Jack Antonoff has become one of the most in-demand collaborators in music, with credits on the latest albums by Taylor Swift, Lorde, St. Vincent and many others. His work has taken him all over the world, but he never strays too far from his home — at least in his songwriting.
On a new album with his own project, Bleachers, Antonoff makes multiple references to his home state of New Jersey. Growing up, he felt he was in the shadow of New York City, and that struggle shows up all over his music.
"It can be kind of devastating at the time," Antonoff told NPR's Morning Edition host Noel King. "But if you can find all the glory in it – which can take a minute – then what else could be better than growing up feeling left out and hanging out with people in parking lots?"
A song on the album — "Chinatown" — features New Jersey royalty. Although Antonoff penned the song alone, it turned into a collaboration when he played the song for Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa at their home studio.
Later, when Antonoff listened to recordings from that day, he was amazed at what he heard: In the second chorus, where Springsteen sings lines like "I'll take you out of the city" and "'Cause I wanna find tomorrow," Anotonoff heard himself, but he also heard Springsteen's influence on him from a time before they knew each other. Antonoff says hearing Springsteen's music was "the first time that I heard feelings that were very close to home."
The single is off of Bleachers' new album, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night. Listen to audio of the interview above — and read on for highlights.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Noel King, Morning Edition: Let me ask you about "Chinatown." The song features Bruce Springsteen. I was supposed to be reading articles about you to prep for this interview, and I just kept being like, "I want to listen to 'Chinatown' one more time!" It's a great song. What was it like working with Bruce Springsteen? How did this come about?
Jack Antonoff: I'm glad you like that song because I love it. There's lots of different types of songs that you feel the need to put out there, but there's very few that I've had like "Chinatown," where I feel if someone just sort of opened me up and one song came out, it would probably be that. Almost like it's a CliffsNotes for every emotion in me. I wrote that song alone, and I was playing it to Bruce one day. Him and Patti [Scialfa, Springsteen's wife and collaborator] have a studio near the house, so we drifted in there and everyone's messing around on it. I mean, truly loose and organic, which is how things like that kinda have to happen.
It wasn't until I listened back a little while later — I heard him singing on the second chorus and really felt amazingly connected and touched by the full-circle nature of it. It sounded like Bleachers, but I could hear his influence on me from before I knew him. The whole song is about ushering your love back home to find a future. The device in it, which is also the device of the whole album, is going from New York City over the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey. And "Chinatown" tells that story specifically. The album tells that story in a much bigger, deeper sense of what it means to go home to find a future. But there was something just remarkable about having him be part of that ushering-over-the-bridge process.
Because you grew up in New Jersey, right?
Yeah, I lived my whole life and still live there.
I'm from upstate New York, where Springsteen was a very big deal. And in New Jersey, obviously, he's a legend. Was he a big deal in your life? Were you a fan when you were a kid?
Yeah, but growing up, I had the music from my parents, so that was The Beatles. It was kind of early '60s. So, Bruce's a little bit after that. And then the '90s started to happen. I got to be young during that time and experience it firsthand and have this crazy notion that everyone has a Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Fiona Apple or something like that, which isn't true. But somewhere in there, I really started to dive into Bruce's music. It was the first time that I heard feelings that were very close to home — all the deep ones and all the literal ones, you know, names of landmarks. But then all the really deep, weird sandpaper feelings of this place and what it means and why is it so weird and why it's so glorious and why it's so dark. And that led me on this journey. There's this amazing local scene going on in New Jersey at the time. And you just start to hear your people. And he is the absolute architect of it. You start to hear yourself in there. You start to see yourself fitting into something that's really, really true and recognizable.
It's the opposite experience I had growing up where all these bands I loved [were] from other places. I remember when the East Village was happening. I was, like, "Oh, I wish. I wish I was [in] a New York band!" And it's just not me. I always say: New York music is like reporting from the center of the world, and New Jersey music is reporting from the window outside the party. Totally could not be more opposite vibes. You know, that feeling when I would tell someone I was in a New York band, and I would just want to die! Because it was so fraudulent and stupid. It's the opposite feeling of when I play and feel the sound in New Jersey in my music. Where I'm just like: Yep, I recognize this so deeply. It's the lens in which I see things — this real blend of hope and devastation.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Jack Antonoff is a producer and writer for some of the biggest names in music - Taylor Swift, Lorde, St. Vincent, Lana Del Rey. Those are just his collaborations on records that came out this year. He still found time to record his own album with a band called Bleachers. It's coming out tomorrow, and it's called "Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night." He told me he's especially proud of this song, "Chinatown."
JACK ANTONOFF: If someone just sort of, like, opened me up and one song came out, it would probably be that - almost like it's, like, a CliffsNotes for, like, every, like, emotion in me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHINATOWN")
ANTONOFF: (Singing) But a girl like you could rip me out of my head. Black tears on your cheek, I want them in my bed. I'll take you out of the city, honey, right into the shadow.
KING: "Chinatown" features one of Jack Antonoff's idols, Bruce Springsteen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHINATOWN")
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Black tears on your cheek, I want them in my bed. I'll take you out of the city.
ANTONOFF: So I wrote that song alone. I was playing it to Bruce one day. And him and Patti had a studio near their house, so we just sort of drifted in there. And everyone's messing around on it - I mean, truly just loose and organic. Wasn't till I listened back a little while later, and I heard him singing on the second chorus and really felt amazingly connected and touched by the full circle nature of - you know, it sounded like Bleachers, but I could hear his influence on me from before I knew him in the song. And the whole song is about ushering your love back home to find a future. The device in it, which is also the device of the whole album, is going from New York City over the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey. But there was something just remarkable about having him be part of that ushering over the bridge process.
KING: Well, yeah, 'cause you grew up in New Jersey, right?
ANTONOFF: Oh, yeah, I lived there my whole life.
ANTONOFF: Still live there.
KING: So was Springsteen - I mean, I'm from upstate New York, where Springsteen was a very big deal. And in New Jersey, obviously, you know, he's a legend. Was he a big deal in your life? Like, were you a fan when you were a kid?
ANTONOFF: Yeah. You know, it was the first time that I heard feelings that were very close to home - you know, names of landmarks, but then all the...
ANTONOFF: ...Really deep, weird, sandpaper feelings of this place and what it means and why is it so weird, and why is it so glorious, and why is it so dark? You just start to hear your people. And he's the absolute architect of it. I remember when the East Village was kind of happening, and I was like, I wish I was in a New York band. And it's just not me. You know, I always say, like, New York music is, like, reporting from the center of the world.
ANTONOFF: And New Jersey music is reporting from the window outside the party.
KING: Upstate New York has the same thing with, like - my parents were New Yorkers, and so I always had this thing about, like, oh, if I lived in New York, it would be so cool.
ANTONOFF: Yeah, it's cool. You know, it can be kind of, like, devastating at the time, but...
ANTONOFF: ...If you can find, like, all, like the glory in it, which can take a minute, then what else could be better than growing up, feeling left out and hanging out with people in parking lots?
KING: (Laughter) Oh my God, parking lots with, like, some smokes and some - what was the thing? Zima - oh, dude.
ANTONOFF: Zima (laughter).
KING: I'm sorry, you're taking me back.
ANTONOFF: Well, OK, I didn't - I wasn't drinking Zima, but your friends sound cool.
KING: I want to ask you about "Don't Go Dark," another song I really loved. I have this thing where I will hear a song like this about once every 10 years, and I'll think, oh, my God, this person got their heart broken so bad. This is the saddest thing I've ever heard. And then I'll look it up, and the artist has been happily married for 30 years or something. And I wondered, is this about a real person, or is this just a work of songwriting?
ANTONOFF: Oh, it's about a real person, but it's interesting that you take that song as a heartbreak song because, to me, it's just about the angriest song I can write.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T GO DARK")
ANTONOFF: (Singing) 'Cause you run, run, run, run with the wild. Then you cry on my shoulder like a little child. Do what you want. Just don't go dark on me.
That line, like, do what you want, which I think is such a cruel line - do what you want, just don't go dark on me. Like, you know, it's not I love you. It's not I hate you. It's you've got to leave me alone. I wrote it through the lens of a breakup, but it really is about the bigger thing of, like, who gets ownership over you? You know, who gets access or who gets permission to come in and have opinions on your life and be able to affect your emotions, right? You know, like...
ANTONOFF: If you imagine yourself like some sort of structure, you know, only some people are allowed in. And those people who are allowed in - they can make a mess of the place, or they could treat it really nicely. And I just got to this point with this person where it was like, I can't - I cannot anymore, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T GO DARK")
ANTONOFF: (Singing) And now she's gone. Now she's gone. Now she's out of this world. It's like California dreaming got the best of my girl, so do what you want. Just take your sights off of me.
KING: Do you say things in songs that you couldn't say in real life, or can you also be mean in real life, too?
ANTONOFF: Well, I would frame it different in real life. You know, to me, it's not - like, "Don't Go Dark" is basically me, like - I imagine myself, like, shouting, like, almost, like begging. This is so unfair. Like, take your darkness. I can't hold it anymore. In reality, it would probably be more in this tone. And I would probably be like - this is why I love songwriting - I'd be like, you know, I can't carry what you carry anymore. It's not OK for my development, blah, blah, blah, and then analyzing it. But yeah, in reality, it would be, like, a very measured, chosen words. I wouldn't be, like, yelping on the phone.
KING: So you started this album before the pandemic, and then I imagine you got stuck inside like everyone else. And I was wondering if that shows up in the music at all.
ANTONOFF: It doesn't touch the lyrics, the pandemic, but it is a massive, massive effect on the music. You know, I never thought touring was fragile. As an artist, it's always like the radio might never play you. The press might never cover you. These doors are - might always be closed, but if you go out, and you play your face off, and you find your people, that's real, and that's, like, sturdy. When that went away, it was bizarre and devastating.
So the band came in the room, and we played. It's like that last 10 or 20 miles after empty in the gas tank that you don't know about. Oh, there's a whole other level here that comes when you're faced with the real [expletive] of maybe this is gone. The band to me on this record sounds like they're on the edge of a cliff, and they might just fly off at any point, and they don't. And it became a massively important character on the album. It's the sound of hope - totally changed the way the album sounded. It would have sounded very different, way less joyful, without the pandemic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP MAKING THIS HURT")
ANTONOFF: (Singing) Say goodbye like you mean it. Stop making this hurt.
KING: Jack Antonoff - his new album with Bleachers is called "Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night." Jack, thanks so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.
ANTONOFF: Yeah, I love chatting. Take care.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP MAKING THIS HURT")
ANTONOFF: (Singing) Just say goodbye like you mean it. And say goodbye like you mean it. Just say goodbye like you mean it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.