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Jack Antonoff on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Producers

Jack Antonoff on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Producers

There’s no one way to become a hit producer — just ask Jack Antonoff. A decade ago, he was a guitarist in Fun., trying to convince other artists to let him produce their records after years of playing in his own bands. Now he’s one of the most in-demand producers in pop, known less for a signature sound than for his intensely collaborative nature, which has resulted in prolific partnerships with the likes of Taylor Swift, Lorde and St. Vincent.

“If you meet someone whom you believe you could do something valuable with — which is why I end up doing more than one record with some people, because it’s very rare to find those connections — how dare you not explore that?” he says, sitting on a couch inside his studio at New York’s famed Electric Lady.

The walls are decorated with framed doodles, scribbled notes and other artifacts that tell the story of his career — like a handwritten track list for Lana Del Rey’s recent album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, the bulk of which he co-wrote and produced. He often works in his Brooklyn home studio, but he has made many records here, including the upcoming Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night (out July 30 on RCA), from his solo project, Bleachers, as well as its standout track “Chinatown” alongside his childhood idol, Bruce Springsteen.

There aren’t that many differences between the way Antonoff, 37, talks about his own work and the albums he makes with other artists: Producing, at its core, is about the pursuit of a bigger story — a practice that requires him to be a confidant, sounding board and editor as much as the guy who knows which synth will evoke which feeling. Though Antonoff’s collaborators praise how he can translate the sounds in their head to real-life recordings, he describes the work of making music in terms far more philosophical than technical.

Antonoff explains his approach to creativity — how he manages it, how he cultivates it and how, at the end of the day, he’s at the mercy of it.

I. You find time for the important things.

Over the past year, Antonoff has heavily contributed to three Taylor Swift albums, multiple Lana Del Rey projects and new releases from St. Vincent and The Chicks. He also helmed a just-released album by Clairo and an upcoming one from Lorde, and he’ll embark on a 33-date Bleachers tour in September. It’s a head-spinning amount of work, but Antonoff gets by with a little help from his friends — and cooking videos.

My version of time management is that, when I’m doing the things I love, they somehow create time for me, so I only do things I love. In this line of work, you are either being given life or sucked of life, and I don’t love being in the studio enough to be doing something I don’t want to do.

Sometimes I look back and think, “That was a pretty intense period of work,” but my family hasn’t disowned me. My friends haven’t gotten together and said, “You’re a piece of s–t.” People still take my calls. I’m definitely really ambitious, but it hasn’t gotten to the point where my life is completely falling apart around me. When you live very intensely praying at this thing, you want to make sure you haven’t taken it too far. When I hear stories about people never going home, or sleeping in a studio, that doesn’t sound romantic to me. That’s not what I want for my life.

I use everything outside of my work to turn my brain off, like my YouTube life — I watch a lot of food things. When I get home or if I want to take a break, I get into a loop of people making pasta, people frying things. My whole Instagram is just food, people packaging things. I like videos of meat: seasoning, barbecuing videos. But these aren’t things I do! Never! And I think that’s why it’s relaxing to me. I think the definition of relaxation is to enjoy something that fascinates you but does not inspire you.

How Jack Works, According To… Taylor Swift

“I see people pose the question all the time: ‘How does Jack Antonoff have the time and energy to be making this many records?’ The answer is the very same reason I wanted to make music with him in the first place, all those years ago. There is a boundless enthusiasm in the way Jack makes music, and it’s an absolutely irresistible quality to find in a collaborator. The excitement he exudes in the studio is just so contagious, and he never seems overworked because he genuinely, hopelessly, deeply loves what he’s doing.”

II. Technical expertise will only get you so far.

Jeff Lynne and Brian Eno are among Antonoff’s musical idols for their shared ability to write, produce and perform in equal measure. Antonoff, too, prides himself on being something of a technical whiz — but he has also learned that no amount of studio mastery can substitute for the unpredictable, sometimes grueling work of good songwriting.

I’ve finally figured out this huge separation between craft and process. Craft is like, “I know how all these things work.” I know how to make that Mellotron [keyboard] sound how I want it to sound. I know how to put it through that tape echo. If something needs to feel like a dream, or like a nightmare, I can do it. That’s great. But none of that helps you get to the core of an idea. Those are all the clothing you put some [ideas] in.

The craft is something you can work on and grow, but it’s just a tool. And the act of writing, having ideas of value and making albums, is truly something from the heart and the mind that mostly happens outside the studio. You get thoughts in the shower or walking or doing things, and that’s a really frustrating reality. The mystery of where it comes from and how it comes? There’s no answer to that. And I really don’t trust anyone who has an answer for it.

You’re always learning from everyone around you. Lana taught me that sometimes that thing that just comes out of thin air is the thing, and you don’t even touch it. Ella [Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde], on the other hand, teaches me what can happen if you keep chipping away at something over and over. The idea of the process is these big egos and big attitudes [colliding], but once you get into that very vulnerable place of working and writing, everyone’s just a half-broken sponge. There’s so much being passed around, and there’s so much information and so much emotion, and that’s why I love it so much. It’s really this rarefied space.

How Jack Works, According To… Lorde

“Much has been said of Jack’s ability to be an empathetic, sensitive and respectful collaborator to women, and while that’s certainly true, I’d put his success down to another of his more underrated qualities: how fast he is. I’ve never heard anyone beat up the keyboard like Jack making a beat in 30 seconds on Pro Tools. The dude can jump from instrument to instrument to build you a canvas upon which to write in minutes. It’s an invaluable creative tool for me, how easily he can pick up the thread and go wherever. When the two of us are racing to capture an idea, it’s like actual alchemy. We’re also just really close — he drives me crazy, pushes me to examine myself more carefully, and gives me s–t like no one else can. I’m team Jack forever.”

III. You can’t create in a vacuum.

Compared with the ornate pop anthems of the first two Bleachers albums, the songs on Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night are shaggier and more dizzying. That’s by design: Antonoff and co-producer Patrik Berger (Robyn, Charli XCX) recorded the tracks in 2020 with a five-piece band while the pandemic had halted touring, and Antonoff says the sessions’ euphoric energy changed the context of the songs — and, ultimately, made them better.

The pandemic had a massive effect on the music. Not because it was necessarily written about the time period, but because you write, record and produce differently based on the pace of your life, based on what’s going on in the world. The pandemic felt like a culmination of a lot of things. We’ve all been talking so much about human experience, what it means, the conversation about the end of our planet. It leads me and the people I know to the most honest, tactile things. Vinyl sales had been going through the roof way before the pandemic. There was a reaction to where we were headed, and I think the pandemic lit that on fire.

There’s always this phase of me working, and then at some point I see the album and then really start zeroing in on it. This album was always about breaking out, knocking at the door of the next phase of your life. What I didn’t realize is how much the quarantine would cause me to want to be with the band in a room. At first it was like, “I can’t play, so I want to have my guys around.” And now it’s like, “Oh, they became the characters pushing me through that door.”

We played like we might not play again — that’s not something I have ever done before. The songs could have sounded very different, and that was a really beautiful thing about this album. The pandemic was so on fire, and the sound of the band was so joyous and so driving that it felt like the songs were cleansed of cynicism. That’s the thing about albums and writing — you’re always working from a place that’s at least a little bit beyond what you can fully understand, which is why you do it, because if you can fully understand it, then it’s not really interesting to you.

‘Holy S–t’ Moments: Antonoff On Three Memorable Creative Breakthroughs

1. On one of my favorite songs on [Swift’s] folklore, “The Lakes,” there was this big orchestral version, and Taylor was like, “Eh, make it small.” I had gotten lost in the string arrangements and all this stuff, and I took everything out. I was just like, “Oh, my God!” We were not together because that record was made [remotely], but I remember being in the studio alone like, “Holy s–t, this is so perfect.”

2. I remember watching Lana play [Joni Mitchell’s] “For Free” with Zella Day and Weyes Blood — this completely remarkable moment at the Hollywood Bowl [in 2019] — and her being like, “Let’s put this on the record!” Like, holy s–t! Of course! How could it not go on the record? That slipping of time — different generations of singers, playing songs of older artists they love at the Hollywood Bowl — of course that goes on [Chemtrails Over the Country Club].

3. My song “Chinatown” was an acoustic song. And then me and Patrik were f–king around, making noise, just being like, “Put the drums in so I can get a vibe.” And the drums started from the top and it was like, holy s–t. We were so wrong! There are very few songs that don’t have a version of that, because that’s the magic. You set out to do something, and if you do exactly what you set out to do, then the magic probably didn’t happen. It happens in every song, or else it would be like, “Yep, that’s the song. It’s well-recorded. But where’s that f–king thing that makes me want to fly out of my seat and play it for everybody?”

IV. Embrace a change in scenery.

In addition to Electric Lady, Antonoff works from his home studio in his Brooklyn Heights apartment, a cocoon of instruments and personal knickknacks. He also has a space in Los Angeles — he’s building a permanent Hollywood studio, expected to be completed this fall — and sometimes will return to his home state of New Jersey to work through ideas.

You burn out areas. When I was a kid, I was always in my room, and then one day I was like, “I should write songs in the basement!” I moved my stuff down there and it was like, “I wonder if I would write songs in the garage, maybe that’ll crack the code!” To make art is entirely random — you are out there in the wilderness trying to catch something. There’s no space, no thing, no time of day that makes it happen, so sometimes you go, “I’ll go there and see what happens.”

Whether I’m in a big studio or at the little one in my apartment, I’m just hearing things differently because I’m in a different space. It’s pretty emotionally driven — I seem to write better at home — but then there’s also sonic and social elements. I wrote a lot of the Bleachers record alone, but then Patrik and I were at Electric Lady, and I got into a more performative kind of writing. I need both, and most people I work with seem to need both, too. We write some things together where it’s manic and we’re shouting ideas at each other, and then tons of things we’ll write alone.

How Jack Works, According To… The Chicks’ Natalie Maines

“Jack is so great to work with! He’s up for exploring all creative ideas and has a bottomless well of his own. I learned so much from him every single day we were working together. To top it off, he’s hilarious, whip smart, generous and kind. All very important traits to have when you’re spending thousands of hours in the studio together!”

‘You’re Telling The Story’: Antonoff On The Album Every Aspiring Producer Should Hear

The Sunset Tree, by The Mountain Goats. It’s modestly produced by John Vanderslice. There’s not a huge array of instruments or tricks that are used on it. You can have all the tricks in the book, but listen to that album, and listen to what [Mountain Goats leader] John Darnielle is going through. Listen to the way he frames it, and listen to the way the music holds his story perfectly. It makes you want for nothing else. It really just puts into perspective how big the job is, and how it’s not about quantity. You’re telling the story, and it needs to live in its best home.

There are Earth, Wind & Fire or Prince albums that are like, “How’d they f–king do that?” But I feel compelled to reference something that would service a deeper point about production, which is: It’s what’s best for the body of work. And that’s a perfectly produced album.

V. Good albums don’t necessarily take a village.

Whether it’s Lorde’s Melodrama or Lana Del Rey’s Norman F–king Rockwell!, Antonoff isn’t a hired gun for pop stars — he often makes entire albums with them, and he’s not alone. Some of the biggest and brightest pop titles from recent years have also largely been made by one artist and one producer, including Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (with her brother, FINNEAS) and Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour (with Daniel Nigro).

I have this North Star theory: Good records are made if everyone is looking at the same thing, whether that’s two people, three people, four people. Obviously, the more people you add, the harder it is to have that vision completely align. The cohesion is more important than anything. Brilliant people can be together, but if they’re looking at different things, what do you have? It’s like peanut butter and fish.

A lot of that happens because a label perspective can sometimes push that narrative: “Oh, we don’t have it, let’s get this person in!” And I get it. I used to have more anger toward that mentality, but record labels are in a funny position — they’re spending money on something that there is no blueprint for. They’re building a house without the plans, and they’ve got to pay for it. That’s stressful, but that’s what it is.

Great work happens when a team believes in each other, lifts each other up and silences everything else in the entire f–king world. What I don’t believe in — and have had some rough experiences with — is letting people in who are going to act like they have “the sauce” and put things down. There’s no cynicism in the studio. It’s a very fragile place, as it should be. There’s nothing easier in the world than making an artist feel like they’re s–t and that you have the answers. I’ve seen so many people do it, and it’s horrible. And it’s always some f–king character who is dealing with their own insecurity.

The goal isn’t to “do your thing” on someone else’s music — the goal is to make the best, most alive version of this vision. So, in a weird way, it’s inherent that these [albums] end up sounding totally different, because no two people who are real artists have the same ideas, even if we’re in the same cultural dialogue. Some people might have more of a signature sound, and that’s cool. I feel really intent on my goal, which is to make great records, and the only way that I’ve been able to get close to figuring that out is just immersing myself and not drawing at anything that feels known or safe to me.

How Jack Works, According To… Lana Del Rey

“What can you say about Jack Antonoff? For me, the magic of working with Jack was that he had that contagious energy when I had nothing more to give. He dragged me into the studio, I riffed over four songs and never did another take on them again. It’s one of the first times I just ad-libbed and had fun without thinking about what would end up happening to the songs since I made my first record. (Maybe I did a little bit of that with Ultraviolence, but that was a long time ago.) Besides his contagious energy, Jack plays any and every instrument you could ever imagine, from steel pedal to drums. He’s like a one-man show. You get to choose the genre, and he plays it all out. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a producer myself — but when it comes to musicianship, his talent is one of a kind. I love him, everybody loves him, and he’s very deserving of his ever-growing prestige.”

VI. Know your value.

In late 2019, Antonoff sold a catalog of nearly 200 songs to Hipgnosis, striking a deal with Merck Mercuriadis’ music investment company while maintaining an interest and management responsibilities of the catalog. (A representative for Antonoff declined to specify the value of the deal.) The move nods toward what Antonoff describes as a coming “reckoning” within the music industry, in which institutions will have to change as creators gain a greater understanding of how much their work is really worth.

You can’t fake anything. You can’t jam a song to radio, you can’t jam it on a TV show. We’ve raised an entire generation of people to be marketing geniuses, who just swipe away from anything they don’t like, and it’s really refreshing. There’s this great divide now, between people who are excited because everything’s burned to the ground and say, “Let’s go make some good music,” and other people who are grasping at ways to cook it and fake it. It’s one of the coolest things about TikTok: You can’t go into corporate and make someone make videos. You could try, you could pay some influencers, but people know. People can tell.

[Taylor Swift rerecording her first six albums] is monumental. People approached it with so much cynicism, and then, just like everything she does, there was no f–king bit. And people love to be like “This changes the game!” about so much s–t. This actually changes the game. And good! Let people who want to put artists in antiquated deals feel some fear about the power of artists. It’s a classic tale that is representative of the assumption that people suck, and they don’t.

I did a deal with Hipgnosis, which was a really positive thing. The funny thing about “selling the catalog” is you don’t sell your whole catalog — you retain control! And unless you develop computer software, you need a partner to go collect your money [anyway]. I think it’s always interesting, the huge valuation of how much songs are worth. Look at who’s upset about it. It’s like, “Cool, you guys do you, but in the meantime, there are some motherf–kers out there who are saying all of our songs are worth about 20 times more as you’ve been telling us, and I can still control all of them. What’s the problem?”

Artists are very easy to take advantage of for three reasons. No. 1: We’re indoctrinated to think that we’re just lucky to be here. No. 2: There’s all these anecdotal stories that are designed to shut you down — you’ve been told a million times by the biggest artists in the world, from TLC to Pearl Jam to Mariah Carey, that you’re not going to beat [the system], so don’t even try. And No. 3: Artists don’t have time. If you’re a real artist, you would sooner foreclose on your house and live in a van than you would take away from the time of you making your work. We don’t have time to be like, “Hey, what the f–k?” Because the second I start doing that, I think to myself, “Oh, God. I don’t want to spend my life freaking out about some stuff. I need to be making my work!”

There’s a couple of really good people out there trying to shift that. When someone comes along and says, “Hey, I think these songs are worth 15 to 20 times as much,” it really blows things up. And it can be a really beautiful thing for artists who once again, just like all these different outlets, now have another option where they can retain control.

How Jack Works, According To… Clairo

“Jack is an extraordinary person. My favorite thing about him is how easily he can comfort others in an uncomfortable situation. Nobody ever gets left out, and no one ever feels alone. He can be the busiest person you know but still make time for you no matter what. He is a very giving person and never thinks twice about it. It’s really inspiring!”

VII. Turn your community into your compass.

One of the biggest lessons Antonoff has learned from Swift over the course of their collaborations? Know your audience — and value them accordingly. As Antonoff’s career priorities have changed — from leading Steel Train to playing guitar in Fun. to writing and producing — so have his critical and commercial wins. Yet the listeners who engage his work, he says, are the most important metric, no matter how many of them there are.

My goal is not to have everyone on the planet like me or like my music. I’ve known people and have then stopped knowing people who have been poisoned by that goal. [Certain accolades] can be nice and flattering — I’ve had moments when I put things out that were “that thing” that everyone was talking about. But when you have those experiences, it’s pretty easy to be like, “Oh, f–k this,” because all the roaches come out of the woodwork. The emails you get after one of those moments can be grotesque.

What I value most is the people — not just how many of them, but in terms of who will come to the shows or emotionally invest in the work. My audience has been different sizes through time, but I know them, and they know me. When I was in Steel Train, my audience was very small, and when I was starting Bleachers, the audience was growing. When I make records for other [artists] and can see which people in that world are in this [community], I just know them, and I love being in contact with them. People are welcome in that audience, but there’s really no reason for me to have any interaction with anyone outside of that. I see it as the only thing worth chasing.

It’s interesting how your goals move with you. I remember I was in Steel Train, and I just wanted to tour and make records. And then Fun. was this side project that got really big, and I was ticking off pretty big dreams and goals, but it wasn’t the way that brought me the most comfort and joy, because I wanted to be doing my stuff. At the time it was like, “I’m the guitarist in this band, but I’ve been writing songs and performing them my whole life,” and I just remember the growing anxiety of that time. There’s nothing more dissatisfying and scary than getting what you want, but not in the way you want it.

I feel like I’m only getting started making records. I’m just someone who, in all the things I love, I want to be with them for a while — and experience all of the emotion and joy of when something grows.

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 17, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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