Jack Antonoff is perhaps best known as the co-writer and producer of Lorde's album Melodrama. He's also worked with Taylor Swift, St Vincent and recently played New Zealand with his solo project Bleachers. He spoke to RNZ's Alex Behan about crafting perfect pop songs.
Jack Antonoff is on a streak.
In 2017 alone he released his second album under his moniker Bleachers while he co-wrote and produced albums with Taylor Swift, St Vincent and of course Lorde’s Melodrama.
He is one of the most sought after pop producers of the moment. He’s the guy you go to when you want that off kilter hook that embeds itself in people's brains.
He’s made a career of it. His band Fun found chart success in America and with them he roamed the country for twelve years beginning in bars and ending in stadiums. Inevitably he went solo and is enjoying a time in his career where he can pick and choose projects.
He speaks philosophically about his job and it’s hard to stop him when he gets going. He speaks about pop songs the way anglers speak of fish that got away.
He thinks of writing pop songs as finding moments. They might be a combination of words he might hear in a cafe. Or chords or ideas or feelings and he tries to recognise those moments when they appear.
“Think about any of the greatest songs of all time, it can often be a very casual lyric and then it’s the writer who took it an imbued it with feeling. That’s the job and it’s really interesting to be in search of that constantly.
“If I just said to you now I’m gonna change my hair my clothes and my face, you wouldn’t think much of it. But when Bruce Springsteen says it in 'Dancing In The Dark', a song which you think is about joy … and he shouts that in the middle of a song and it’s jarring – that’s a perfect song to me.
“Robyn's 'Dancing On My Own' has to be one of the greatest pop songs in the history of the universe. There are so many moments in there. ‘I’m right on the corner watching you kiss her, I’m right over here, why don’t you see me’.
“If you just say it like that it doesn’t sound like poetry, it sounds like something a nine-year-old could say, but when she says it, and the way she sings it, and the chords behind her – there is literally nothing more poetic in the entire world. She captured loneliness and sadness and heartbreak in a few words.
“The greatest pop song of all time is 'Only You' by Yaz (I think you call her Yazoo). Also probably 'In My Life' by The Beatles. It’s endless, there’s this endless list of songs that you want to die they’re so good.”
When a song works, like 'Green Light' or 'Look What You Made Me Do' or his first solo single 'I Wanna Get Better' did in 2015 it connects with the masses, and in many ways, it’s that rush that keeps songwriters pursing their craft.
“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.”
Pop songs today are often written by whole teams of people, which seems odd for something so personal. But Antonoff is the current king of collaboration, artists are queuing up to spend time locked in a small room with him.
“The whole concept of collaboration is chasing something together which I love. Not to repeat myself but it’s fun because it makes you feel less alone and writing can be so lonely. I’ve been writing my whole life and I’m confronted on a daily basis with that feeling of trying to find that song, trying to find those words. “
It worked for Lorde. Melodrama was released in mid-2017 but was still top of many best of lists at the end of it. All those hours spent in Antonoff’s studio apartment in New York mining the aftermath of a break-up created a powerful emotional statement. The pure vulnerability of songs like 'Liability' and 'Writer In The Dark' are evidence that Antonoff and Lorde merged their emotional, lyrical and musical minds.
“It’s always been a chance encounter and then one thing leads to another and then before you know it we met and started talking about music and then we started texting and you get to a point with someone where you feel comfortable enough to say 'Okay let’s try and go to a studio'.
“Because you don’t want to go to the studio out of nowhere, it’s very intimate. And then that actually, we realised that there might be a musical connection here and then we set off on what was essentially a two-year journey.”
Instilling trust and allowing artists to open up and share their innermost thoughts and feelings may well be part of Antonoff’s most vital skill set. It’s a quality that doesn’t emanate from nowhere, he wears his own vulnerabilities on his sleeve. As a teenager he lost his thirteen-year-old sister to brain cancer, he has spoken openly about the effect that still has on him personally and his art.
“You have monumental moments that you know are going to confront you with the deepest part of yourself. That for me was one of those experiences that pushed me to the limits of who I am.
“It’s with you forever so a lot of my writing revisits that through a different lens or it tries to make sense of the aftermath of that. I mean every love song is in some way about that right? You have a monumental moment, falling in love and then you are constantly trying to understand and replay it. How did it happen? Why did it happen? How am I different from when it happened? So I often do the same thing but with loss instead of love.”