“I’m Gonna Barf!” Jack Antonoff’s feet are on solid ground, but seconds earlier they were flying through the air as he rode Coney Island’s spinning tower ride, the Brooklyn Flyer. It’s his third straight day at amusement parks, having spent the past two days in Orlando playing with his Grammy-winning band Fun. and visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter–even though it made him sick. He used to enjoy rides, he says, but these days he’s too sensitive for roller coasters. Instead he’s writing music well suited for them. Strange Desire, his debut album under the name Bleachers, is a collection of nostalgic new-wave pop perfect for boardwalks, shopping malls and high school football fields. (Hence the name.) In other words, it’s a modernized John Hughes–film soundtrack.
“The vision was the feelings from those movies,” says Antonoff, 30, who sports his signature mohawk and thick-rimmed black glasses. “I feel like I had a childhood that I’m constantly mourning.”
As a student in suburban New Jersey, Antonoff was labeled gay and bullied. (He’s not.) He found solace in punk music, forming his first band, Outline, at 15 and booking a multistate tour not long after. His parents, who were dealing with his younger sister’s long battle with brain cancer, lent him their minivan, and Antonoff quickly got hooked on touring. “It’s the opposite of when you feel your life isn’t going anywhere,” he says. “Literally, your life is going somewhere.”
Things improved after he transferred to a Manhattan performing-arts school and started a new band, Steel Train. While many classmates prepared for college, he landed a record deal at 17–just in time for the worst years of his life. In short succession, he was shaken by the events of 9/11, his younger sister died and his cousin was killed serving in Iraq. Instead of confronting his grief, Antonoff says, he suppressed it, developing a severe panic disorder coupled with hypochondria. He hit rock bottom in 2006, so crippled by anxiety that he could barely leave the house.
For him, recovery has required years of trying therapy and medication to find what works. Much of this dark chapter is chronicled in his music–even the songs that aren’t about those years still wrestle with the theme of loss, he says–and now he regularly hears from fans about their struggles with anxiety and depression. “It’s so much more profound than some teen-idol sh-t,” he says. “Who would want to be the kind of artist that’s worshipped by fans when you can be the kind of artist that’s comforted by fans?”
In 2008, a few years before Steel Train split to pursue other interests, Antonoff co-founded a new band, Fun. Its first album made a dent in the charts, but its second, Some Nights–produced by Jeff Bhasker, whom Antonoff admired for his work with Kanye West–added hip-hop heft to the band’s theatrical pop hooks. The No. 1 single “We Are Young,” just as the song’s chorus predicted, set the world on fire in 2012. “That song never sounded like a hit to me before it was,” Antonoff says. “This whole indie-rock sound mixed with hip-hop beats–I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but that wasn’t a thing before that [song].”
Some Nights helped make Antonoff an in-demand songwriter, and in the years since, he’s built an impressive portfolio, crafting tracks for Taylor Swift, Sara Bareilles, and Tegan and Sara. “He draws you in, makes you feel comfortable, and you end up telling him too much information, and I think that’s a key to his success as someone who can move from project to project,” says Sara Quin. “He swoops into your life and makes things better.”
Among Antonoff’s collaborators on Strange Desire are some of his biggest influences. Vince Clarke, a founding member of Depeche Mode and Erasure, who, as Antonoff puts it, “basically invented the sounds that make up every f-ckin’ Katy Perry record,” added a touch of 1980s synth pop. Yoko Ono recorded 10 minutes of screams, animal noises and spoken-word audio that Antonoff spliced into a moving guest spot. “She was everything I thought she would be,” he says.
But the centerpiece of the album is the lead single “I Wanna Get Better,” a 3½-minute anthem that, like much of Strange Desire, demands to be shouted at the top of your lungs. The song (which features a split-second cameo from Antonoff’s girlfriend, Girls creator Lena Dunham, yelling “Go!” in the bridge) serves as a condensed version of his life story: autobiographical verses catalog his darkest moments, while a hopeful chorus gives back to fans who’ve stuck around after shows to share how they’ve coped.
“The idea of ‘getting better’ is ridiculous,” he says. “I don’t think you ever get better. When you’re at the bottom, you don’t want to go to therapy–you don’t want to handle things. When you want to get better? That’s when you’re at the top.”
This appears in the July 21, 2014 issue of TIME.
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