Aretha Franklin

Bleachers Returns: Inside Jack Antonoff's Frontman Transformation

 Daniel Silbert
Bleachers

"I always had the feeling that Bleachers is my soul,” Jack Antonoff tells Billboard two days before his most personally important musical outlet returns with the lead single from its sophomore album. "When I work with other people, I don’t HAVE to do that — it’s because I love to do it and I want to do it. But these are things that I HAVE to say. Or I wouldn’t feel like I mattered on earth.”

When Antonoff launched Bleachers in February 2014, the solo outing was viewed as a side project. The New Jersey native had already been part of two other bands, Steel Train and Fun., but the latter was coming off a Best New Artist win at the Grammys, a couple of smash singles and a world tour in support of its 2012 breakthrough LP, Some Nights. When Bleachers debuted with the chest-thumping single “I Wanna Get Better,” Antonoff understood why most fans treated the project as a detour at that time. He also understands why Bleachers’ sophomore album — set for release early this summer — will be approached differently, now that Fun.’s breakthrough is a half-decade behind him.

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"When I made the first album, I was not hung up if people were going to like it,” Antonoff admits. "I was hung up on if people were going to understand it was going to be serious, and that it took heart and soul to make. I wasn’t planning on chucking it out there, seeing if the single worked and only touring for a month. I was doing the tour thing for two years. I have a whole vision for this.”

In the three years between the conception of Bleachers and last Friday’s release of rollicking new single “Don’t Take The Money,” Antonoff has become one of the most in-demand studio artists in modern pop. Following the explosion of Some Nights, Fun.’s lead guitarist co-wrote “Brave” with Sara Bareilles, and then contributed to two songs on Taylor Swift’s enormous 1989 LP (as well as a third bonus track) in 2014; since then, Antonoff’s brand of pop-rock — artful and epic, soul-baring but with an extremely polished pre-chorus — has been refracted through Sia, Troye Sivan and, most recently, Lorde, with her comeback single “Green Light.” Fun. is still on an indefinite hiatus; Antonoff’s focus has turned elsewhere, and his profile has exploded.

Like a lot of Bleachers' debut album, Strange Desire, “Don’t Take The Money” sounds designed to ring out in an arena, although every element of the new single has been amplified from Antonoff’s first outing — the production has added dimension, the chorus is yelped with great passion, the lyrical details are more striking, and hey, is that Lorde harmonizing in the back half? “Don’t Take The Money” is an ode to Antonoff’s girlfriend, Girls star/creator Lena Dunham; it’s also a mantra against soulless commercialism in pop and accepting an offer to collaborate based on the dollar signs attached.

A few weeks before its release, Antonoff was struggling to decide which single should lead the second Bleachers project. "There’s a few reasons I chose [‘Don’t Take The Money’],” he says. “When I think of a single, I think of the entrance. What’s the front door of the house? It really has this big, sad emotion to it, and…  this is the album I wanted to write about this feeling I had about my relationship, and love for people and life, and also having a real mission in my gut. What do I want to do here? What do I want to accomplish? What do I want to say?

"The new songs are about relationships,” he continues, "and then [in the song] you have the worst part of the story, where the past broke you in half. The pre-chorus sounds like a big fight, which is between two people in love. Then the chorus feels like that moment of great clarity.”

At 33, Antonoff sounds like he’s figured a lot out, personally and professionally, over the past three years. Gone are the days of trying to squeeze in songwriting for a solo project while touring with Fun.; now, he tours when he wants (he’s already rehearsing for the third Shadow of the City, his annual festival in Asbury Park, NJ) and writes in his favorite place, a home recording studio in Brooklyn adorned with knickknacks from past tours and old Life magazines.

"The first Bleachers album sounds like a diary -- I was literally on my laptop, after playing a show with Fun. in Japan,” he recalls. "I love to stay at home and write. [The home studio] is a room that I sat in for two years, and contemplated every version of my existence.”

For much of those past two years, he shared that space with Lorde, who became one of his best friends as they created her sophomore album, Melodrama (out June 16). During Lorde’s recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, the New Zealand native performed new ballad “Liability” while sitting back-to-back with Antonoff, who accompanied on piano.

"That was very beautiful, because I got to do it the way it was written,” he notes. "We played it how it sounded right in my studio, from this piano. That was a good example of what I’m trying to do — bringing that feeling that I have when I’m really at the heart of what I’m doing for the world."

The Lorde and Bleachers albums will be released in the same season, and Antonoff says that he’s been "working on two other things I can’t really mention that are coming at similar times.” He admits that he makes himself tired juggling all of the projects while trying to unveil a pivotal second album for the group that he leads. Yet Antonoff, above all, is a perfectionist -- if a project is not pure, or up to his standards of artistic credibility, then it’s not ready to be seen. After weeks of tinkering with “Don’t Take The Money,” the fact that it is completed and released offers Antonoff a sense of relief.

"I feel very proud that I did what I needed to do,” he says. "I have all of these lives that I want the music to live, but at the end of the day, it’s out there. That was step one.”