July 4, 2022

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Jack Antonoff’s Gift for Pop-Music Collaboration

9 min read

Fantano reviewed “Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night” on his YouTube channel a week later. “Look, there are some great tracks on this thing,” he said. “But the full potential of this LP is still severely kneecapped by a complete and utter lack of focus, consistency, and quality control.” He gave it a 6 out of 10. One of the YouTube comments read “I wonder if Jack will ever agree to an interview again.”

“I’ve been writing and performing songs since I was fifteen, and for the first decade I absolutely ate shit,” Antonoff told me. “I really—and the tax returns supported this—did it because I felt compelled to, not because the universe was sending me any signal that it was ever going to work out.” He added, “It’s great if people like my stuff, truly, everyone’s welcome—but there were a lot of records before people gave a shit, and there will be a lot after people stop giving a shit.”

“Not to neg myself—I’m pretty good at the guitar—but I’m not the best guitar player in the world,” Antonoff told me one day, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in a chauffeured S.U.V. “I’m less good at bass or keys, even less good on the drums.” His first-take instrumental style has become something of a trademark. “Solar Power,” the Lorde record, is full of Antonoff’s fingers squeaking across frets. On “Sling,” the Clairo album, he is credited with playing eighteen instruments, some of which he’d never picked up before. The Lana Del Rey song “Venice Bitch” has a shaggy, thrown-together feel; its ending includes seven minutes of Antonoff noodling semi-arrhythmically on various guitars and monophonic synthesizers and drumming in the style of a twelve-year-old who can’t quite reach the pedals. (The song is almost universally considered a masterpiece, and this does not constitute a dissenting opinion. Del Rey told me in an e-mail that Antonoff intuitively understood how to “give it that California sound or that I don’t give a fuck sound.”) “If what an artist wants in the studio with them is someone with off-the-charts technical shredding ability,” Antonoff said, “that’s not my value-add.”

So what is? Most of the musicians Antonoff produces could work with anyone. Why him? Last summer, when “Solar Power” was released to relatively lacklustre reviews, a skeptic tweeted, “jack antonof must be an incredibly good hang.” This was meant to be a backhanded compliment, if not an outright insult, but it was actually an astute guess. During our time together, I saw Antonoff navigate an impressive range of social situations—with famous rappers, jaded roadies, overeager high-school students, aloof retirees—always finding a way to charm the room, to act like himself without upstaging anyone else. “Other producers want to squeeze you into some mold based on what has worked before,” Carly Rae Jepsen told me. “He wants to hear you come up with something that’s never been done, something that could only come from your brain.” Natalie Maines, the lead vocalist in the Chicks, said, “He’s one of the great conversationalists. You feel totally safe and comfortable sharing anything with him.”

This may sound like faint praise, but it’s not. Novelists and poets work in solitude. Film directors hone a vision and enact it by means of lights, lenses, locations, and other people. Standup comics use the crowd as an editor. There are musicians who work in similar modes, and then there are musicians who do something else—who go into the studio with a bunch of rough ideas, reveal those ideas to a trusted partner, and don’t leave until they’ve emerged with something that sounds like what they were hearing in their head. For these musicians, an adept collaborator isn’t nothing. It’s everything. “Making records, even at their easiest, is a journey through some kind of personal-ego hellscape,” Clark told me. Antonoff—having made many records, including his own—is the ideal companion: “He knows the journey so well.”

Recently, at Electric Lady, I sat in on one of Antonoff’s sessions with Sam Dew, a singer with such a euphonious falsetto that Antonoff has taken to calling him Angel Boy. Before he met Antonoff, Dew was a top-liner, writing hooks for Usher and Rihanna, among others. “With someone like Claire or Ella,” Antonoff said, using Lorde’s offstage name, “the process usually starts with a lot of talking, seeing where they’re at emotionally, before you start writing or recording anything. With Sam, we just hit the ground running.” In 2016, Antonoff, Dew, and Taylor Swift came up with the hook for “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” a chart-topping duet that Swift recorded with Zayn Malik. Songs from other sessions ended up on “Moonlit Fools,” an alternative-R. & B. album by Dew that came out last year. The session at Electric Lady would be open-ended, Antonoff explained: “We just see what we come up with, then later we decide where it wants to live.”

They were booked for 10 A.M., and started right on time. (One of Antonoff’s most unfashionable quirks is that he schedules his life as if rock stardom were a normal job; most nights, he’s in bed by ten-thirty, drinking tea and watching a documentary on Netflix.) Also in the room was a sound engineer named Laura Sisk. She and Antonoff communicate with a near-telepathic concision (“Kill that wonky one, then punch me in on that high thing?”) that resembles the shorthand language of twins, or of surgeons in an operating room.

Antonoff fooled around with some simple keyboard voicings on a warm-sounding vintage synth, then programmed a spare, mid-tempo track on a drum machine. “Could be the start of a vibe,” he said. After a few minutes, the synth chords began to jell into a languorous progression. Dew sat on a couch, eyes closed, humming under his breath.

The magic moment happened about fifteen minutes into the session. Dew started with descending triads—pleasant, but not particularly surprising. Then he switched to a stepwise melody, up to the minor third and back down to the root. “It’s so good,” he sang, using words for the first time all morning. It was a simple line, but there was something about it—the slight syncopation, the flash of dissonance—that made Antonoff’s eyes go wide. “That’s sick,” he said.

“I like the idea of it being, like, a come-to-Jesus moment, but about revenge,” Dew said. Antonoff threw out some revenge-themed lines in a pinched falsetto: “ ‘You’re not safe! In your home!’ That’s the cheesy version, but something in that zone.” After that, the session seemed to flow effortlessly. The two didn’t need sentences anymore—they just sang little overlapping phrases, editing themselves as they went (“No, but . . .”; “Closer”; “That’s the one”). Sisk recorded twelve bars and looped them. Dew leaned back on the couch, typing out lyrics on his phone. Then he laid down his vocals—the main melody, followed by stacks of improvised harmonies. “Are you tuning that?” Antonoff asked Sisk. She said, “Nope, that’s just his voice.” “Angel Boy,” Antonoff said.

For the next hour, Sisk kept recording as Antonoff darted from instrument to instrument—Mellotron, twelve-string guitar, live drums. He treated the looping track like clay on a potter’s wheel, tweaking some tiny elements, removing others, proceeding by intuition, guiding the song as it changed shape. By the end of the session, all the instruments he’d started with were gone; the tempo and the chords remained the same, but the feel of the song had transformed almost entirely. He told Dew, “I think this is actually going in a more Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, English-countryside kind of direction, which I like for you.”

I left the studio humming the melody, and I woke up with it in my head the next day, and the day after that. My instinct was to find it on a streaming service and play it right away. Each time, it took me a few seconds to remember that a rough draft of the song existed on one of Antonoff’s hard drives, and nowhere else.

In April, Antonoff and I went for a walk in Brooklyn Heights. He told me that the song was still in a folder with a few dozen other tracks that “fit into the category of ‘There’s something about this I love, this will be out in the world eventually, it’s just a question of the when-where-how.’ ” He’d recently finished producing a record by Florence and the Machine, which comes out this month, and he has been working with Zoë Kravitz on her first solo album. He’d just been in Los Angeles, recording with Lana Del Rey at Henson Studios. “We were tuning 808s, messing around,” he said. “And then we had this one weird live take where she was singing along to a voice memo on her phone, with her headphones on, and I was playing piano latent to what she was singing, and we just both went, ‘Yep, there it is—our one magic moment.’ ”

The previous weekend, he’d been in Las Vegas, at the Grammys. For the third year in a row, he’d been nominated for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical; this year, he’d finally won. On Instagram, Del Rey posted “Congrats from us!” beneath a photograph of herself, Antonoff, and Swift embracing. Del Rey drove from L.A. to Vegas to celebrate with Antonoff, Sisk, Qualley, and Annie Clark. “We rented out a place—my family, my band, Annie and her family, Lana and her family,” he said. “We really did it right.”

Antonoff knows that after a peak, almost by definition, there tends to come a dip. “Not saying I deserve to be in the same breath as these people, but you look back even at the greats—Bowie, Prince, Bruce—and you see lags, sometimes decades long,” he said. “Living through it, I’m sure, is a much scarier thing.” Some people insist that he’s already entered a fallow patch. There are the perennial gripes about his production, but, as always, the criticisms about Bleachers cut closest to the bone. “Antonoff remains a curious case for a solo artist,” Jeremy D. Larson wrote in his Pitchfork review of “Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night.” “His leather jacket says rock star, but his songs are mostly without danger or angst.” Larson gave the album a 6.2. Pitchfork has given lower scores to records by Bowie, Prince, and Springsteen, but all three have also received perfect tens; by critical consensus, Antonoff hasn’t yet made his “Heroes” or his “Nebraska,” at least not for himself. Springsteen had Jon Landau in the studio with him, shaping his ideas. Bowie had Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. Maybe Jack Antonoff needs his own Jack Antonoff, someone to help him transform his ore into gold.

Last September 11th, after two pandemic postponements, Shadow of the City, Antonoff’s music festival, made its triumphant return. On the outdoor stage at the Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, there would be five opening acts, including Claud and Japanese Breakfast, followed by the headliner: Bleachers. “I’ve been dreaming of this day for two and a half fucking years,” Antonoff said backstage. His parents were there, and his sister, and a few of his closest friends. Qualley had travelled from Budapest. “I wanna show you something,” he told her, half whispering. “It’s . . . well, it’s a lot, but I think you’ll like it.”

He led her through a security checkpoint, flashing his badge, then slipped through the crowd and into a cordoned-off area next to the stage. “My childhood bedroom,” he said. Not a simulacrum of his childhood bedroom—the actual bedroom, cut out of his family’s old house in Woodcliff Lake, loaded onto a trailer, and dropped off in the parking lot, as an interactive art exhibit. Qualley smiled and said nothing. “It was more on-theme with the last album,” he said.

They opened the door and walked in. Twin bed, mint-green carpet, stacks of CDs, posters taped to every visible surface (the Beatles, the Get Up Kids, Outline, Steel Train). “Were these your actual clothes?” she said, riffling through a drawer.

“Oh, yeah,” he said.

“I actually spilled salad dressing on the shirt I’m wearing,” she said.

“Take one,” he said. She picked out a “Where’s Waldo?” T-shirt. “So sweet,” she said.

The sun set over the boardwalk, and Bleachers took the stage. There was a crowd of more than four thousand blissed-out kids, some in Bleachers gear, some in Taylor Swift or Clairo T-shirts. “This is the first Bleachers show in almost three years,” Antonoff shouted. “This is a show that you will never forget!” ♦

Andrew Marantz
2022-05-16 06:00:00

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