Bleachers: “This album is about wanting to hold joy, and not understanding why you can’t”

Jack Antonoff, the go-to producer for Lorde and Taylor Swift, on how understanding grief, his hometown and “unearned hope” shaped his finest album yet

We all get by with a little help from our friends – though for most of us, our pals don’t include The Boss.

Then again, Jack Antonoff isn’t most people. The musician – who has produced for Lorde and Taylor Swift, alongside maintaining a successful career with his band Bleachers – has a phone book that every music industry hack would be envious of, and this now includes Bruce Springsteen.

While creating Bleachers’ third album ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’, Antonoff was hanging out at Springsteen’s house. “I was with him and [wife and E Street Band member] Patti [Scialfa], and he was showing me some stuff. I was playing him stuff, and I played a demo of [2020 Bleachers single] ‘Chinatown’,” Antonoff tells NME over Zoom while sat in a dimly-lit room during a break between rehearsals at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, his trademark trendy oversized glasses reflecting his laptop screen.

That night saw them drifting into the studio, where Springsteen recorded himself singing on the track’s growling second chorus. The slow-burning ballad opens with Antonoff’s vocals before Springsteen’s distinctive voice joins him, emerging out of the swathes of jangling guitars and stomping drums like a beacon of light: “But a girl like you / Could rip me out of my head.”

NME Cover 2021 Bleachers, Jack Antonoff
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

Antonoff didn’t think anything of it until he listened back to the tape a few days later. “I heard Bleachers and I heard Bruce, his band and his culture’s influence on me, even before he heard ‘Chinatown’, flowing through it. I heard myself hearing his music and feeling value in the place that I was from, and these emotions that come along with this place. Finding my version of it, but only because of the doors that he kicked down for people like me.”

You can hear Springsteen’s influence radiating from Bleachers’ buoyant hooks, bluesy horns and warm piano licks, and this inspiration started when Antonoff first discovered his music and realised they were both from the same neck of the woods: New Jersey. Springsteen’s music was the first time that Antonoff heard himself in the sound: “You have different lives and different experiences, but the feeling behind it [is the same]. [You think:] ‘This is how I feel. I understand what this person is talking about, I’m dying to fucking get out of here – but I love this place’.”

Formed in 2014, Bleachers started off as a solo project for Antonoff when his pop group fun., the band behind sleeper hit ‘Some Nights’ and Grammy-winning earworm ‘We Are Young’, went on hiatus. Bleachers’ debut album ‘Strange Desire’ – which boasted guest appearances from Grimes and Yoko Ono – was first released in July that year and, despite middling reviews, earned him a cult following of fans. Follow-up ‘Gone Now’, released in June 2017, fared better and included co-writes from Lorde and backing vocals by Carly Rae Jepsen; upon release NME said it “proves [Antonoff] should be recognised as more than a writing partner or producer to the stars, but one of the stars himself”. With its jubilant hooks and chest-thumping choruses, ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’ – out today (July 30) – might just be Bleachers’ best record yet.

NME Cover 2021 Bleachers, Jack Antonoff
Jack Antonoff of Bleachers on the cover of NME

Created with his touring band this time around, the new album is stuffed full of soaring songs that span from sax-fuelled stompers (‘Stop Making This Hurt’, ‘Don’t Go Dark’) to driving, punk-laced cuts (‘How Dare You Want More’) and stunning, slow moments of introspection (‘Chinatown’, ‘Strange Behavior’). All of the songs have one strong characteristic in common, however. The record’s earliest ideas date back to 2019, but those kernels of songs “weren’t children of this album yet”, Antonoff says. Music was being written, but nothing was tying it together. The lightbulb moment for ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’ came when Antonoff was rolling around New Jersey’s Long Beach Island on his bicycle, suddenly realising the thread that ran through the record – something Antonoff calls “unearned hope”.

“The album is so much about wanting to hold joy, and not understanding why you fucking can’t,” he explains. “Not understanding if it’s cultural, if it’s things I’ve been through, whether it’s Jewish things. Is it the loss I’ve been through? I don’t know. That became the idea of those songs, and looking at myself through the lens of my family and the people that I love. All these people are struggling and I’m struggling, and… why? Why, why, why? It’s not about answering the question, it’s about posing it.”

By posing that question, Antonoff discovered a feeling he didn’t know he had in him. While the songs may tell sad stories or be shrouded in darkness, they still always provide a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

NME Cover 2021 Bleachers, Jack Antonoff
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

Born in Bergenfield, New Jersey, Antonoff started writing music when he was 10-years-old. In his second year of high school he got involved in the local punk scene, forming a band called Outline and releasing a full-length album and a couple of EPs.

When he was in his final year of high school, his life changed when his 13-year-old sister Sarah died of cancer. The tragedy, Antonoff explains, became “the lens which I view the world through”.

“And it’s not a story, it’s a thing that evolves,” he continues. “What’s interesting about the trauma of losing a sibling is you become a genius in a language of grief, but you become an infant in understanding every other part of your life.”

This is something Antonoff realised only recently. “When something is so big, it’s the answer for everything. ‘Why am I depressed?’ Well, your sister died. ‘Why am I anxious?’ Well, your sister died. ‘Why am I bad at relationships?’ ‘Why do my family have these issues?’ ‘Why do my parents have a fucked-up relationship?’ They lost a child!

“What you realise is there is so much life beyond that, and to understand life beyond the tragedy is not to shame the tragedy. But when something happens [that is] so big, you almost need to hold it everywhere to honour it, and it takes years and years and years.”

“I heard myself hearing [Bruce Spingsteen]’s music and feeling value in the place that I was from”

Antonoff says he’s now in the process of understanding this. “I’m learning things about myself, my family, my culture, my friends and the way I live that I probably would have learned a decade ago if I didn’t have this huge rug of grief to sweep everything under.”

This colossal loss at such a young age continues to impact all aspects of Antonoff’s life, including his songwriting. “There are stories that have shaped us, and then there’s things that live in our bodies, so that you have to keep telling the stories in different ways,” he says.

You hear this on the heartbreaking ‘Like A River Runs’, taken from Bleachers’ debut, where Antonoff sings: “I woke up thinking you were still here / My hands shaking with regret / I’ve held this dream for such a long, long time.” It’s a poignant opening that depicts the complex feelings that emerge in the aftermath of losing someone.

NME Cover 2021 Bleachers, Jack Antonoff
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

“On the first two [Bleachers] albums I felt so obsessive about looking at the different angles of those stories, and that caused me to have to relive some trauma to go back and tell certain stories… but this album is literally trying to break down this door and move into it a new zone.”

Moving into a new zone is a recurring theme throughout our conversation. While writing, Antonoff explains, he would imagine a doorway. “I’d imagine myself with all this baggage. And I would be trying to get through [the doorway] and I’m like, ‘Oh no, I gotta drop some, I gotta figure out what I can take’.

“That’s the whole point of the album. It’s that moment when you’re at the end of something, but you’re not at the beginning of something else yet, and all the hope that’s on the other side.” The record, he says, concerns “all the anxiety and frustration of trying to break through”.

NME Cover 2021 Bleachers, Jack Antonoff
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

Alongside his steady solo career, in recent years Antonoff has become just as well-known for his behind-the-scenes work for a bevy of musical heavyweights. He was behind the production on Lorde’s second album ‘Melodrama’ (2017), worked on 2019’s soft-rock masterpiece ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ with Lana Del Rey and won a Grammy for Album Of The Year for his contribution to Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ (2020).

The latter was the latest project from his long-term collaboration with Swift, who was the first person to hand Antonoff the production reins in 2013. His production style is distinctive and restrained, filled with ’80s synths and megawatt choruses while pushing the focus onto intimate songwriting and honest lyrics – all while supporting them with effervescent instrumentals.

In recent years, Swift has been involved in a very public battle to regain control of her master recordings. This comes after she took on Spotify in 2014 in a bid to leverage fairer treatment for artists.

“What’s interesting about the trauma of losing a sibling is you become a genius in a language of grief, but an infant in understanding every other part of your life”

“I’ve seen her change the music industry first-hand,” Antonoff says of Swift. “She’s amazing for being a champion, and making things better for the generations to come. She has a long history of rightly exposing some real darkness in the music industry. And I’m personally thankful for it, outside of our friendship and working relationship, just as an artist. She’s asked me some questions a lot of people are afraid to ask.”

Such as?

“‘Why is this OK?’ ‘Why is it OK to treat an artist like this?’ ‘Why is it OK to exercise ownership over things that someone makes from their heart and soul? Why?’ And the answer is always the same: because that’s how it’s been. And that’s why it’s amazing if someone like her comes along and says, ‘Well, hold on: why?’”

Given his long history of collaborating with Swift, is Antonoff now working on the next of the singer’s re-recorded albums, ‘Red (Taylor’s Version)’?

NME Cover 2021 Bleachers, Jack Antonoff
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

“I don’t talk about anything, in general, that I work on with someone else, because my belief is that it’s theirs to share,” he says, brushing away the question gently. The same goes for Lorde’s anticipated third album ‘Solar Power’, out next month. “I was in an interview the other day and somebody was asking what my favourite song on ‘Solar Power’ is, and I was like, ‘I can’t – I’ll tell you in a couple months!’”

He does speak generously, though, about his other collaborators. Lana Del Rey, who Antonoff has affectionately nicknamed Jimmy (she’s referenced on ‘Stop Making This Hurt’), co-wrote the ‘Take The Sadness…’ track ‘Don’t Go Dark’ and provides backing vocals on ‘Secret Life’. “What I love about working with Lana is that there’s so much more humour in their music than I think people understand,” Antonoff says. On Clairo – whose stunning second album ‘Sling’ he also worked on – Antonoff shares that she’s “one of our great artists,” adding: “It can’t be understated, the level of her work and her writing”.

He’s more modest when it comes to talking about his own music. Working with a who’s who of pop heavyweights over the past decade, Antonoff has become one of the most influential figures in the industry, earning five Grammys along the way (for his work with fun., Taylor Swift and St. Vincent). Artists are now coming through who have been influenced by his wide-spanning work, the most high-profile being the chart-smashing phenomenon Olivia Rodrigo.

“Taylor Swift has a long history of rightly exposing some real darkness in the music industry”

Antonoff was recently added as a co-writer on Rodrigo’s break-up belter ‘Deja Vu’. Rodrigo was inspired by the bridge of Taylor Swift’s 2019 song ‘Cruel Summer’, which Swift, Antonoff and St. Vincent co-wrote.

“I had never met her, and I had never been in a room with her. So it’s interesting… because another song on that album, that was an interpolation of [the Antonoff co-written Swift song] ‘New Year’s Day’. But yeah, it came through the channels that the bit on ‘Deja Vu’ was inspired by that bridge and we were going to be credited, and I thought that was really cool.”

Antonoff remains humble when asked if he can see the influence he’s had on the pop landscape. When he’s creating, he works in an insular environment – his own planet, soundtracked by whatever he’s working on. “Every once in a while, I might hear something somewhere randomly and think, ‘Oh is that something [I influenced]? Oh no, it’s not!’”

NME Cover 2021 Bleachers, Jack Antonoff
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

He compares it to the feeling when a fan recognises him on the street. “When someone gives you a look and you’re like, ‘Are they recognising me?’ And then you feel like an asshole for thinking they recognised you. And then they come up and say ‘I like your music’, and then you feel like a double asshole for even doubting it in the first place!

“It’s that weird thing where you’re like, ‘Oh, is that the beautiful circular nature of something I did: that someone influenced me, and then I did and it comes to something else?’ And then you feel like a little bit of a brat for thinking that.

“I guess,” he finishes, honestly, “the best answer to your question is it makes me feel good that you even asked that question.”

With his impressive roster of A-list clients and a reputation that precedes him, Antonoff could now make a flourishing career out of his production work. But what about Bleachers? What role does he want the project to play in his life?

“I don’t really think about it in terms of…” he begins, before stopping and starting again. “I think you do the things you love to do, because they make you recognise yourself and feel valuable and alive.

NME Cover 2021 Bleachers, Jack Antonoff
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

“​​As an artist,” he adds, taking a mouthful of porridge from a bowl that an off-screen figure passes him, “your daily work routine is not tethered to putting food on the table, it’s tethered to feeling awake and alive within your art and the world. You train at a very, very young age to follow those things. I’ve never done anything outside of that reason. The records that I work with people on are the ones I couldn’t not work on. The records that I make are the ones I couldn’t not make, there’s not much of a conversation.

“If you don’t feel compelled by something, you really shouldn’t do it because you’re taking up space – and lord knows we need space right now.”

With Antonoff, everything comes with intent, and ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’ is no exception. A truly bold return, it’s the powerfully hopeful album that all of us who have lived through such a universally harrowing year need. On an album filled with unearned hope, does Antonoff feel like he’s broken down the metaphorical door as he planned?

“I don’t know if I’ve knocked it down. But, man, I want to do it – and that feels like more hope than I’ve ever known.”

Bleachers’ ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’ is out now via RCA