Finneas - The Music Week Interview

Finneas - The Music Week Interview

Billie Eilish has confirmed the release of new album Hit Me Hard And Soft on May 17. Here's a chance to revisit our interview with her brother, co-writer and producer Finneas from October 2021...

When Finneas O’Connell started writing songs with his sister Billie Eilish as a teen, a hitmaking force of nature was unleashed. Now, as he drops his debut solo album, the world will see inside the mind of a music genius. Here, joined by managers Brandon Goodman and Danny Rukasin, plus team Polydor, he talks pop, superstardom and the future...

WORDS: James Hanley PHOTO: Luke Fenstemaker

Feel old yet? When Daniel Craig first played James Bond in 2006, Finneas was still in primary school. Last year the mononymous 24-year-old co-wrote and produced the theme song for Craig’s 007 swansong. They grow up so fast...

“There is no franchise more intertwined with music to me than the Bond movies,” Finneas tells Music Week over Zoom from Las Vegas. “I’ve always loved the Daniel Craig films, and the fact that we got to do the theme song for his final Bond film is just so thrilling.”

The new Bond flick should be old news, of course, but the pandemic put paid to that. No Time To Die was originally scheduled to premiere in April 2020, while the Grammy-winning theme song of the same name – performed by Finneas’ megastar sister and songwriting partner Billie Eilish (who was aged four when Casino Royale came out) – debuted as UK No.1 in February last year. To date, it has 603,130 sales, according to the Official Charts Company.

Co-managers Brandon Goodman and Danny Rukasin, who represent both siblings at Best Friends Management, are relieved the brooding gem has been given a second wind by the movie’s belated release.

“It’s a unique situation, obviously, but I think we have made the best of it,” says Goodman.

“It was unfortunate, because it came out right before everything shut down, so it was very anticlimactic,” says Rukasin. “But we’re excited that the song won the Grammy and I think now that the film is out, the song is hopefully getting another life and people are going to understand the context. For it to have a year-and-a-half delay was tough, but we are working on a couple of things that are going to shine a light back on it.”

Finneas, who teamed up with Johnny Marr and composer Hans Zimmer on the record, attended No Time To Die’s world premiere at London’s Royal Albert Hall in late September with his sister. He details the specific science of crafting a Bond theme.

“They don’t give you a rulebook, but I knew that I wanted a song to exist in their world as much as it exists in Billie’s world,” he explains. “There is a chordal structure that is really important, and I wanted the lyrics to match the plot of the film – they let us read a scene from the script and that was all we needed. It was the first song Billie ever belted on and that was fun to do. I love that song and I couldn’t wait to see it in the title sequence. I saw it last year when we recorded with Hans, but I hadn’t seen the final, final version.”

A singer, songwriter, producer and former Glee actor, Finneas is one of the hottest properties in modern pop. Full name Finneas O’Connell, the uber-talented American’s seminal work with Eilish has put his sonic talents in high demand. Star collaborators have included Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Benny Blanco, Celeste, Camila Cabello and Girl In Red, and that’s just for starters.

“I’d love to not be pigeonholed into one thing,” he admits. “What usually happens is people think your most popular thing is ‘your sound’. So for a while, people heard When The Party’s Over and were like, ‘Oh, that’s the Finneas sound.’ And then you make Bad Guy and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the Finneas sound.’ And to me, it’s mostly about reinventing yourself repeatedly to avoid stagnation. I don’t want to get hired to do my one thing on somebody’s project, I want to get hired to do the thing that is right for the project.”

As for what makes him want to work with an artist, Finneas is quite clear about the qualities he likes.

“It’s usually attitude and skill,” he says. “If you have one without the other, it’s maybe a little bit harder to have the full package. But if you have both – if you’re skilled and you have a persona – then I’m like, ‘All right, that’s what’s up.’ That person is a real artist already.”

Music Week catches up with Finneas during his four-night stay in Sin City, starring both as a solo act and in tandem with his famous sibling at the iHeart Radio Festival at the T-Mobile Arena. Finneas is stepping out of the shadows to drop his debut solo album, Optimist, via Interscope/Polydor, this month.

“In earnest, I started putting songs aside at the very end of 2019, that was when I really started codifying,” reveals Finneas. “The songs The Kids Are All Dying and Happy Now? were written around then. And a song that predates everything is the first song on the album, A Concert Six Months From Now, which I wrote in 2017. So those three songs were the oldest, and then most of the songs on this album were written over the last 12 months.

“I wanted to make an album that was very honest and very much like a diary entry into how I feel about my life and the world,” he adds. “I also wanted it to feel very signature. The thing I’m the most proud of when I listen to this album is, ‘Oh, it sounds like me.’ And it’s hard to sound like you and not sound like whatever else you’re listening to. But I really think this album sounds like me.”

Finneas’ Spotify stats make for encouraging reading, with 8.6 million monthly listeners. His most popular tracks are Let’s Fall In Love For The Night (273m streams), Break My Heart Again (147m) and Till Forever Falls Apart (86m).

“He’s always been such a friend to the artist community, it’s only right that he has his own moment to shine,” reflects Polydor co-president Ben Mortimer. “The album is very special, and showcases his songwriting and production abilities in equal measure. We’re very lucky to get to work with Finneas. Although in many ways he’s an old friend of Polydor’s through his work with his sister, we are now able to put the full focus on his own incredible talents.”

The Music Week Award-winning label’s head of marketing Ali Tant goes even further, describing Finneas as a “genius”.

“Look at the impact he’s had on music and culture over the past few years,” Tant points out. “Finneas has made a fantastic body of work with Optimist and our job is to connect the huge number of people who know who Finneas is to this body of work that he has created.

“The campaign is completely tailored around Finneas,” he adds. “He’s an incredibly special and classic songwriter with a unique setup and team. He has laid the groundwork by doing some pieces with the likes of BBC Radio 1 and promo on The One Show. However, as you’d come to expect, he’s now one of the busiest artists on the planet, so we have a campaign that is spread over the next 18 months.”

Tant believes Finneas can establish himself as a solo star in his own right without having to distance himself from his work with Eilish.

“Billie is a massive part of Finneas’ work and always will be,” he adds. “We’re not trying to hide from that.”

He may still have been a toddler at the dawn of the 21st century, but Finneas has developed a profound appreciation for the decade in which he came into the world.

“Dude, All Star by Smash Mouth came out in the ’90s,” he enthuses, scrolling through a playlist. “Viva Forever by the Spice Girls came out in the ’90s! Boombastic by Shaggy, one of the best songs ever made, came out in the ’90s! Santeria by Sublime... It’s just a great period of music.”

His affection for the era inspired Optimist’s second single, simply titled The 90s (sample lyric: ‘You could sign me up for a world without the internet/Hate how easy they can find me just by looking up my mom’s address’).

“I was two when the ’90s ended, but what’s interesting about the ’90s – other than my admiration for the music, fashion and films – is that it was the last period before the real dawn of the digital age, before we were all just living online,” he notes. “I think about that period a lot because the internet, for better or for worse, is the biggest part of our world now, so that’s fascinating to me. But obviously I didn’t live through it and I can’t go back in time – all I can do is think about it.”

Rukasin and Goodman suggest the live shutdown provided the necessary break for Finneas to focus on his own material.

“He’s been putting out music for several years now and it was about making sure the demand was there for it,” says Goodman. “The pandemic gave him the time to work on that because it was hard for him to be able to put that much music together while touring with Billie as well.”

“Knowing that Billie’s record was coming first we, as a group, were always thinking, ‘We don’t necessarily want to compete with each other, we want him to have his own moment as well,’” chips in Rukasin. “So we were able to come up with that plan, knowing that we’re going to be touring all next year with Billie for a good amount of it. He didn’t necessarily spring it on us, but we weren’t exactly sure when it was coming. Then, all of a sudden, he said, ‘Hey, I think I’m done.’ So we were pleasantly surprised.”

“It took me a couple of weeks to get creative,” adds Finneas of his emotions in lockdown. “The first couple of weeks, I was just scared and trying to take care of myself, my girlfriend and my family. Then after a couple of weeks, I was bored and that was when I started writing a lot. It was a great creative outlet for me and I was very lucky to have that.”

The creator supreme worked with AWAL on 2019 EP Blood Harmony (17,657 sales, OCC), prior to joining his sister on the Universal Music Group roster earlier this year.

“Obviously, we have a long-standing relationship with Interscope,” says Goodman, explaining the switch. “Finn has a great relationship with the whole team through working with Billie and it just felt like the right fit for him. They had been excited about Finn for many years and made it very clear always that the door was wide open when we felt, and when Finn felt, it was time, and it’s really that simple.”

Optimist comes less than three months after the release of Eilish’s acclaimed second album, Happier Than Ever. Though topping the charts in more than 20 countries worldwide, the 81,000 UK sales of the record still have a way to go before reaching the teenager’s gigantic double-platinum 2019 debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (696,680 sales), albeit business is sure to pick up when Eilish’s forthcoming world tour hits Blighty next year. Finneas says the duo were largely left to their own devices on LP number two and expresses his pride in the finished product.

“That was an album that we really put our whole hearts into and I’m so excited to play those songs live,” he says. “Billie and I really co-piloted that album. We love our team: Justin Lubliner at Darkroom, John Janick at Interscope, Sam Riback, our A&R, and our managers. We trust their opinions, but they gave us a really wide berth to just be creative and free.

“The commercial side doesn’t really matter to me at all – except what the people who are coming to our shows think, because they’re who we do everything for. It’s been really satisfying and thrilling to see our audience members love songs like Happier Than Ever and Oxytocin, but we don’t concern ourselves too much with, ‘This song has to be top of the charts’ or whatever. We’re trying to make the most creative decision; we’re not always trying to make the most commercially successful decision.”

Finneas agrees with the assertion that his songwriting style is more conventional than his sister’s.

“I think that’s pretty fair,” he says. “We obviously write together, so I feel like our writing styles bleed into each other. But definitely, in terms of the music that I put out under my own name versus the music I put out with her, mine is a little bit more classical than hers for sure, just down to instrumentation alone.”

And Finneas hints that he’ll continue to widen his horizons in terms of the artists he works with. Asked to draw up a shortlist of his dream collaborators, he throws up some truly stellar possibilities.

“I don’t know that I am the perfect artist to work with for these artists, but I’ve been a huge fan of Megan Thee Stallion over the last year, I love Lil Nas X, I love Doja Cat, I think she’s incredible,” he says. “I’m a big fan of Olivia Rodrigo’s whole record [Sour]. I really love The Marias’ new project. It’s not so much about me working with them for the sake of working with them, it’s like, ‘Could we make something great together?’ Otherwise, I’m content with just being a fan of them.”

Clearly, Finneas is a fan of what’s popular right now. Probed further he praises the diversity on offer in the singles charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I think the charts are pretty nice and eclectic – and I’m a fan of music at its most eclectic,” he says, loading up Spotify to illustrate his point. “Let me go on Spotify right now and look at the USA Top 50, just for curiosity. OK, so we’ve got Lil Nas X, Drake, The Kid Laroi, Glass Animals. We’ve got Taylor Swift’s version of Wildest Dreams. We’ve got Olivia Rodrigo, we’ve got Doja Cat, we’ve got Baby Keem, we’ve got Kanye. I like how diverse that is, I’m a fan of how eclectic all that is. Maybe not every song is my favourite, but that’s not how music is supposed to be. I’d be frustrated if it were only one genre.”

In the same way that Finneas is dead against the idea of anything in pop being constrained or restricted, he is more than happy for Eilish to branch out and work with other writers, too, should she see fit.

“My role in Billie’s career is always going to be that the door is open and that I’m always excited and honoured to be working with her,” he says. “She’s an adult and even before she was legally an adult, she was an individual, she was autonomous and had her own opinions. I will support her and be a fan of her music forever. And I’ll make it with her as long as she would like to make music together. But I feel like relationships – creative and otherwise – are only fun because you’re both choosing to be in them, not because you have to be in them. So that’s the way I want this one to feel. I want her to feel she can do whatever she wants. And if she’s choosing to work with me, it’s because she’s making that choice to.”

It was Finneas’ writing talents that first alerted Rukasin and Goodman, long before they heard the name Billie Eilish.

“I manage a producer who had worked on some big records that Finn had been a fan of,” remembers Rukasin. “He found my name through a mastering engineer and reached out about working with the producer, which I thought was interesting. He was 17 at the time and kids that age don’t necessarily go down that route. And when I heard the music he was writing, even at 17, it was really well-crafted, so I put him in touch with the producer and they ended up working with each other on four songs.

“I stayed in touch with Finn and about a year later, he played me [Billie Eilish’s debut track] Ocean Eyes and told me about his sister. I didn’t even know he had a sister until then, so that was the start of the relationship. Not only is he an incredibly brilliant songwriter, but he’s a brilliant person with an encyclopedic knowledge of music. He’s also extremely personable in a sense that he’s very insightful of what’s going on in the world, and what’s going on in personality traits of others. And so it’s very easy for him to pick up on what’s going on with the people that he works with and understanding what they want to say. On top of that, he’s got an amazing ear for music.”

He continues: “With Billie and Finn, as successful as they are, that’s how great they are as people. They’re really fun to work with and everything around them is very much a family-oriented vibe, so we fit into it nicely. Their parents, too, are really great to have around, they’re great to [keep] the kids grounded and it’s nice to have that element as well. We love them.”

“We have a lot of fun,” smiles Goodman. “We’re fortunate we’ve worked with them since they were very young. Billie had just turned 14 and Finn was 17 and we’ve really seen them develop as people, not just as incredibly successful producers, artists and songwriters. It’s been an amazing journey.”

Finneas first caught the songwriting bug through his mother, actress and screenwriter Maggie Baird, who ran classes during his formative years.

“We were homeschooled and there were these interesting elective, extracurricular classes that parents would teach,” he explains. “My mom is a wonderful songwriter and wanted to teach a songwriting class. My friends and I took it, I want to say it was for like a year, and I just fell in love with songwriting. The cool thing about her teaching is that there is no wrong way to write, it’s just identifying different parts of music. So she wouldn’t say, ‘That song’s bad because of this,’ it was just like, ‘Let’s listen to this Beatles song. And which part is the chorus? What’s the hook? What’s the rhyme scheme?’ You just identify all this stuff and it was super-fun. It’s a little bit like understanding grammar within language, where you’re not thinking about it once you understand it, but you have this tool in your back pocket.”

Finneas continues to wax lyrical about his love of songwriting.

“The thing I’m probably most confident in is my ability to write,” he says. “I love producing – it’s always exciting. And I  love being an artist too. But if someone said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I’d say I’m a songwriter.”

Both When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and Happier Than Ever feature just two credited writers – Finneas and Billie. Finneas expresses his reservations regarding the co-writing revolution and the songwriting teams enlisted to produce the biggest songs.

“It’s just not the way that I like to write music,” he suggests. “I don’t find that it makes a better song personally. Obviously, some people are able to write these monster hits with six, eight people in the room and I’m happy for them. I’m friends with a lot of very successful songwriters and I’m an admirer of them, but that’s not the way I’ve been able to write my best. I mean, I’ve jumped in rooms with tons of people and it’s interesting. Sometimes it can be cool; it’s fun to do different stuff, but it’s not my favourite thing.

“The music I’ve always loved the most is the music that’s the most unedited, the most unmitigated – music that feels like it’s coming straight from the artists. I love artists like Bon Iver, Feist and The Strokes, and they don’t feel like artists who are letting a lot of cooks into the kitchen. I feel like they’re doing what they want to do on their albums and I respect and admire that, and am inspired by it.”

Despite being based in Los Angeles, Finneas says he does not consider himself part of a particular songwriting scene.

“I live in LA, so the other songwriters who live in LA are the people that I know the best, but truthfully I just don’t work with that many people,” he remarks. “I work with a couple of artists a month and it’s usually just me, the artist and an engineer, and sometimes another writer. I only really work with artists that I think are incredible. I’ll do Zooms and coffee meetings with other songwriters because, if I didn’t do stuff like that, I might never meet them. I love getting to talk and ask questions of other really incredible writers, I find it super-interesting, but I’m not just jumping into sessions with people all the time, they’re few and far between to be honest.”

In early 2021, Finneas and Eilish endorsed Spotify’s move into the HD audio market with Spotify HiFi, which is billed as delivering music in a CD-quality, lossless audio format to devices and Spotify Connect-enabled speakers. Finneas says he considers streaming a favourable alternative to music piracy.

“There are a lot of complaints about streaming services only paying 0.01 cents or whatever, and that’s fair enough,” he offers. “But to me, it’s not as much about streaming versus buying an album, it’s about streaming versus uTorrent and Pirate Bay. As far as I’m concerned, nobody is using uTorrent and Pirate Bay anymore because it’s just so easy to use Spotify and Apple Music, and so I’m in favour of them. I feel like they’re making the audience wider than ever before for musicians. You look at these numbers and they’re just numbers that have never existed before – billions of streams. That’s just not how music used to be heard. It’s widened the audience so much.”

With songwriter remuneration still a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic, Finneas remains diplomatic regarding the treatment of creators in the music business.

“It’s hard to address that question without seeming equal parts ungrateful, or maybe too dismissive, so I don’t want to seem either,” he says. “I guess I’ll say that I feel very privileged and lucky. I feel the industry’s treatment of me has been very fair, and I am always going to look out for and to try to lend a hand to anyone who is being treated less well. But I feel like, on a personal level, I’m benefiting a lot from the current model. So, to me, it’s more about looking around and seeing other inequities.”

The five-time Grammy Award-winner sums up his personal music industry experience as “sublime”.

“I’ve just been incredibly, incredibly lucky,” he says. “Our publicist Alex Baker; our team when I was at AWAL, I’m now at Interscope; Billie’s at Interscope; Darkroom; my publishing company Kobalt; all of the people that we work with, I truly love and respect and feel lucky to be involved with.”

Although no solo UK dates are in the pipeline, Finneas is about to head out on his first full US headline tour before joining his sister on her Happier Than Ever world tour, which includes six nights at The O2 in London next June. Paradigm agent Mike Malak represents both acts outside North America and hails Finneas as a true one-off.

“Of course, everybody knows him as Billie’s brother, but he’s massively talented and has already got quite a big fanbase,” says Malak. “Clearly all his peers love him and I think it’s just a matter of time before that filters out into the wider audience.”

Furthermore, the agent believes that Finneas is in the perfect position to thrive as a solo artist.

“He’s got himself into a position where he can make all his own creative decisions,” says Malak. “That is the ultimate freedom for an artist and producer and he’s totally earned that place. He’s an incredible storyteller, songwriter and producer and I genuinely think he is really special and unique. That is why so many big artists have been reaching out to him – they understand that he is a once-in-a-generation talent.”

“I think he can achieve anything,” offers Rukasin. “He has aspirations to be more than just an artist and a producer. He wants to act at some point; I mean, one of his favourite genres is musical theatre and he’s already scored two projects and wants to do more than that. He’s got so much creative talent. We’re dealing with one of the most talented people we’ve ever worked with and he’s extremely multifaceted as well.”

Ever the Optimist, for Finneas, it’s just about keeping things interesting.

“I want to do stuff I’ve never done before,” he confides. “I would love to write and star in a musical on Broadway, that’s a lifelong ambition of mine. I’m starting to work on scoring movies, which is exciting – that’s just really, really fun to me. And what else, what else, what else? I guess the other thing I want to do is to be involved in other people’s careers who are just starting out, maybe not even as a producer or songwriter, but to help facilitate their career and execute their vision – just be a champion of new artists. Over the next couple of years, Billie and I are keen on being involved in new artists’ careers in as helpful a way as we can.”

Whatever happens next, Finneas is destined for greatness. His heart might wander back to the ’90s, but his sonic brilliance is helping define the 2020s.

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