With His Sister Billie Eilish, Finneas Is Crafting The Sound Of A Generation

"If we'd been trying to cater to [the masses], it might've been a disaster."

Finneas Billie Eilish photo

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Finneas O’Connell laughs at my first question. Sure, we’ve started big, but that’s how critics and the public alike talk about him. Having co-written and produced the entirety of sister Billie Eilish’s music, O’Connell is behind the supposed new “sound of a generation” — one created largely in his childhood bedroom. How does someone deal with a label like that, besides laughing it off?

“I don’t know man,” he tells me. “It’s so sweet that people say stuff that’s that nice about music we’ve made.”

It’s a beauty pageant answer, to be sure, but O’Connell, in our 20 minutes sitting together on a couch in a Sydney hotel foyer, comes across as genuine. When I have some recording issues while we talk, he grabs my phone to play around with it and solve the problem. Shrugging off my apologies, he Googles how to restore audio files — in his own words, he’s “obsessed” with sorting out tech problems, which isn’t exactly surprising for such a notoriously idiosyncratic producer.

In a recent episode of Vox music podcast Switched On Pop, hosts Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding asked every teen they knew why they loved Eilish so much, and the answer was always that she sounded ‘different’, ‘new’ — and a large part of that is due to O’Connell’s almost ahistorical production.

Eilish’s chart-busting debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, is filled with odd, unnerving samples and clever hooks which span genres and context, adding rewarding layers to her music — the kind that come from many labourious hours, and constantly recording anything that might be useful down the line.

Take ‘xanny’, essentially an anti-peer pressure ode in which Eilish says she doesn’t take xanax recreationally. In the song, Eilish croons like Sinatra over drum-brushes, before an eerie, post-dubstep chorus distorts and hazes her voice to push her into something else. Or ‘you should see me in a crown’ where O’Connell samples a knife-sharpening throughout, as if Eilish’s ascension to dark-pop princess was filled with the subterfuge normally reserved for Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile, songs like ‘all the good girls go to hell’ express the reality that Eilish, 17, and O’Connell, 21, are growing up in a world irrevocably damaged by climate change — and turn it into a nightmarish pop-song.

Older audiences might find it too over the top, but the song’s imagery of burning bushes and hills aren’t even biblical. It’s taken right from their lives in California, where huge fires engulfed the sunny state last year: and while it might not sound like a ‘traditional’ protest song, it voices a frustration that’s resonating throughout the world.

Writing For Themselves (With The World Watching)

Eilish’s songs are the sort of ‘alt-pop’ writing that both attracts and terrifies major labels, who want to find the middle ground between ‘exciting’ and ‘a guaranteed hit’.

Despite this, the siblings have kept to themselves, even after a 15-year-old Eilish first went viral with ‘Ocean Eyes’ on Soundcloud, and was soon snapped up by Interscope. The two were steadfast about keeping to themselves in writing and producing.

“If we’d been trying to cater to [the masses], it might’ve been a disaster.”

“We were catering pretty selfishly to ourselves,” he says. “If we’d been trying to cater to [the masses], it might’ve been a disaster. My favourite example is, we played a show in London in March, and Thom Yorke came with his daughter. I was like, ‘Oh, if I was asked to make a song to impress Thom Yorke, it would’ve been different. It would’ve been a 12 minute song that changed time signatures, keys and metres’.”

“I think we felt a lot of pressure in the making of the Don’t Smile At Me EP [more than making …Where Do We All Go]; even though it was an EP in length, in many ways it went like an album.” he says.

“I think in some ways, this album was a sophomore effort — and the real beauty and gift of this album was that we were on tour during so much of the creation of it [so] we had a really good idea of the music we wanted to play on the road. We knew we wanted to open our shows with ‘Bad Guy’, we knew we wanted to play songs like ‘Bury A Friend’ and ‘My Strange Addiction’. It became important to make an album that changed live.”

Which is why the O’Connell’s are in Sydney. They’ve been touring Australia off the back of Groovin The Moo, which put them in the odd experience of playing Canberra a week after Coachella — and the festival, in our experience, perhaps wasn’t built big enough for The Sound Of A Generation. The sideshows has been huge, though, frenzied to the point that almost saw police shut-down the Brisbane show.

The show’s are particularly big for O’Connell, who plays twice — with Eilish, and, supporting as his solo endeavour, FINNEAS. With just a handful of singles, FINNEAS’ own sound is still being established. It’s cleaner, much more ‘straight-forward’ than Eilish’s music, but his knack for hiding quirks and oddities throughout — either in a sharp lyric or a meta structure — lifts it above ‘Spotify-core’.

Take ‘College’, which might be the first break-up song specifically about sub-Tweeting, or ‘I Lost A Friend’, his most recent single, a slow-burn ballad filled with space and false-releases, characterised by hand-claps and synth loops that go nowhere. O’Connell tells me it was a song he put off for a long time, about losing a friend not to tragedy, but to time.

Like many friendships, they went their own ways with little resolution. The song sits in an almost non-existent pop-category: while female friendships is considered perfect fodder, male-male friendships are never discussed or depicted in pop music, especially in such a homosocial, emotive way.

‘It’s All Gravy’

At 21, O’Connell, like his sister, has found himself at a level never thought possible. In addition to touring with Eilish and his own music, he’s writing and producing for other acts, talking optimistically about sessions with Camila Cabello and Father John Misty.

“My expectations keep getting redefined,” he says. “If you’d told me that Billie and I would get where we’ve gotten together, it would be so far beyond what I would’ve hoped to achieve. It’s still so exciting, and I’m even more ambitious and excited about the future. But it’s all gravy.”

“Whatever happens with my own music and my own career, as long as I’m working hard for it, that’ll make me really happy.”

Despite the pull, he tells me he’s resistant to entering the song-writing camp world, where artists are paired with a team of writers and rotated around to find the perfect match. He wants something a little more natural, telling me about spending the day with Wafia in LA eating “a lot” of Thai food long before they wrote her song ‘The Ending’. And more broadly speaking, he wants to stay out of ‘The Song Machine’ for as long as possible, lest he avoids becoming cynical or, worse, clinical. That means seeing what comes, and not getting too swept up in the hyperbole, positive or negative.

“I think that it’s really important in your life and career to enjoy small things — to enjoy little accomplishments,” he tells me. “And there’s a lot of those on the way to really big accomplishments and I guess that the way that I’ve been able to do that is to not set my heights too far into the sky.”

“We just played Spark Arena in Auckland to like 10,000 people. If we had started out and I was like, ‘I can’t wait to play the Spark Arena, 10,000 people!’, I wouldn’t have been present for 170 concerts that were a joy — they were just for a couple hundred people, a thousand. You know, I think if you just let yourself get thrilled and excited about the good stuff — whatever happens with my own music and my own career, as long as I’m working hard for it, that’ll make me really happy.”

FINNEAS’ latest single ‘I Lost A Friend’ is out now. His Australian tour with Billie Eilish ends this weekend, with shows in Brisbane and Perth.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.