Interview: FINNEAS

Finneas O’Connell, who performs as FINNEAS, is the prolific songwriter and producer behind songs that are changing the landscape of pop music. His long list of writing and production credits date back to his first musical project, The Slightlys, for which O’Connell was the primary songwriter. From there, he started writing and producing for his younger sister, Billie Eilish. Together, they are the perfect musical match. “I think musically, I'm obsessed with songwriting and production and recording, and Billie loves music. So that's probably the best pairing,” O’Connell tells me. “It’s an extreme example—but I always say that her voice to me is like a very valuable instrument. That's the most expensive thing I have to work with is how good her voice is,” he smiles, “and that outclasses whatever computer programs I'm using.”

In addition to writing for Billie, he’s collaborated with artists ranging from Jessie Reyez, to John Mayer, all the while writing and producing his own music. I met up with O’Connell on the tour bus he shares with his family during Billie Eilish’s 1 by 1 tour. He’s always been part of Billie’s live performances but on this tour he was also opening the shows for her, playing two shows each night. That evening, he and Billie had two back to back sold out shows to play, so he had the night off from opening.

I want to talk about when you fell in love with music –if you have a moment, a concert—

I do yeah, I have two. I was 11 and I had a fat crush on a girl, and in my completely naïve fantasy was like, “I'm gonna learn how to play the piano and she's gonna wander into —we took a choir class at a church— I'm gonna get there early and I'm gonna be sat at the piano playing and she'll wander in and fall in love with me. And I didn't know how to play piano, so I thought, "I should learn so that I can fulfill this fantasy." Which I did and then that never happened, but I was 11 and she was 13.

Wow, the older woman.

Well, what 13 year old is interested in an 11 year old at all. So it was fuel, but then I was like, "I love playing piano." The reward in and of itself was that I learned how to play some songs on the piano and that was satisfying. And then literally just later that year, a friend of mine went and saw a Green Day concert, we were in nosebleed seats, but even that was cool. And then a friend of hers was a producer of their records and he came and rescued us from the nosebleeds and brought us side stage.

Oh my God. Wow.

Yeah, it was very life-changing, informative experience.

I'm sure.

And Green Day remains one of my favorite live bands especially. I'm heavily influenced by my teens and my music taste at that period in my life. But those two moments to me were like, "I wanna do this forever, being in music is the most interesting thing to me, playing live is amazing." And I remember kind of thinking –again whatever I was 11 –I remember thinking “this is probably a phase, I've gone through a bunch of phases, and this is probably one of them.” I remember wanting to be an animator at Disney for a while, and I remember thinking I'll probably grow out of this in a year or whatever, but right now this is what I wanna do.” And then I just never stopped feeling that way. I am always like, "this is my favorite thing." Maybe someday I'll just bail out, but I'm still totally in it which is great. But those are the two moments.

You’ve said before that your experience with acting has helped you put yourself in other people's shoes when you're writing for other people. Could you talk a little bit more about that and how you get to a place where you feel like you can actually write in someone else’s voice?

In the least pretentious way to put it, being an actor is just like playing pretend and making something believable. When you're a kid and you're playing pretend, it's all a game. And if you're an actor, you're playing pretend professionally, you really sell it. And I would say as a songwriter, a lot of it's like that. If you're writing with someone else for someone else, or for someone else alone, you have to really go ... you really have to believe that this isn't me writing in my bedroom, it’s being involved in them. It's 50% of that and then to give a lot of credit to whoever's singing it, it's 50% the delivery, right? To me, the thing that Billie does that I'm always like "holy shit," is that she can sing a song that sounds like a gender flip song from the 80's, and I'm like, "Did you write this?" And she's like, "no, this is a Nelly Furtado song." And to me, I think as a songwriter it's really important to try to do the same thing and just be like “I’m gonna convince you that this heartbreak is so real,” that this bad thing that happened is so real every time. And I think performing live is like that too, right? Even when I'm performing my own songs, pretty much all of those are pretty fucking honest and is a thing I went through. I'm pretty happy in general, I'm not going through that heartbreak right now, so it's important to me to go out on stage and be like, "I'm going through that right now."

I'm gonna sell it.

Yeah. So it's all performance in general.

It also makes it super relatable when you hear the song live.

That's the hope absolutely, yeah. And the kind of acting that I was always interested in doing was relatable. I remember hearing James Corden in a podcast and he was like, "There's normal people and aliens in acting." And his point was, when you see Eddie Redmayne perform in a movie, you're like no one is like that —he's like this extra-terrestrial, sort of super-human thing— and it's beautiful and fascinating to watch. Him and Daniel Day-Lewis, maybe Joaquin Phoenix, people where you're just like wow.

Method actors.

Yeah, and maybe not even method but just the way they're playing their characters is very fascinating. And then James Corden's point, was there's me [Corden] and you watch me and you're like, "that's us." You can relate, he’s the everyman. To me that's always the character in the movie where I'm like, "Yeah, that –I fuck with that.” And as a songwriter, I think I'm also trying to do that. I guess the songwriting equivalent example I could give is Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys is like the alien, all his songs you’re like, “who talks this way?” And they are so interesting and poetic and fascinating, but you're definitely not relating to it, you're listening to it and taking it in and examining it like Shakespeare kind of. When I listen to Ben Folds, I'm just like, “that's me, that's how I feel.” Everything he says is to the point and little weird truths. John Mayer is that way too, everything he's saying is said in really simple ways.

When you listen to music, do you listen and hear the melody first or the lyrics? Are you a lyrics person or a melody person?

I would categorize myself as a lyric person, and I would say that because if a song has a beautiful melody and the lyrics are super boring to me, that's less excusable than a song with amazing lyrics and not the greatest melody. But there are for sure songs where you’re like “what a beautiful melody.”  And I listen to a lot of foreign music because it's a relief in not knowing what's being said, you just get to appreciate the vocal tonality, it's really fun. But yeah, probably lyrics first. A lot of people would say, "I just listen to the melody." And I'm like, "yeah but hip hop is the biggest genre in the world right now, and we can stop lying that we're all not super into lyrics because we are. Rap is 100% lyrics and delivery.

You and Billie are this beautiful musical match. How did that relationship start and how has it evolved into where you guys are at now?

When we started, we were both very young, but the age discrepancy meant that I was not as young as she was. I was already 18 and she was 13, so I was *of age* and she was like, the youngest ever. So I think we were both just fumbling around and trying to figure it all out, but there was a lot of me going, "I have this idea. Check this out. Here it is, here's that” musically. Her creative vision has always been very succinct and very much her own, and I almost never have anything to say about the way a music video's gonna look or anything. Purposely. Partially because she's fucking got it covered and partially because I'm my own artist. It's really important for me to make sure she feels like she's her own in that sense for sure, and the album cover is the way she wants it to look and the title of the album is what she wants it to be, you know? She's gotta stand up there and sell it, I don’t really have to. I try to make sure that everyone knows that there's not a Svengali in this room going, "we'll put a tarantula in her mouth." It's Billie going, "this would be cool." And then we're like, "Alright, let's make it happen."

You're a prolific songwriter and producer. You have your own songs, you write for other people, you write for Billie. Do you ever get writer's block? What happens if you feel like you're losing inspiration?

I had an interesting thing happen this year which was that we toured from January until the end of March. I wrote a couple of things on tour, but I felt like I wasn't really writing anything. And I definitely thought during that tour period of like, "oh man, I wonder if I'll be able to sort of turn it back on when this tour ends, if I'll be able to sit back down and write a bunch of songs.” And what I actually found was that it's a little bit like if you work out a lot and then you take some time off and you think, "oh man, I'm gonna be so out of shape." And if it's not too much time off, you come back and you're actually a little stronger. In that specific case, that's how I felt. I was like, "oh, because I had this unsolicited amount of time off, now I'm enjoying it even more." I was pretty conscious of not forcing myself to write on that tour, and I think if I really forced myself to, it might've been an unpleasant experience. And because I'm writing my own stuff and I'm writing Billie's stuff and I'm writing other people's stuff, it's always really interesting; it's not like I'm writing one novel. I think if I were writing my own albums all the time, I would have nothing new to write about and then I'd have to go live my life a little bit and then write. So because there's all of these different angles, I always feel like I have material. 

Yeah, that makes sense.

And truth be told, a lot of it can really inspire the other. Specifically, I remember having a session with this girl Leah Johnson the day before Billie and I made “COPYCAT.” And as a producer, I had done a thing with basically with trap hi hats that day, and I'd never done it before and I felt like I kind of learned how to do it by doing that other session and then carried it over into Billie's session. To me, it felt like I literally wouldn't have done that song if I hadn't had the other thing to do. So that's all been really cool. And I also do all that stuff and then it's also really important.

What is your favorite lyric that you've ever written?

*Laughs* I'm stoked on how much people connected with the chorus of "idontwannabeyouanymore," Billie's song. As a lyricist, when you you find a way to use words that aren’t used every day, that's a really satisfying thing. So in that chorus is the word "swimming pools," and I just love that whole image. It's hard to throw "swimming pools" into a line casually, it had to really be a whole thing. So I think the chorus of that song is,

If teardrops could be bottled
There'd be swimming pools filled by models
Told “a tight dress is what makes you a whore”
If “I love you” was a promise
Would you break it, if you're honest?
Tell the mirror what you know she's heard before

So it's turning the mirror into a person and giving it a gender and then we had the tag of "I don't wanna be you anymore," so I had that rhyme scheme to work it into. Using "whore" in a song in a sort of weird, positive connotation ... I was so pumped on getting to do that, kind of like I got away with it. *laughs* Because I would never use that word in any other context, but my point was about slut shaming and just terrible beauty standards and the industry and modeling and shit. But yeah, when we made the song I thought, "I bet a lot of kids are gonna cover that on YouTube." And that has happened —with the wrong chords, nobody plays the right chords —but I'm still very proud of the fact that that song has done what it's done. It has done very well over the course of a year and a half, and I think it's really just because people like it. I don't think anyone pushed that song on anyone, it's just kids going, "I love this." It's a great feeling.

That seems to happen with a lot of Billie’s songs. You guys do something magical. I don't even know what it is, it's crazy.

It's really happening right now with "when the party’s over."

That song is great.

That was a very, in its creation, a very Ocean Eyes-esque process. I wrote it really quickly and it's kind of a weird song if you look at it. There's some things about it that are atypical, the hook structure is a little weird. It's in an interesting time signature. I knew from the get-go I wanted it to be basically no instruments, just vocals. And so I thought, "This is really weird." I really like this and I'm proud of it, but I also was very accepting of the fact that it wouldn't be the song to explode in the way that it has; which we're thrilled about in an authentic, "No one's expected this!" way. So we're really proud of that, it's cool.

When you guys write songs, do you ever expect them to become as huge as they have become? Can you sense the magic in the air?

For a very subtle moment when you're making a song, sometimes you think, *whispers* "What if this is huge?" But the rest of the time, you're just trying to convince yourself to lower the expectations if possible. I think when we have a song that blows up, we really care about the stuff we write and we work really hard on it. I think some people have this thing, *Wayne's World voice* "We're not worthy!" And to me, I'm like, we worked really hard on it and we're stoked that people like it, we don't disagree with you. *laughing* We're also really proud of it. We listen to it all the time. I remember Jesse Rutherford saying something like "I think all our songs are hits. I think everything we put out is a huge hit." I don't necessarily feel that way, but I do have a feeling of ...we're not trying to write a song nobody will like ever. We're always trying to make something that people will love. And so I think by that token, if people love it we're like, "Great, we succeeded." As opposed to, how did this happen? You know what I mean? We have to have kind of broad goals in mind if that makes sense.

Name a song that you wish wrote. One that you heard and were like, "DAMN, I wish I wrote this."

Oh! I was just thinking about this the other day. There’s so many because there are so many beautiful, wonderful songs. A friend of mine, Dominic Fike, has this song right now called "3 Nights.” It's so current and I don't know. That's just one of those songs where I was like "Damn, that's such a good song." I'm a big fan of it and I listen to it all the time, but I also was like, "I would love to have written that and stand behind it." There are a lot of songs that I love that are like Taylor Swift songs where I'm like, I wouldn't sing that even though I love it. *laughs* You know what I mean? Even though I love it, I wouldn't stand behind "Blank Space" and be like, "This is me." But "3 Nights" specifically, I was like, "I'd wear that. I'd love to have that be mine." *laughs*

Do you think that there's a secret to writing a good pop song or what do you think makes a song stick with the masses?

Hmm, probably the the easiest way to quantify that it's a little bit like playing an obstacle course for a video game or something where there's just different things you have to not fuck up on. Like, you can do American Ninja Warrior and beat that course and still not be in the top 10, time wise. And that's a little bit like a pop song, where it's like, you have to not screw up these eight things; and then if you're lucky, you did it really fast. Kind of. If that makes sense. I think songs that get really big are like ear worms, there's something that even after the first time you hear it, you're singing. Even in "Bodak Yellow," that Cardi B song, where she's like, "you can't fuck with me if you wanted to." Everyone was singing that immediately, the first time they heard it. I think with hits like, they can be culturally resonant, but they don't have to be. There are hits that are like "Somebody That I Used To Know," that have great, fun lyrics to sing and a beautiful melody and things that aren't in the way of them being successful. But I think you can also point out notes on a song like "HUMBLE.” or "Royals." "Royals" to me is most young people —they feel like they're from a broke, shitty town and they have this feeling of "oh, there's this mainstream huge song that's about not growing up with a Cadillac and a lot of money. There are people that you feel are really speaking to you. And then there's also my conversation with Billie's A&R, he's a big supporter of ours, lets us do what we want. His point is always "just don't be an asshole." You don't have to be a people pleaser, but you could be generous in doing the thing people will wanna hear in a song. But you can check all those boxes and not have a hit song which is fine too. I think that's where luck comes in and I think that's also where, if there wasn't a void, it's probably not gonna be a hit. There just wasn't a song that sounded like "Somebody That I Used To Know" right before it. There had been some time and "Royals" was the same way.

I feel like you and Billie have have tapped into a void and now there's gonna be a bunch of people that try follow your sound.

There are already. That's the metric that I use to be like, "Oh, we succeeded." Because there are girls ripping Billie off, producers ripping my production off. And to me that's like, I can look at my own production and go, "I was just ripping off this echelon of producer at first." For sure, and know those guys now and I talk to them about it. "Hey Neil. I just totally ripped off your Lana Del Rey records." And because he's fine too, he's like, "Awesome." But you can't waste time on that. And it pushes you to another new thing. I remember when "Anti" by Rihanna came out, it was a full year of every female R&B pop star trying to make "Anti” again. And Rihanna's was already on the next wave.

Yeah, she doesn't care.

I think Billie and I are always totally unconcerned with whatever is current and just super concerned with where we're gonna be in six months.

Do you have plans to release an album? You've released a lot of singles.

The singles have been doing really well. I feel like they have not failed me. Each single out performs the last one, and I'm super obsessed with art work and visuals and stuff and you get to really have fun with singles in that way and nail a song. That's how that looks. I would love to put out an album at some point, but I definitely would wanna have an audience that could take it.

So you don't wanna rush it.

It's a lot to ask an audience to listen to 12 songs. You can tell people to listen to one, every six weeks, which is what I've been doing this year. There's albums that I love, and I haven't heard all of the songs on them. I'm like, "I love that album." And then someone's like, "How great is Jonestown?" And I'm like, "I'm not sure I've heard that one." *laughs* Isn't that weird?

That’s totally how it is now.

Yeah, short attention spans. Unfortunately in order to stay in people's brains, you have to really keep putting stuff out. Right now, there's not much of an excuse anymore. People used to really have the forgiveness of, "Yeah, I love that band and they go away for two years and record then put out a new record" and I'm like, bands go away and come back and I'm like not even interested anymore.

It's kind of sad.

Super sad. So yeah I think probably an EP or two next year of solo stuff. But definitely, there might be two singles and an EP and then two singles or something just to make it feel like there's always stuff coming out.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

All photos by Cina Nguyen.