Jack Antonoff got his start doing no-budget tours with the New Jersey outfit Steel Train, but ever since his band Fun. scored the prom song of the millennium with "We Are Young," he's been giving Dr. Luke and Max Martin a run for their go-to-songwriter money. He's cowritten hits for Sara Bareilles, Taylor Swift and Tegan and Sara; worked with Grimes and Tinashe; and banked an alt-rock radio hit, "I Wanna Get Better," with his solo project Bleachers. "I always wanted to collaborate with people, but people weren't always very interested," Antonoff says. "And then, when I started having songs on the radio and things like that in my bands, it became an easier conversation to have."
To test our theory that Antonoff could make pop magic happen with anyone, PAPER arranged for him to cowrite with one of his favorite comedians, Eugene Mirman. Best known for voicing Gene on Bob's Burgers, Mirman recently released the 9-volume, 7-LP set I'm Sorry (You're Welcome) via Sub Pop. You can watch the session's hilarious yet catchy results, taped at the New York karaoke bar Sing Sing, below. Turns out that working with Mirman wasn't too much of a stretch for a guy who can move effortlessly from mainstream pop to R&B to cool-kid jams. "I just try to go in and do something that's really interesting," Antonoff says. "I think that's sort of where music is at right now. There's a lot less lines."
So you're working on a new Bleachers album?
Yeah. I mean, a little bit.
How's that going?
Really good. I built this studio in my apartment, so it's been a lot of waking up and drifting into the studio, which I like 'cause I think the more you can work where people would actually hear stuff, and not like not a real studio, the better. It's a better headspace to be in.
How did you go from writing in your own bands to collaborating with people like Taylor Swift and Sara Bareilles?
There's actually a weird role that can happen to you when you have your first hit song. Lots of people start calling. So I started getting all those calls, and that was really interesting to navigate what I did and didn't want to do, because the world of working with other people is an incredible one, but the world of writing for other people, like doing writing camps and stuff, is disgusting. I tried a bunch of that — I'm not gonna name which artists they were for — but it's a really weird world. It's been a couple of years of trying to figure out what my purpose is there.
So it's not like you actually write a song and send it off to someone.
I've done that, but I don't like to do that. Because if I'm gonna sit and write a song and give it to someone else, that means it was a song that wasn't good enough for me, and that sucks just to do something that's not good. If it was a great song, I'd just keep it. I don't wanna send off rejects. But if I'm working with someone else, something will happen that wouldn't have happened. I always say one plus one equals a million. In the room, something new happens so it exists in a totally new space. But I don't want to send out my shitty songs.
There's a famous story that Bruce Springsteen wrote "Hungry Heart" for the Ramones and his manager was like, "No, that's a hit. That's yours."
It just felt like, "What's the point when I can keep all those songs?" And when it's even more exciting and inspiring to write with someone.
So tell me about the remix project you did with Tinashe.
I hear music as a few voices in my head when I'm writing, and so I wanted to do a project where the whole album was recreated by the opposite gender for a number of reasons. I wanted to do it because I thought it was a really cool project, and I think that constantly re-expressing an album or an entire work of art is cool — also because that's how I hear it. So by showing people the early stage of what's going on in my head, reinterpreted by the very artist who inspired the song to be written in the first place, like that's some real full-circle shit.
You have Tinashe, who does R&B, you've worked with Taylor Swift and Sara Bareilles and all these huge pop stars, but you've also worked with Grimes, who is as indie-internet cool as you can possibly be. How do you navigate all these different worlds and still bring who you are to the table?
I try not to think about it. When you think about who you're working with, what they do — not what they do; what you think they do — then you go in with this fucked up vision of what you think you're supposed to do. All these people are just different artists. Grimes has a specific taste, Taylor has a specific taste, Tinashe has her own thing. and you just go in and you wanna be yourself and not be some version of what you think that artist would want you to be. I just really try not to think at all. That's what's really helped me really not exist in one genre or scene.
So it's not like, "OK, here's what I'm gonna bring for the Taylor sound, and here's the Grimes sound."
Yeah. I wouldn't tailor things, like, "Oh, this person's more pop or less pop." I just try to go in and do something that's really interesting. I think that's sort of where music is at right now. There's a lot less lines.
It's just music.
Yeah. And you know, 10 years ago, indie music and pop music and hip-hop music sounded totally different. Like, the beats that existed in a hip-hop song did not exist anywhere else. A pop song sounded very specific and indie bands sounded very specific and there weren't as many synthesizers and there weren't programmed beats. Everything was cut up into place. So now, everything's kind of jammed together. That new Chairlift song, which I love, sounds like a huge pop song to me, with a cooler sensibility. I've always been that way. I've always not given a shit — what sounds good, sounds good. So I don't wanna think about it when I'm in the room, because I don't think it's helpful for anyone.
How can you tell when you're starting to click with someone artistically?
Very early on. You get in a room and things work or they don't work. Everyone I've ever worked with, it's very quick. You know, you pull up a sound or an idea, a reference, and you're off. You either get something great in an hour, or you spend the next six hours where you're trying cool ideas and it's like... whatever.
Have you had the thing where you like them a lot personally, they're clearly very talented and you like the same things, but nothing is happening?
Not yet, but I'm sure that will happen.
Who are some of your dream collaborators you haven't worked with yet?
I love Robyn; I've never gotten to work with Robyn. I think about her a lot. I like Chairlift a lot. Grace Jones is someone I've thought about my whole life.
She's on our current cover, actually.
Oh really? She's the greatest of all time.
As a songwriter who really knows the ins and outs of putting together a piece of music, how'd it feel to hear Ryan Adams cover some songs you did with Taylor Swift?
That was crazy and incredible. I'm a Ryan Adams fan. I got Hearbreaker years ago and I was really inspired by that album. So to hear songs that I worked on... the whole thing was just fucked up. Just to hear your own songs that you work on on a big pop record and then to have another artist you really like cover... it's just these layers and layers of really fucked-up excitement.
So what do you have planned for next year besides for the new Bleachers album?
I'm working with a bunch of artists right now, but I'm never allowed to talk about that kind of stuff, which is annoying. A whole bunch of shit.
You were in bands for a while, and Fun. opened a lot of doors for you and you began writing for all these people. And then you started Bleachers, which is basically just you. Was the idea to create the purest distillation of what you do?
Definitely. In a very literal way, it's very pure. The lyrics read almost like diary entries. It's very personal. And I made the record kind of alone on the computer, traveling all around. I think it's important to have it. I want people to hear what I can do when I'm in all these different scenarios and hear my sound. But listening to Bleachers, that's just like sitting and having dinner with me. It's fully personal.
Now that you've opened the door and shown who you are, what's your headspace for the next one?
It's hard to know. I try to let things happen in a pretty natural way, like I did with the first one. So it's hard to know what that space is, because I don't really feel like I'm in a space; I just feel like I wake up every day and go to the studio and write like crazy. I don't want to talk too much about it, but a sound has emerged from that. Lyrically, I always write about loss and depression, and I think revisiting that concept constantly through different ages is something that everyone can relate to.
Is it tougher to get to that place nowadays? It seems like things are going pretty good for you. You've had hit songs, you're respected, you've made it.
Well stuff like that... I mean, that my career and my personal life and all the things that could sort of be visibly going well or not well is totally separate from the person you live with in your head. I think everyone's like that. I think everyone has sort of the reality of what's happening that... like, when it's good, that makes me happy, and when it's not good, I strive to make it good. But then there's all the shit you live with your whole life that just never goes away. And I think that's a big thing that I'm excited to write about on this record: just constantly dealing with the things that are never gonna go away and not trying to make them go away, but just trying to let them exist within yourself.
Are you one of those types that, when people say nice things about you, it feels like they're talking about someone else?
Sometimes. I think everyone has an extreme amount of self-hatred. I think we all deal with that. Some people turn to themselves, some people turn to drugs, some people turn to God. Whatever it is, I think it's just because people have a really hard time existing. I always say — which is what I'm writing a lot about now — that the way we treat ourselves, we would never treat other people. If you talk to someone else the way you talk to yourself in your head, you'd be in jail. If you emotionally did the things to someone else that you do to yourself, you'd be committed. It's amazing how clear most people can see situations and what someone else is going through and then have none of those tools to do so on their own.
David Foster Wallace said that you owe yourself the love that you would give the person you'd love the most.
Yeah, but you would feel so arrogant doing it, which is just a big part of the culture that we live in.
You wrote "I Wanna Get Better." Do you think you have, or are you still a work in progress?
When I wrote that song, I think I felt the same way I do today, which is that the highest form of existing is wanting to get better. I don't think being better is a reality. I think people who think they're "better" are probably a few hours away from a nervous breakdown. I still think that. I always said, "In my best moments in life I want to be better, and in my worst moments I don't even care." That's the worst place you could be: not wanting to get better.