How Jack Antonoff Helped Define Pop in 2019

The musician, who co-created some of the year’s standout records, from Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey, is always asking, “How do you cut all the bullshit out?”

Jack Antonoff with Lana Del Rey (Rebecca Sapp / Getty)

The sound of pop in 2019 was multifaceted, but one creative force connected a surprising number of those facets. Jack Antonoff, who achieved rock-stardom in the early 2010s as a member of the bands Fun and Bleachers, produced and/or co-wrote the majority of Taylor Swift’s Lover, all of Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, and almost all of the Brockhampton rapper Kevin Abstract’s Arizona Baby. FKA Twigs’s single “Holy Terrain” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Want You in My Room” also credit his writing and production, and he additionally launched a new band, Red Hearse, with the musicians Sounwave and Sam Dew.

Though many listeners associate Antonoff with an ’80s-anthem aesthetic—see his work on Swift’s 1989 and Lorde’s Melodrama—this year his sound has been remarkably varied, involving reverb-soaked ballads and wacky hip-hop experiments. After realizing that many of the songs I’ve been obsessed with lately involved Antonoff, I spoke with him over the phone to hear the process behind five tracks from 2019. The interview excerpts below have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Carly Rae Jepsen, “Want You in My Room”

Jack Antonoff: An interesting fact about Carly is, she’s the first person to let me into a writing session with them, years and years ago, before she put out her first album. We’re very good friends, but we haven’t had a lot of songs come out together. She was like, “I’m going to be in New York”; I was like, “Come over.”

At that point, I had just got a LinnDrum [an early-’80s drum machine used on songs like Madonna’s “Lucky Star”]. I had this Binson tape-echo thing that I had just got also. I was running the LinnDrum through there and just fucking around, and made that beat. What’s cool about tape delay is, it’s not digital, so you’re just twisting knobs until you hear something that’s interesting, and then you can never re-create it.

Then we started playing guitar, we started singing at each other, and then I think the moment that it turned into a real song was [when] I had a vocoder plugged in. I think it was the same model that Laurie Anderson used on “O Superman.” What’s cool about a vocoder is, because it’s not you, you can say things that you wouldn’t normally say. I would never belt, “I want you in my room.” But through a vocoder, you’re playing a character.

Spencer Kornhaber: The song is so, in a good way, silly. How do you let yourself go there?

Antonoff: If I hear the right beat—if something sounds odd enough—it lets you feel yourself in a sillier light. If it sounds generic, then almost anything you put on it starts to be embarrassing. That’s what that Linn attached to the tape echo did: We already pointed the ship toward Mars. So then it was like, Why not put the vocoder in? Why not shout-talk the verses? Why not do this weird ’50s girl-group nod in the “Baby, don’t you want me too?” moment? If you start to support yourself with strange choices that are working, it inspires you to make more strange choices and not be scared that they won’t work.

Kornhaber: The fact that the saxophone comes in so late in the song is hilarious. You start to get this exciting solo, and then it fades out.

Antonoff: Yeah, that’s my saxophone player in Bleachers, Evan Smith. In pop, [sax] is dicey because it can be shticky. But he does it more in a “Young Americans,” dead-serious, joyous way. Once again, choices that could really swing the wrong way but land right in that pocket are really thrilling.

Obviously there’s a lot of pressure nowadays to grab people right away. But I don’t think that’s what people want the most. I’d prefer to have the song that, at the end, you want to play again, rather than you got all the exciting stuff at the top. Certain ’60s records, I would just crank the end as loud as possible so I could hear what is going on in the fade-out: What are they saying? The fade-out leaves the impression that the song goes on forever and that you were lucky enough to witness a piece of it. Maybe when you die you’ll find out the rest.

Lana Del Rey, “Norman Fucking Rockwell”

Antonoff: At this point, Lana and I have done quite a few songs together, and [“Norman Fucking Rockwell” has] always been my favorite. Because when we got together and started dreaming about the future, that song is the closest thing that sounds like what was in our heads together. It’s a Cliffs Notes for the whole album.

That album was made in one specific room, with one specific piano, a very specific 12-string guitar, very specific drum kit, very specific patch on the Mellotron that went through a very specific tape echo. We landed on a couple sounds that really sounded like this thing we had thought of, and then we put a helmet on all of them: Nobody touch this drum kit. Nobody move the mic from the piano.

The way that piano moves is really loose but doesn’t lose you. That tempo shift going into the chorus I really love, because that was the moment that really didn’t work until it did. The flugelhorn, the strings, her vocal at the end—it sounded like the heavens opening up. Every note, every word, brings me right back to the moment in California when we were doing it. You go in, do the things that feel great, and not think about what anything sounded like. What ended up happening was this bizarre folk album.

Kornhaber: At one point in the song, there’s a feeling like something almost falls on the piano.

Antonoff: There’s a banging on the piano in the low register, and that’s going through this special tape echo. The whole ethos: If this is the part where we need to put an 808 or a smashing sound, let’s go into the room and bang on the wall. Let’s hit the piano. Let’s make it all, right here.

Kornhaber: How did you react to Lana’s lyrics?

Antonoff: Gorgeous. There’s a lot of room to be very classic with some of the production, because she’s saying things that whip it back into modern time. Right away:
“Goddamn, man-child / You fucked me so good, I almost said I loved you.” She’s right here, right now.

Kornhaber: Do you have anything to say about Lana’s relationship with the vocal processing and reverb?

Antonoff: She has, I call them, bat ears. She hears things that disgust her, and she hears things that thrill her. She’s extremely clear on how she wants her vocals to sound. When it comes to reverb, and what’s dry and what’s going to be ethereal, we played with what the lyrics were doing. Does this lyric feel like someone’s talking directly to you, or does it feel like the voice of God?

Taylor Swift, “Lover”

Antonoff: She sent me a voicemail of the song—it was her on a piano singing it—and I thought, Well, this is a perfect song. It was so strong that there was very little concern about how to make it “work.” The only thing I was thinking about was, Let’s make sure that it doesn’t sound like now, that it doesn’t sound like yesterday. Let’s just make it sound just like the song. Just like Taylor.

But what ended up happening was, it turned into this weird symphony of reverb. That comfort of this song being so perfect, it was like, “Okay, let’s fuck around.” What if I whack the snare with a brush? What if we only used the room sound? What if we record your entire vocal through a space echo? What if we had this bananas plucky string bridge?

I knew the song was great, but then the next day, when I listened back, that’s when I was really proud of the production. We really found a space that felt like my favorite parts of the ’90s without sounding retro.

Kornhaber: People at first took it as her return to acoustic music, or her return to country music, when it’s really much stranger than that.

Antonoff: Yeah, I thought it was funny, people saying, “It’s such a return to form.” It’s actually the most experimental thing that her and I, production-wise, have done together. If you throw headphones on and you really listen, it’s very subtly out-there.

Kornhaber: Is there something about the timing in the song that’s interesting?

Antonoff: It’s loose. The concept of breaking ground is different based on what ground you’re on. So for some artists, you expect it to be loose and jangly and to play with space and time. But a lot of stuff that Taylor and I have done [has] been really precise. So to have something waver in and out of the click, while it’s not a groundbreaking decision, in the context of her it was totally new.

Kevin Abstract, “JoyRide”

Antonoff: “Joyride” is nuts, man. “Joyride” is completely nuts. That was a record a lot like Norman, where it was like: These are the sounds; it’s this space; it’s this drum kit; it’s this high, West Coast–y Moog sound. “Joyride” encapsulates what I love most about that whole album: the willingness to go so, so wild. The concept is to grab the craziest stuff.

Romil [Hemnani, the song’s other producer] had made that beat; he programmed it. And then we were like, “What if it was live? What if it was someone playing a Massive Attack beat live?” It’s so cool to me how quick that song moves. It’s something so satisfying and dark and sad but also catchy, and it’s so rare that a song can live in that much chaos and not feel chaotic. Kevin and Romil, I don’t know if it’s that they’re younger or who they are, but they are deeply unafraid.

Kornhaber: Tell me about the vocal manipulation.

Antonoff: Kevin and Romil are genius at different voices and layers. I wouldn’t want to reduce it to calling them “characters,” but [Kevin] could say so many things in so many different voices without sounding like he’s doing a party trick. So there was a wild, wild attention paid on panning and detuning and changing the format of the vocal. This stack is really sticky and sounds really sharp. And this stack is long and lazy. This is in the right headphone and just pops in at this moment. This is centered and very dry. If the vocals didn’t live with the production, then it may have been too indulgent.

Red Hearse, “Everybody Wants You”

Antonoff: When I’m in the room with [the singer Sam Dew], there are things I feel capable of that I would never feel with anyone else. When I sing with Bleachers, I sound better low; that’s where my voice is. But I hear a lot of things high-pitched, probably because my father would drive us home from school and sing to the Beatles at this frequency that is extremely annoying and catchy. With Sam, I can do these wild disco melodies and he can grab those and make them real.

I love how understated it is. I love how it feels like I’m walking home after a breakup in a movie. It just sucks me right into a scene. I hate the word smooth, but it washes over me in a way that I normally dislike, but I like it in that context. It’s so romantic, which is not really in my wheelhouse, and I love it for that.

Kornhaber: People might say you have a signature sound, but these are pretty diverse songs. Have you been trying to not sound like yourself?

Antonoff: No, I don’t really like the idea of a signature sound. I don’t really recognize one in myself. If other people do, that’s cool. All these records sound pretty different to me, and most importantly, they sound like the artist. The only thing I think about in production is, Who is this person and what is the absolute most right-to-the-bone way of expressing them? How do you cut all the bullshit out?