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Music producer Jack Antonoff plays a game of 'Wild Card'


But first, Grammy Award-winning producer Jack Antonoff has seemingly cracked the code for making hit albums. Most recently, he worked with Taylor Swift on "The Tortured Poets Department," which has spent the last five weeks on the top of the Billboard album charts. He's also worked with Lorde, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent and many others. But when it comes to his own music, like his most recent self-titled album with his band Bleachers, he says the writing process is more murky.

JACK ANTONOFF: You don't write a lot of things you know because they're a little boring. You write a lot of things that you're unsure of.

DETROW: What Antonoff has been unsure of lately has to do with a tragedy at the core of his life. He lost his sister when he was young. At this point, he has a lot to be happy about. He's gotten married. He's collaborating with artists he loves. And so there's been this question eating at him.

ANTONOFF: I was unsure of how to move on, how to live in any sort of present way. And does that mean I'm giving up on her memory or something?

DETROW: Learning to make peace with that grief is just one of the many things that came up when he joined my colleague Rachel Martin for a game of Wild Card, NPR's new show where guests choose questions at random from a deck of cards - questions that get to the heart of how they make sense of the world. Here's Rachel.


RACHEL MARTIN: All right. Round 1, this is memories. Pick a card - one through three.


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

ANTONOFF: Oh, everything.

MARTIN: Softball.


MARTIN: Lover of New Jersey.

ANTONOFF: OK. Real answer, though, is this slowness of my hometown. I grew up in New Milford, N.J. That's where I was until I was like 8, and I just stared at the walls. All I wanted to do was break out, and all I wanted to do was go everywhere and do everything and tour the world and, you know, make my mark and do all these things. And that slow, slow, slow boredom of where I grew up made my imagination run wild. And I can't recreate it. And I can't change it, and I never would. And I'm just happy I got to have it. My life existed in cars waiting for my mom to...


ANTONOFF: ...Do whatever she was doing.

MARTIN: I know. My kids today are like - like, come on an errand with me. No - errands? I'm like, you have no idea. That's all we used to do. We used to go on errands and sit in the car and wait for our parents.

ANTONOFF: (Laughter).


MARTIN: OK, we're in Round 2 now. This is insights - lessons that you've learned or stuff you're still figuring out. Pick a card - one through three.


MARTIN: What is proof that somebody really knows you?

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

MARTIN: Oh, so many follow-ups to ask here.

ANTONOFF: Yeah, and it's not basic. Like, 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.


ANTONOFF: You could [expletive] smear anything on my body.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ANTONOFF: It's my - I haven't touched my eyes, nose, mouth or ears with my hands unwashed in probably 20 years. So it's...

MARTIN: Wait, I just...

ANTONOFF: ...Very specific.

MARTIN: But how is that even possible? I realized as you were talking, I was like, rubbing underneath my eyes. I think I touch my face all the time.

ANTONOFF: I don't do it because it's very - I'm very scientific. I'm not a germaphobe. I just - that's how you get sick. That's how germs spread, usually, is - and obviously, I go play in front of people. But I have no need to rub my eyes, my nose, my mouth with my hands if they're not washed.

MARTIN: So you don't pick - if you have, like, a zit or, like, a little scab on your face, do you - you don't feel inclined to pick those things?

ANTONOFF: Well, if I do, it would be, like, after I've washed my hands, after a shower or something like that.

MARTIN: Right, OK. OK. OK, OK.

ANTONOFF: You know, you look around, you're at a bus stop, the - a restaurant, anywhere you are, and people are just touching their nose, touching their eyes. And it's like, this is how it's all happening. And there's no upside besides, you know, for me, for me personally.

MARTIN: Have you always been like that - like as a kid?

ANTONOFF: Yeah, pretty much.


MARTIN: OK, so we are now in Round 3. This is the beliefs round. Pick a card - one through three.


MARTIN: How has grief shaped your life?

ANTONOFF: Entirely.

MARTIN: Entirely?

ANTONOFF: I feel like you have these things in your life - I almost see it as like an emotional lens, you know, like a contact lens or something that, like, goes over your eye emotionally. And it's just sort of like - it's not, like, a thing that happened that you sometimes feel. It's like - it's how you see things now. So, like, grief is just, like - and I assume it will be the rest of my life. It's just part of how I see things.

MARTIN: How old were you when your sister died?

ANTONOFF: I was 18, but she was sick since I was 5. So it was a big part of my life.

MARTIN: So how does that manifest in how you see the world? In my life, I can understand that. I don't have that kind of grief that's lived with me for that long, like all of your adult life and most of your childhood. But does it - I mean, for me, I see a kind of constant impermanence in things.


MARTIN: Is that how it shows up in your life when you say it shapes everything about it?

ANTONOFF: It's one of the - yeah, I think that things are really fleeting. You know, the thing about sick people, people who are unsure how long they'll get to live, especially kids in that position, I mean, the lack of cynicism, the obsession with creation, joy, love, family, you know, it's just - 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. You know, I'm not someone who moves through the world - I'm not really doing a bit, you know? I'm really...


ANTONOFF: ...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 yeah, that was always on the table, especially, like, when she actually died. You know, she was dying and actually died when I was 18. So - and then the years before obviously were pretty tough, so it's like those are pretty powerful life moments. I remember very clearly seeing everyone in my world kind of like planes taking off, and I was not, you know? That's a very specific moment in time when you're supposed to feel like free and...

MARTIN: Like you're getting better. Yeah.

ANTONOFF: ...Like anything's possible. Yeah, well it's said that, you know, most people - you're just graduating high school, that's the moment when you're supposed to be like...

MARTIN: Oh, I see. Yeah.

ANTONOFF: ...I can do anything in the world.

MARTIN: Right.

ANTONOFF: You know, those are really those - as I've heard, because I didn't really have them - those few years you get where you're just sort of like endless stamina, endless possibility.


ANTONOFF: You know, those are the years that everyone talks about. I didn't really get them in the same way, and I think that colored my life a lot.

MARTIN: How do you feel most connected to her?

ANTONOFF: Probably through my family. That's why we - you know, I think when you have a great loss, people either kind of, like, run or glue themselves to each other. We definitely did the glue method.

MARTIN: Jack Antonoff, award-winning musician, songwriter, producer, thank you so much for doing this.

ANTONOFF: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate this.

DETROW: You can hear a longer version of this conversation with Jack Antonoff by listening to the podcast Wild Card With Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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