Bleachers' Jack Antonoff sticks to his gut feelings

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Maddie interviews Jack Antonoff of Bleachers. (MPR)

Maddie catches up with Bleachers' Jack Antonoff about listening to your gut and filtering out the noise when it comes to songwriting, his quarantine dreams, and who his first source of confidence was as a music producer.

Interview Transcript

Edited for clarity and length.

MADDIE: Hi, I'm Maddie sitting down with The Current here with Jack Antonoff today of Bleachers, of producing every single album, I think that exists, all of that good stuff. How are you doing today, Jack?

JACK ANTONOFF: I'm okay. I'm just in the studio at home, doing what I've done for a year.

Yeah, what has your quarantine home studio routine been like?

It's been interesting because a portion of my life is unchanged, because before COVID, I would just go into the studio alone, and that all looks the same. Then another portion of my life is gone, touring. I think, I don't know, it makes me feel connected to everyone and also on an island at the same time.

Yeah, with that jet setting/touring part of your life gone do you feel like the spots that your songs come from have changed at all? Or is that still coming from somewhere internal?

I think the core of them haven't changed the things I'm writing about. But the feeling behind them has changed, it reminds me of when I was a kid and I wasn't playing shows, and I didn't have an audience. The process of writing and recording was this, like, it was more of a big leap of faith, just to do it. Then everything was a big dream, I would dream about playing and dream about having people who cared about it.

I've gotten back to that place a little bit and I think their result has been an album that actually feels more like a live dream sequence than I could have imagined because I'm not in that conversation that I normally am when I make records where I'm playing, and then I'm recording.

Yeah, with this upcoming Bleachers record what do you think people are going to hear that is different from the records that you've put out in the past? It's been now I guess, what, three, four years since the past record? What do you think has changed?

The biggest thing is, you know, the bigger a band gets, the more you feel intent on speaking to the audience. That's the only real goal of what we're trying to do out here is to find our people and then talk to them. And that people group of people can expand but it's not about casting some insane wide net to find everyone. It's about having this like really intense furthering conversation with the people who are there. That's been a really interesting thing about this album as a third album, because it feels like there's things I can get into--almost like a TV show where people know the context. It's not about, you know, on my first album, I felt like a lot of stuff, which I love, but it was like Cliff Notes of my life. Now I can just, I don't know, maybe cut a little deeper.

Yeah, kind of returning to a new season of a show where people already know the characters.

Yeah, I feel like, I have to explain things less, and I can just reference them or a feeling or then you end up sort of writing about your experiences within a project, even the experience of this band. It's like, there's things to reference within that, even musically, that certain people who've been listening will pick up on.

Definitely. Now you've been absolutely super busy producing and co-writing records with a ton of artists of the past couple years, like The Chicks and Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey, how does your songwriting process differ when you're writing stuff for Bleachers, than when you're collaborating with other artists?

Oddly similar and oddly different all at once, which I know sounds silly, but similar in that the goal is the same, completely the same. It's just, there's a feeling or a part of you that needs to be documented and you're just throwing the goalposts and chasing it. It's different I would say mostly, because if it's Bleachers, it's kind of like the sound of me wrestling with myself. If I'm working with someone else, I feel like I'm really supporting someone and bouncing off each other to get rid of all the parts that are trap doors where you can get lost in something, and just like stay on a track.

It's very odd because they're inherently different because it's alone versus with someone. But I do feel with writing and making records, you're almost praying to this God, that you're hoping you get the ideas and you can create them so that process is the same. That version of prayers is doing it, doing it, and doing it and not settling and cutting closer and closer to the bone on everything and really listening to your gut on things, because it's really wrong to stray away from your gut if you're in this kind of work.

Yeah, I found a tweet that you'd made a couple of weeks ago about killing the voice of the algorithm in your head to make music that streams better? How do you grapple with that within your own music and writing on your own?

There's a lot of information that we have that is super interesting, but super harmful if you're writing music. How fascinating to know how long--and believe me, everyone who works in music industry does know because it's their job to know how long an intro should be, or what BPMs are working, or this or this or that, or whatever. It's just all designed to just destroy your soul and make you feel insecure. I think everyone has that feeling no matter what work they do, which is like, "If I make it, it's this, but when someone else does it, it's real." There's so much in one's own life that you have to get past to make your work correctly, the last thing you need is to also bring in the world, which inherently we do and then inherently, for a myriad of reasons, it's getting harder and harder. As an artist, it's like the armor that you normally have to have--you to develop more and more and more, that's what I was referencing, with what you're saying is just to like, this can't help, it can only hurt, and it will hurt. It's like meditating, you have your mantra, so you can constantly bring yourself back. Writing music is no different. There's all these concepts and facts or whatever that can really get you away from yourself.

Do you feel like that's changed? Or how do you feel like that's changed in the years since you have been making music and have been putting music out into the world?

It's like this cloud that always lives. I don't think that's changed. I just think the things within it, like, sometimes it's raining, sometimes it's snowing, but it's the same crap. When I was first coming up, it was, "You gotta do it this way. And it's all this." Then at one point, it was all MySpace algorithms, and now it's all Spotify algorithms, but it's the same thing, which is that you can't understand what's going to reach people and so that creates an industry around artists who are desperately trying to figure out shortcuts to make things work. But that's just not what we're doing. That's not what this is and if you read the history of the industry, it never gets wiser, the crap we deal with in music right now is no different than what they dealt with in recorded music in the 50s. It's the same sort of anti-artist sentiment, it's the same racism. It's all the same systems in place, except instead of a little 45, it's streaming or whatever it is, and that stuff needs to get corrected. But from where I sit, which is just someone in a room trying to block out all the noise and make my work, I just try to do it for myself, and then also preach the gospel of like, this--songwriting is not an optimizable thing. It can't get easier, it can't get better, it can't get cooler, it's just something that gets to--something that's done. It's like finding a better way to like fall in love or something. It seems really upsetting to me. So I think nothing's changed, there's just different names for it.

I think that's an interesting way of looking at it, that Spotify is just kind of like a different iteration of something that's been existing for so many decades.

The stories we hear from streaming are not terribly different from the stories we've heard from CDs, that we heard from vinyl, that we've heard from people stealing publishing in the 50s, or 60s, it's it's all the same story, and the story happens is cyclical, because artists don't want to spend their life doing anything besides making their art so they're easy to take advantage of because they're distracted as they should be. So there's always an industry in place that is messing with them.

Speaking of evolution, I saw that when Evermore came out, you posted that you've been working with Taylor Swift since 2013. How has that relationship evolved over the past near decade? How do you feel like that's influenced your writing today?

Greatly. She was really the first person who believed in me as a producer. I always made my own records and had some success there. Then when I started working with other people, there was this feeling of like, "Oh, you know how to write songs, but you can't produce songs." Sort of like, we need to take it to someone who does it for real. I think it was on "Out of the Woods" or "Sweeter Than Fiction," some of the first stuff that I did with her where we did it and I put my heart and soul into it and then I was sort of expecting like I had all these other experiences with somebody being like, "Alright, now we're gonna have some produce it," and she was like, "Yeah, that's done."" It changed my--changed the course of my life, not only outward, but also inward. When other people believe in you, a lot can can grow from there. So when Evermore and Folklore came out, it was really wild to look back and think about how important she is to me and the work we've made together. Also the way that it's affected me is pretty intense. Just your typical sappy post.

That's all good stuff. Looks like we're gonna have to wrap it up soon but thank you so much Jack for taking a second to sit down today to talk about music.

Is everybody okay by you?

What's that?

Is everybody okay by you? Are you--it seems like you're in the studio, like, is it crazy? I guess you guys are like, it must be nice to do your job because you at least your job is in an isolated room with no one else?

Yeah, it's interesting because I come in person, I work in person. But I'm one of maybe like, 10 people in this building where there's usually like 300 people, so it's really quiet. But it's nice, because right now I'm in the office and I can sit in this little room. It feels almost normal.

Yeah, I feel like my job is probably somewhat similar to a person in radio where it's like, all the pieces of getting to my job are totally bananas and feel like a horrible 80s version of a future movie. Yeah. But then once I'm in the room, I'm like, this is no different.

Yeah, I mean, radio is always like you're sitting in a room and talking to yourself, which I guess is kind of how recording songs must feel because it's--

Totally completely. That really bizarre thing that to choose to do.

Yeah, sitting alone and talking to the world.

Yeah.

Different approaches to kind of the same situation here.

Well, it's nice talk to you. Thanks for having me on.

External Link

Bleachers - official site

Credits


Host - Maddie
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza

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