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Through honesty, Bleachers tries to get better

Do not be fooled by the cheery composition of "I Wanna Get Better," the debut single from the New York City-based rock act Bleachers.

Underneath the stomping drums, major piano chords and gang of soaring vocals is singer/songwriter Jack Antonoff's attempt to confront long-stirring demons, all in one song. From an awful acid trip to his sister's unexpected death more than a decade ago, the Bleachers frontman distilled these negative, life-changing events into an anthemic and ultimately hopeful song about self-improvement.

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The result was not only Bleachers' first No. 1 hit (Billboard's Alternative Songs chart), but also one of the best rock-oriented songs to hit mainstream radio in 2014. The reception to the song — a likely highlight when Bleachers headlines Baltimore Soundstage on Saturday — "means the world" to Antonoff.

"There's this idea that to have something become big or mainstream, you have to dumb it down, and I don't think that's true," Antonoff said earlier this week from a tour stop in Minneapolis, Minn. "[The song] goes through all the really devastating things I've experienced in my life. It just tells it in way where there's hope and there's honesty, and it kind of reads like a diary."

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When it comes to music, Antonoff — who also plays guitar in the Grammy-winning trio fun. — said honesty and transparency matter greatly. Bleachers' pop-minded debut album, July's "Strange Desire," brims with vulnerable, earnest tales of love and loss because Antonoff feels that is what he owes to his audience.

"The more I think about it, the more [I think] people deserve that kind of truth," he said. "It should be really empowering and honest."

Antonoff's airtight, hook-driven songwriting has also led to high-profile collaborations, from indie-pop sisters Tegan and Sara to "Brave," the Grammy-nominated song by Sara Bareilles. Most recently and notably, though, were Antonoff's two writing credits on Taylor Swift's "1989" album ("Out of the Woods," "I Wish You Would"). He and Swift wrote the songs together in his living room as Antonoff's girlfriend, "Girls" creator Lena Dunham, watched.

"She writes the way that the most honest songwriters write, which is from a very enclosed, deep space," Antonoff said. "It doesn't seem like any of her massive success enters that realm."

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Antonoff's work with Swift, coupled with Bleachers' rise, will likely lead to more collaborations with other artists. The key, according to Antonoff, is to choose projects with open-minded musicians who, like Swift, take creative risks.

"The first element is, 'Oh, is that someone I even want to sit in the room with for a few hours?'" he said. After that, it's "looking at artists that do lots of different things and aren't stuck in one concept or one sound."

This weekend, Antonoff's eclectic songwriting will be on display at Soundstage. Although he's played the biggest stages in the world — including the White House lawn last year with fun. — Antonoff hopes to never forget the feeling of playing intimate venues. Tours like this one remind him of how to approach each live experience, he said.

"I always think to myself that you need to play the arena like it's a club and a club like it's an arena," Antonoff said. "To really understand that, you have to go back and forth between those types of venues."

A quote like that lends itself to interpretation. Does that mean fun. fans can expect a new album or tour soon? Not quite, according to Antonoff.

"We're just starting to think about [the next album] but I'm pretty focused on Bleachers at the moment," he said. "I've always just followed the feeling that I was having [at the time]. ... When you're on tour or making an album with a different project, you're just completely immersed in it."

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