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How grief taught award-winning producer Jack Antonoff to be less cynical

 Jack Antonoff says grief can be almost like an emotional lens through which to view the world.
Angela Weiss
Jack Antonoff says grief can be almost like an emotional lens through which to view the world.

A note from Wild Card host Rachel Martin: I’ve noticed something about the current cultural moment. Regrets is a bad word. Nobody has them anymore. Instead, the emotionally enlightened among us look back and see only “experiences and choices that made me who I am today.”

And I get that. We understand that obsessing over things we’ve done wrong in the past isn’t a particularly healthy thing to do. But I think we lose something when we don’t reckon with our bad choices. Somehow dismissing those things as just “part of my journey” feels like a cop out. There’s no accountability in that.

I talked about this with music producer Jack Antonoff. I told him that the biggest regret in my life was not being at my mom’s bedside when she died. At the time, I convinced myself that I could only be away from work so long — that my siblings could stay and I’d be the one to come back and be with my dad after she died.

Antonoff shared something similar. One of his biggest regrets was being gone on tour so much when his sister was dying of cancer. He felt like if he started turning opportunities down, they wouldn’t come back. We all justify the choices we make in the moment. It’s OK to regret those things. To wish we had made different choices. The key is to absorb the consequences of the choices and move beyond them.

Antonoff’s life is not defined by regret, but he told me that it is defined by grief. He didn’t say it in a sad way. Just as a matter of fact. It frames his songwriting, how he interacts with people and how he sees the world.

The grief, he says, makes things feel more precious. And he has much to feel grateful for. His band Bleachers released a new album earlier this year. He’s got a bunch of Grammy awards and has produced for some of the biggest names in pop music, including Taylor Swift. He also got married last year to actress Margaret Qualley. He’s made peace with any regrets he has and is taking nothing for granted.

This Wild Card interview has been edited for length and clarity. Host Rachel Martin asks guests randomly-selected questions from a deck of cards. Tap play above to listen to the full podcast, or read an excerpt below.

Question 1: What is something about your hometown you've come to appreciate over time?

Jack Antonoff: The slowness of my hometown. I grew up in New Milford, New Jersey. That's where I was until I was like eight and I just stared at the walls.

All I wanted to do was break out, I wanted to go everywhere and do everything and tour the world and, you know, make my mark. And that slow, slow, slow boredom of where I grew up made my imagination run wild.

I can't recreate it and I can't change it and I never would. I'm just happy I got to have it. My life existed in cars waiting for my mom to do whatever she was doing.

Question 2: What is proof that somebody really knows you?

Antonoff: Proof that somebody really knows me is if they understand my rituals around feeling clean.

Martin: Oh, so many follow ups to ask here.

Antonoff: It's not basic. It's not like, “He's a germaphobe.” It's very specific of my definition of what is and isn't clean.

Martin: OK. Tell me an example of what that looks like for you.

Antonoff: My only concern with cleanliness is around my face. I haven't touched my eyes, nose, mouth, or ears with my hands, unwashed, in probably 20 years. So it's very specific.

Martin: But how is that even possible? I realized as you were talking, I was rubbing underneath my eyes.

Antonoff: That's how you get sick. That's how germs spread. I go play in front of people, but I have no need to rub my eyes, my nose, my mouth and my hands if they're not washed.

Question 3: How has grief shaped your life?

Antonoff: Entirely.

Martin: Entirely?

Antonoff: I almost see it as an emotional lens. It's not like a thing that happened that you sometimes feel. It's how you see things now. My sister died when I was 18, but she was sick since I was five. So it was a big part of my life.

Martin: So how does that manifest in how you see the world?

Antonoff: The thing about sick people, people who are unsure how long they'll get to live, especially kids in that position, is the lack of cynicism. The obsession with creation, joy, love, family. When you might not have a lot of time on earth, you don't define yourself by the things you hate, put very simply. And so that just lives in me.

I'm not really doing a bit, you know, I feel very sincere about the things I'm doing and saying. And I think a big part of that is just being confronted with time and fragility and that was always on the table.

Martin: How do you feel most connected to her?

Antonoff: Probably through my family. I think when you have a great loss, people either run or glue themselves to each other. We definitely did the glue method.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.