Jack Antonoff capped off one of the busiest years of his career with a few high-profile accolades. For the third straight year, the multi-hyphenate was nominated for the producer of the year, non-classical Grammy, for contributing to a wide array of projects: Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club, St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home, Taylor Swift’s “Gold Rush” (from her Evermore album), Clairo’s Sling, Lorde’s Solar Power, and Take The Sadness Out of Saturday Night, from Antonoff’s own band Bleachers.
The Grammy nomination — along with another album of the year nod for Antonoff, for his work on Swift’s Evermore — arrived days after Swift’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” which Antonoff co-produced for Red (Taylor’s Version), debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the chart’s longest No. 1 of all time. And weeks later, Bleachers announced a June 2022 show at Red Rocks amphitheater in Denver, after the group wrapped up a tour in support of Take The Sadness Out of Saturday Night that Antonoff calls the “best of my life” in the fall.
“What draws me to to play live shows in the first place is that it’s like a very pure environment,” he tells Billboard. “It was very emotional for us in the band, because it’s not until you do the thing again that you realize how much you need that thing and therefore how close you came to not having it and how scary and sad that is.”
Antonoff, who broke down his creative process at length for a Billboard cover story in July, checked back in to discuss the second half of his year, his producer of the year Grammy nod, and what the 10-minute “All Too Well” hitting No. 1 says about modern creativity. (Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
A few weeks ago, you got nominated for producer of the year again at the Grammys, and just looking at that list of projects that you contributed to that added up to that nomination …
That’s a moment, looking at that list. That resonates with me a lot — I did have a moment where I was like, “Whoa!” looking at that list. The overwhelming feeling is how much I love those records, and how they represent for me these incredibly rich moments. I think the best way I could describe it is, when I grew up, we went to sleepaway camp in the summer. These camps would open and close, and you’d spend the rest of the school year not shutting the f–k up about their “camp friends.” Who are these camp friends? Who gives a s–t about these camp friends? It’s because you have this experience, that is so other everything else going on in your life.
It’s a bit like the feeling of making an album. It doesn’t exist in every aspect of your life. You go into a room — in the case of [the albums on] this list, usually it’s just [one other] person — and you make this thing. You create a secret world, and then you put it out to the world, and it’s just massive and heavy and wild. I look at that list and each one has such a heaviness to what they represent, but my overwhelming feeling is one of deep pride.
It must be especially impactful to see Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night in there as well.
It’s the best. I’ve tried to articulate many times that, between Bleachers and the things I produce, there are so many similarities and so many differences. To have both represented in there — that was the past two years of my life, that list. What did I do the past two years? I made those albums.
Since we last spoke in the summer, Lorde released her Solar Power album, which took a little while to get going for me, but has become one of my most-played albums of the year. What was it like to see that album come out and have its message spread over the past few months?
I think a lot of people are having the experience you’re discussing. It’s an extremely deep and intense album, and a huge sonic pivot from where we were last time. To your point about these things that grow and grow, I kind of feel that way about all of the albums … It’s something that you can’t really have a handle on [immediately]. I would say about a year to year and a half is when, in my experience, I can understand how people hold an album. And that’s different than the way the people who made it hold the album.
When I finish an album, there’s a place I hold it, and that’s an unchanging place — however people respond to it, that’s for them, and that’s the beauty of the process. But when we close the door on an album, if I’m producing an album or it’s a Bleachers album, you deliver the master and that door f–king freezes [shut]. You hold it in this place, and it’s a powerful place, and then it comes out and people start holding it in their own place. That’s a really long, fascinating process. With all of these albums, they’re there for people to define for themselves, the same way they’re for me to define for myself as someone who made them.
It makes sense that you can’t pivot too hard when an audience doesn’t “get” an album immediately, or keep pouring it on when the quick response is universal praise.
You make things because you feel compelled to make them, and it’s the only way to honor your audience. People can get tripped up because they think the best way to honor their audience is to do what they think the audience wants. But that’s not the relationship — the relationship is to be on a path and barrel forward into the darkness and and invite your people with you. These things come from small rooms, and ideas in someone’s head. You can’t ever get to a point where you’re sort of focus-grouping it, because then we’re losing out on where that person really wants to go. So that’s that’s first and foremost to me.
I’m not being totally prudish — I know what’s going on in the world. I know what sounds or ideas could make some things more commercially successful. But that can’t ever be the guiding force.
Speaking exactly along those lines, I’m sure that no focus group would say, when asked how to get a No. 1 hit in 2021, that you should release a 10-minute version of a song that came out in 2012!
I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s sort of the completion of the loop! You have to believe in your artistry and your vision, right? Then you can know what is commercially successful, but you have to put it aside. But then every once in a while, you get hit with this reality that [what’s considered commercially successful] is not even true! There are moments like “All Too Well,” and a few others in my career, where I’ve gotten to be like, “Man, this whole thing is just bulls–t made up by some people at labels who are trying to put an answer to an unanswered question.” And that unanswered question is, “What are people going to like?” There are people whose entire jobs are just that question, and they come at it from a good angle, but the question is corrosive. And you start to look back historically and you’re like, nobody asking that question ever arrives anywhere good. The only question to ask yourself is, “What do I like?”
There are these moments where I get to produce the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” with Taylor, and when I was working on that song, I was thinking to myself, “This is a great honor. Love this song. I was not involved in the original. I know how important this song is to her and her people. I am going to go about this with the most integrity and care humanly possible,” right? It was really special, and it meant a lot to me. To see that go No. 1 is just a further confirmation of what needs to be dismantled in your head, which is, don’t ever f–king think about what some herb is telling you is the thing that’s going to work right now, because if someone’s telling you that, they’re already too late.
I was at the screening of the All Too Well short film a couple of weeks ago in New York, and the reaction in the movie theater, where fans were sobbing when the lights came up, made me go, “Oh wow, this is going to be massive.”
There’s a difference between “massive” and “literal No. 1 song,” and I don’t think in those terms because it’s such a pie-in-the-sky — like, you could have a wild, amazing career and not have No. 1 songs, because so many crazy things have to come together for a song to be No. 1 on the Hot 100. It’s a bit of a goofy thing to even hope for, so, it’s wild.
Nobody does it like her. And at the core of all of this, all of these things are only interesting because of the brilliance of the songs. I think it just it restores my faith in that, more than anything.
What’s next for you that you can share?
My favorite time creatively is to have nothing to do — and then I find myself working like crazy. But I don’t want to have to be anywhere. If I have to be somewhere, part of me sort of shuts off, and I have to think about emotionally getting myself there and what I have to do when I get there. But if I can just be in New York and New Jersey and I don’t have to show up anywhere, I find myself sitting down at the piano and getting ideas that really excite me. There’s a pretty clear distinction between this version of writing, because you just write as a person who writes, and new ideas that really thrill you. And so when I get these moments of not having to be anywhere, I start to get ideas that really excite me — and that triggers other ideas, when you see how something would sound live, what it would look like. It starts to become part of the universe, and that’s for Bleachers stuff, that’s for stuff I do with everyone. You’re chasing those rare moments, and I’m kind of having one right now, because I’m home and got instruments around and no one’s asking me to be anywhere so I can have that particular thing where ideas fly out of nowhere.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about: When you and I spoke a few months ago, we both geeked out about how much we love the Mountain Goats. And since then, “No Children” became a TikTok hit.
It is! The phrase of the day is “faith restoration.” That speaks to a few things: First of all, the power of just great songs. At the end of the day, “No Children,” “All Too Well” — in their own ways, similar trajectory here. But it also speaks to laughing in the face of anyone who can tell you what’s going to work, because if you f–king told me the Mountain Goats were gonna have a TikTok hit … but here we are! It’s easy to talk s–t about social media, but things like that, it’s like, “Hey, maybe someone’s getting something right here!” Maybe the slot-machine randomness of where we’ve reached with these things is actually churning out some interesting results.