can do is make work that you believe matters.