Taylor Swift producer Jack Antonoff: ‘I thought Shane MacGowan would last forever... He’s the ultimate artist’

Jack Antonoff is a top-flight producer of the likes of Lorde, Lana Del Rey and St Vincent. He’s also very keen to talk about the recently departed Pogues singer

Jack Antonoff (bottom right) with his band, Bleachers. Photograph: Alex Lockett

A few months ago, the superstar producer Jack Antonoff opened his laptop and clicked on a live-stream from a church in the middle of Ireland. “I sat home alone on my computer, watching Shane MacGowan’s funeral,” says Antonoff, the mild-mannered co-writer of such juggernauts as Taylor Swift’s Cruel Summer, Lorde’s Solar Power and Lana Del Rey’s Grammy-bagging A&W.

He talks passionately about MacGowan and Nick Cave, who honoured his late friend by singing Rainy Night in Soho from the altar at Mary of the Rosary Church in Nenagh. “Nick Cave is one of my favourite artists of all time, and then Shane’s music is some of my favourite of all time. You put that together: that was one of the important musical moments in my lifetime – and I was just f**king watching that on my laptop.”

Antonoff is not an obvious Shane MacGowan disciple. MacGowan’s music, if often eloquent and fuelled by a doomed romanticism, could be anarchic and messy, too. Antonoff’s work with his band Bleachers and as a producer of Swift, Lorde, Del Rey, St Vincent and others is measured and pristine – as you can hear on Bleachers’ self-titled new LP. Nonetheless, MacGowan really did mean something to Antonoff, whose voice cracks as he discusses the Pogues singer and his death, last November, at the age of 65.

“I didn’t think he would ever die. When Shane MacGowan was 25 he looked unwell. I thought he would last forever. I figured he had something inside of him that would keep him alive.”


After the funeral, Antonoff went down a YouTube rabbit hole and discovered a 1995 joint interview with MacGowan and Sinéad O’Connor on Pat Kenny’s Kenny Live chat show. “Shane MacGowan reminded me so much about what I love about music. His literal physical form… he’s so rough and intense-looking. And his voice is so rough and intense. But his melodies are so tender and beautiful. And then, when you read the lyrics, they’re so vulnerable. He’s the ultimate artist. Not even in song but just by living his life, he represents both sides of the human experience. I never met him. But I used to stare at pictures of him forever.”

MacGowan’s life in music was a story of early success followed by a leisurely amble into the twilight. Antonoff’s trajectory is the opposite: at 39, he is only getting started. This much is clear from that new Bleachers record. It’s his best solo work to date, brimming with the same empathy, vulnerability and tunefulness that have marked his work with Swift and Del Rey.

One way of understanding Bleachers is to see the songs as an extension of Antonoff’s personality: they are understated and playful, but confident and sometimes a little goofy and brash, too. It’s also about where he comes from. Antonoff grew up in New Milford, New Jersey, and his new album is steeped in the music of his home state. There are references to the introverted indie pop of the local touchstones The Feelies and Yo La Tengo, but there’s some strut and brio as well: his recent single Modern Girl is outfitted with saxophones that recall another pre-eminent New Jersey native, his friend and confidant Bruce Springsteen.

Ever since I was first started writing and touring, I had a ‘This is the last day on earth’ feeling about every song. It’s the only way I know how to do it

—  Jack Antonoff, music producer

Bleachers’ early records were coloured with sadness and trauma, of which Antonoff has experienced plenty. In 2001, when he was 18, his younger sister, Sarah, died of brain cancer. A cousin was later killed fighting in Iraq. For years he experienced depression and anxiety – emotions he filtered through Bleachers.

Jack Antonoff pictured at his home studio in New York in 2017. Photograph: Tawni Bannister/The New York Times

The new LP is different: he’s in a better place following his marriage to the actor Margaret Qualley (Andie MacDowell’s daughter, who plays one of Charles Manson’s disciples in the Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). There is still plenty of intensity, though – despite suggestions to the contrary in some early coverage of the album, this is not Antonoff’s feelgood record.

Jack Antonoff performing with Taylor Swift during Swift's Eras Tour at MetLife Stadium in May 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/TAS23/Getty

“I was joking with a friend about how jealous I feel – how nice it would be to sit at a piano, write some songs, go do a show. But ever since I was first started writing and touring, I had a ‘This is the last day on earth’ feeling about every song. It’s the only way I know how to do it. It can be exhausting.”

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The biggest surprise is that Antonoff has time for Bleachers in the first place. In the past three years he has written Anti-Hero with Swift, worked on her Taylor’s Version revisiting of 1989, written A&W with Del Rey and collaborated with Lorde, Clairo and The 1975. Next month he’s back over the top with Swift again on her album The Tortured Poets Department. There is also another Del Rey LP, a country record called Lasso.

Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff at the 66th Grammy Awards last month in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Johnny Nunez/Getty

Why do so many stars clamour to work with Antonoff? Talent is obviously part of the answer. He also makes for easy-going company, and so stands in refreshing contrast to the stereotype of the producer as a control freak or passive-aggressive knob-twiddler.

“He’s an absolute joy,” Swift said of Antonoff in 2017. Their friendship is one of the defining relationships of his career: Swift was a guest at his marriage to Qualley last year, on Long Beach Island, in New Jersey; the singer’s appearance attracted a swarm of Swifties and forced police to temporarily close a street.

Jack Antonoff with his wife Margaret Qualley at AMC Lincoln Square 13 in New York City last month. Photograph: Nina Westervelt/Variety/Getty

Theirs is a rare musical chemistry. In the 2020 Swift documentary Miss Americana, we see them essentially conjure the song Getaway Car, from the LP Reputation, out of thin air. One moment it’s just a fragment of an idea; the next they’re finishing each other’s sentences and coming up with the chorus. Their partnership also yielded Cruel Summer (which they wrote with St Vincent’s Annie Clark) – a long-time Swiftie favourite that became a surprise hit in 2023, four years after its release.

“It’s really cool,” says Antonoff of Cruel Summer’s surprise comeback. “The big takeaway is that if you follow your heart and soul with what you love to make, then a lot of strange and surprising things happen. Whether it’s Cruel Summer or A&W [winning song of the year at the Grammys] or Bleachers’ touring becoming so crazy… I feel – Okay, got it. Message received – Just do you.”

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Given his output, you might imagine Antonoff to be a workaholic or possessing superhuman powers of organisation. The secret of his success is more straightforward, he explains. “I try to spend my days doing whatever I feel. If I’m working with someone for too many days in a row I can get a little anxious, because I like to be free with my time,” he says.

“Mostly I’m working on whatever I feel. You kind of wait to be called. I felt called to make this Bleachers album. And then, other moments, I feel compelled to do other things. It might sound like pandering or bullshit because of what I do, but I don’t try to structure my day too much, other than being in the studio. And what I do kind of moves from there.”

There’s a huge discourse about, How do you do this? How do you do all this? And I don’t know

—  Jack Antonoff

With great success comes the inevitable backlash. Or, as a noted philosopher once put it, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate”. Antonoff has experienced his share of snark – shade on social media, and also the direct salvo of an essay in New York magazine the Drift – “the intellectual arm of the leftist resurgence” – which labelled him pop music’s blandest prophet. “There is something about Antonoff’s production that is at once instantaneously identifiable and frustratingly anonymous,” the magazine claimed. “Vapour does not photograph especially well.”

Antonoff is nothing if not self-aware. He understands how things work – that cycle from fame to resentment.

“When people have a lot of opinions, sometimes they forget that there’s a person there who actually knows the truth about it all. However people feel about the work is how people feel about the work – it’s designed for people to feel very different things. But the amount of discourse about how these records are being made... I find that people have such a hard time imagining that I’m really doing what I’m doing. That part is a little funny to me, because it’s like… I’m not very shy about what happens. I go into a room every day and sometimes I’m alone and sometime I’m with people. And there’s the music that comes out of it.”

A hint of frustration creeps into his voice.

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“The need to try to understand how I do that is funny to me. Because I don’t even understand how I do it. Sometimes I feel positive or negative. There’s a huge discourse about, How do you do this? How do you do all this? And I don’t know. I go into the studio or I go into a room and I write songs or produce songs and here they are. And then some people are, like, ‘Yeah I understand that – but how?’ And I don’t know. That’s also the culture we live in. We live in this masterclass culture where everyone can describe everything they do. Maybe someone else can – songwriting and producing is not a very describable craft. It’s one of catching magic.”

Bleachers are not a million-selling act yet. But Antonoff has been involved in some of the biggest records of the past decade. What does he think of the argument that the music business has never been so stratified, with the top 1 per cent earning 90 per cent of streaming revenue and making millions from touring, while other musicians struggle?

It’s a very strange industry that has historically forced you to go to the edge of one’s capacity to get recognised

—  Jack Antonoff

It’s a tricky one, he says. He wonders whether the industry has changed much from when he started, 20 years ago, with his band Steel Train (followed by the group Fun, for whom he co-wrote the hit We Are Young).

“It’s tough, because I’ve had experiences on both sides. So on one hand I understand that [critique]. On the other hand I’ve lived in so many sides of the music industry that sometimes, as time goes on, I don’t see things changing as much as it gets written about. Sometimes I’m sort of, like, ‘Oh, it’s same bullsh*t as always.’ The music business is always so f**king hard to break into. You have got to grind it out until you find your window. Because a lot of the things that people discuss about the current music business sound very similar to the music business I grew up in, I think a lot about it. I think about my circle. How I came up. My friends and how they’re coming up. It’s a very strange industry that has historically forced you to go to the edge of one’s capacity to get recognised.”

The release of Bleachers’s new album coincides with a significant anniversary for Antonoff. It’s 10 years since he started Bleachers – and 10 years since the release of 1989, his first collaboration with Swift. Antonoff co-wrote Out of the Woods and has production credits on two tracks on the LP proper. It was the start of a blockbuster relationship, the first step on Antonoff’s ascent to the very summit of the music industry,

“All that was happening at the same time,” he says. “It was a special time in my life – when I was starting Bleachers, working on 1989 – the beginning of a lot of important things. I could feel it with the music. And then, as it started to come out, I could feel people were hearing what I was hearing.”

Bleachers, by Bleachers, is released by Dirty Hit