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Jack Antonoff And Bruce Springsteen Head Home To Jersey On Bleachers' 'Chinatown'

Bleachers' frontman Jack Antonoff collaborated with one of his musical inspirations, Bruce Springsteen, on the band's forthcoming album, <em>Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night</em>.
Carlotta Kohl
Courtesy of RCA Records
Bleachers' frontman Jack Antonoff collaborated with one of his musical inspirations, Bruce Springsteen, on the band's forthcoming album, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night.

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.

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Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
Scott Saloway
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