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If Taylor Swift's new track "Out of the Woods" sounds a bit like Bleachers' hit "I Wanna Get Better," it's no mere coincidence. Bleachers main man and fun. songwriter/guitarist Jack Antonoff collaborated with Swift on that song and two others featured on her new 1989 album, as well as on "Sweeter Than Fiction," which turned up in the Paul Potts film One Chance this year. Antonoff co-wrote and produced the songs, with überproducer Max Martin producing the vocals.
The pair met after repeatedly running into each other on the awards-show circuit and hit it off, unlike Swift's awards show frenemy Katy Perry, whose feud is chronicled in another 1989 song called "Bad Blood." Apparently, he had a completely different experience than Perry.
"It's a funny circuit, but I love running into Taylor. She's so nice and warm," Antonoff says. "I just always looked forward to seeing her."
Those chance meetings eventually led to the two hanging out and becoming friends and eventually, collaborators. The fact that Antonoff's girlfriend, Lena Dunham, also became pals with Swift probably didn't hurt matters. The Girls creator and star posted a photo on Instagram of Antonoff and Swift working together at their Brooklyn apartment a few weeks ago after "Out of the Woods" topped the iTunes singles chart.
Even before Antonoff met Swift, he "absolutely" was a fan. "Particularly of [Swift's 2012 album] Red," he says. "I thought that was a really interesting work."
Although Antonoff came up through the indie-rock ranks with his pre-fun. band Steel Train, he had no problem relating to Swift's music. "I just really love great songwriting," he says. "I think she's a very true, great songwriter, and that's the first thing I become attracted to more than anything else."
While Antonoff shies away from comparing Swift any specific contemporaries, he points out that she has a special quality that separates her from the rest of the pop pack.
"The thing that makes her very unique as an artist and a big star is that for someone as big as she is, she still treats the artistic process in just a very organic, simple way," he says. "The way she writes, what I've witnessed, is no different than the way I remember writing songs when I was 15 in my room. It's just her playing a guitar or her and an idea, and when we collaborate, it's just me and her sending emails back and forth, or she'd come over to my apartment in Brooklyn and we'd just talk about ideas. It wasn't a big, giant, massive, overblown concept that I think other very successful artists can get lost in. I think that's a big part of why she stays so honest — it's just all about the music and all about songwriting."
It's that honesty that Antonoff feels allows Swift to appeal to such a broad range of listeners and paved the way for her to make the move from a hit country star to a mass-appeal pop sensation. "Maybe there are styles of music you can specifically label her as, but in general, people are just huge fans of hers, and that's because songwriting is more impressive than anything and people are drawn to it, especially the honesty. A lot of it reads like a diary, and if you can connect to that, that's what a lot of people are interested in."
As Antonoff sees it, artists often fall into two camps — people you'd like to know, or people you'd like to be. "I always feel more connected to an artist that I feel comforted by and feel like I would want to know," he says. "Taylor is someone you'd want to know, and that's the most special quality."
When the duo collaborated on "Out of the Woods," Antonoff experienced that special quality firsthand. "I had this track that I was working on that I just loved and I emailed it to her. It felt so anthemic, so big and so intense. Less than 30 minutes after, she sent me back a voice note — that's kind of how we write; I'll email her an idea and she'll send me a voice note back with her singing and describing her ideas — and she was just singing basically what ended up being the final song. It just blew me away."
Not only was Antonoff blown away how quickly Swift managed to come up with lyrics and a vocal melody for his track, because it was a difficult track to write lyrics for. "A lot of times I do tracks that are so overblown and so anthemic, sometimes they're almost hard to write to," he explains. "I find that even when I'm writing by myself. It's so massive, it's like, where do you go from there? This was one of the biggest tracks I've ever done. I couldn't even imagine what kind of lyric or vocals I wanted, and she sent this thing back that was emotional, so melodic, and so haunting, it just blew my mind."
Swift was also pleased with "Out of the Woods." In a video interview posted on YouTube to promote the album, she called it "one of my favorite songs on this album." Of course, that pleases Antonoff. "It's really wonderful. It makes me really feel good, because we worked so hard on it. It's amazing. I'm so happy it ended up meaning so much to both of us."
Of course, the million-dollar question is: Did Swift reveal that the lyrics were inspired by ex-boyfriend and One Direction member Harry Styles? "I don't remember," Antonoff answers, not completely convincingly. "She would kind of walk me through what things were about and what she was talking about, but in general, that's really her world."
On the musical front, one of Antonoff's inspirations was Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket. "I guess that's not an obvious inspiration that people would think," he says. "One thing sonically about that track that made me think of My Morning Jacket is that they do this amazing thing, especially with their recordings, where everything is louder than the next thing. The drums are the biggest thing in the world, until you hear the guitar, and then if you listen to the vocals, there's this huge reverb-y vocal, and that's the loudest thing. They do this amazing thing where every single part is bigger than the next, and that's what 'Out of the Woods' kind of felt like."
Another inspiration that ties in well with the 1989 title of Swift's album was the soundtracks from John Hughes's '80s films, including The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, which Antonoff has also cited as an inspiration for Bleachers. "We worked on a lot of these things while I was also working on the Bleachers album, so there was a lot of crossover aesthetically," Antonoff reveals. "The idea of music is John Hughes films was a great touchstone, because the songs are brilliant, because they're so emotional, anthemic, big, and so filled with integrity. Those are the things I thought about when I made the Bleachers album and those are the things that I talked about when I worked with Taylor — let's go all the way. Let's not sacrifice anything."
Neither "Out of the Woods" nor "Sweeter Than Fiction" were the first tracks Antonoff worked on with Swift. Rather, it was "I Wish You Would," which is included on 1989. "It was all very continuous. I would send her ideas and she would send them back. It was a period of time, which lasted for probably almost a year. She was making on an album, but it wasn't that specific. It wasn't like, 'This is on the album, this isn't.' We were just working on stuff."
Since this interview takes place prior to the album's release and any information about Swift is guarded like a national security secret, Antonoff is a bit hesitant to discuss the other songs prior to their official release. "I don't know how much I'm allowed to say about them," he says with a nervous laugh. After a little bit of negotiating, he gives us a bit of information, prefaced with the warning, "You kind of have to hear them. They're similar to 'Out of the Woods' in the sense they both just go on their own journey. There's nothing passive about any of the songs we did together. They're just very large, anthemic, and emotional. One is more of a ballad and one is uptempo."
"You Are in Love" is the track he describes as a ballad, but don't expect acoustic guitars. "It's almost got like an '80s Springsteen vibe," he explains. The other song he worked on, "I Wish You Would," he describes as "very exciting sound. It's super-exciting-sounding. It's almost like a synth carnival."
Antonoff is as anxious an any other fan to get the album upon its release. In fact, he even pre-ordered it on iTunes, as did Swift, but she had a little technical problem downloading the "Out of the Woods," which resulted in a text exchange with the singer asking her collaborator for some "tech support."
"You have to buy your own music," Antonoff says. "If you don't buy your music, you can't expect anyone else to." And Antonoff isn't only purchasing the digital version. "Everything that is out there — vinyl, CD, whatever is out there. I take a lot of pride in everything."
As for future collaborations with Swift, Antonoff is hopeful. "I'd certainly love to," he says. "I think there's a lot more that we can do."