Finneas: “I don’t know anything as strong as mine and Billie’s creative bond”

Alongside his sister Billie Eilish, the hitmaking songwriter and producer soundtracked the new Bond and, with debut solo album ‘Optimist’, has even greater success in his sights

After 18 months of relative quiet – in a physical sense, at least – Finneas is back in the eye of the storm. Last weekend, one of the world’s most in-demand songwriters and music-makers headlined two festivals in the US – Delaware’s Firefly and New York’s Governors Ball – with his sister Billie Eilish, whose two era-defining albums he produced and co-wrote. Finneas then wandered the NYC streets for his first NME cover shoot and reunited with his sibling to join Coldplay onstage in Central Park to sing ‘Fix You’.

“It was a cool weekend,” he laughs down the phone from the airport, where he’s waiting to board a plane to London and keep the whirlwind going at the much-delayed premiere of the latest Bond film, No Time To Die. It’s a casual understatement that belies how at least some of the aforementioned events are perhaps now fairly normal to the man born Finneas O’Connell.

NME Cover 2021 Finneas
Credit: Matthew Salacuse

“The singing with Coldplay part was very surreal,” he adds, evidently not utterly immune to the magical moments that seem to punctuate his life now regularly. “It’s not something I ever thought I would get to do. It still feels a bit like when you’re having a certain dream. You’re like, ‘Oh, I had a dream last night we were in Central Park, and Coldplay was on for some reason, and we were singing with them for some reason’. It was a real treat.”

Such surreality has become an almost everyday occurrence for the O’Connells since they first uploaded ‘Ocean Eyes’ to SoundCloud six years ago. In that time, 24-year-old Finneas has become one of the youngest people to win the Best Producer (Non-Classical) award at the Grammys (he was just 22). He’s collaborated with real-life Beatle Ringo Starr, written and produced for some of the biggest names in the world (Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Camila Cabello and, of course, his sister), and stepped into film soundtracks with the pinnacle of theme tunes – a Bond song.

“‘Ocean Eyes’ gave us something from nothing… I always have this profound gratitude for that song”  – Finneas

That eponymous theme tune for No Time To Die, which saw Finneas and Billie team with up The Smiths’ Johnny Marr and the godfather of film scores, Hans Zimmer, is classic Bond canon. Billie plays the role of betrayed torch singer, lamenting a lost love over swelling orchestration and creeping melodies that evoke the secretive nature of 007’s spy underworld. The track was released last February ahead of a planned April release for the movie, and then the pandemic hit, pushing the film back several times. It finally arrived this week – to rave reviews.

Finneas was Spotify’s top songwriter last year, a reflection of how successful his projects are and the calibre of artists he works with. After all that work helping other people to sound amazing, it’s now time for him to focus on himself. His debut album ‘Optimist’ lands on October 15 and proves he’s not just a behind-the-scenes guy, but someone deserving of the spotlight too. It’s a brilliant first record, split between warm, rich and sentimental piano-led tunes and more inventive, electrifying pop.

After a whopping 20 non-album singles (and 2019 EP ‘Blood Harmony’), it’s his biggest opportunity yet to show the world just who Finneas is and what he stands for.

NME Cover 2021 Finneas
Credit: Matthew Salacuse

Billie and Finneas’ ‘Ocean Eyes’ breakthrough was the culmination of the latter spending his youth obsessing over music. He first started writing songs aged 12, after taking a songwriting class with his mum, Maggie. Like Billie, Finneas was homeschooled in LA and the class was part of an extracurricular set-up that parents volunteered to teach. “I took a geography class from my friend’s mum and a choir class from another friend’s mum, and some dad taught PE,” he explains. “Our mum is a really talented songwriter so she taught us the basics of songwriting and it was just this lightbulb moment for me where I was like, ‘Oh man, I love doing this so much’.”

Although he says songwriting “came naturally” to him, he’s at pains to point out that doesn’t mean his 12-year-old self was instantly good: “I listen back to those songs and shudder, but they were structurally sound – they had melodies and rhymes, even though they were bad.”

It was just before that class when, at 11, Finneas says he started “sincerely loving” his own music, separate from what his parents exposed him to around the house. Early albums that had a big impact on him included The All-American Rejects’ ‘Move Along’ (“I remember I felt it was inappropriate for my parents to hear the song ‘Dirty Little Secret’ so I always listened to it with headphones on”), Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ and Green Day’s ‘21st Century Breakdown’.

NME Cover 2021 Finneas
Finneas on the cover of NME

Green Day, in particular, set him on a course that would dictate the rest of his life so far. Seeing them live gave him another one of his “lightbulb moments” that cemented music’s place in his head as his big dream. “A family friend of a family friend knew Butch Vig [Garbage drummer and producer of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’],” he recalls. “He’d also done Green Day’s ‘21st Century Breakdown’ and so I got to go to their show and stand side stage. I was just like, ‘Oh that is clearly the greatest job anyone could ever possibly have’.”

Although Finneas has also dabbled in acting – he’s appeared in the Cameron Diaz film Bad Teacher, Glee and Modern Family – he says it doesn’t come close to music. “I like acting a lot but I’ve never had a day on set as an actor that made me feel the way being onstage makes me feel.”

He formed his first “uber-bad” band with his friends aged 13 after falling in love with performance at a kids’ talent show, and took it far more seriously than your average teen playing in their parents’ garage. “I don’t envy the kids who played in bands with me,” he says. “I was no fun. I probably should have been more friendly and light-hearted at the time, but I was so sort of possessed and determined to have this career in music.” Luckily for his sister and anyone else he works with, he says he’s changed: “It’s actually more about how much fun you can have now – I still work hard, but I’m definitely not an asshole.”

Typically of seemingly anything in his career so far, Finneas worked diligently and determinedly at becoming one of the world’s top producers. “Even when I started producing my sister’s music at 18, I wasn’t good yet,” he acknowledges. “I was just trying my best.”

NME Cover 2021 Finneas
Credit: Matthew Salacuse

By anyone’s standards, Finneas has come on leaps and bounds since then and is now helping to define modern pop. With all the plaudits heaped on him and the constant requests for collaborations from some of the world’s biggest stars, his approach to working with other artists feels delightfully ego-free; he describes his role as being in service to whoever’s name will be on the release. “I’m still passionate and opinionated and I make sure they know what I think,” he explains. “That, at the end of the day, is part of the reason I get hired – hopefully people trust me.”

Despite all of the successful collaborations he’s had so far, though, there’s still no one who comes close to working with his sister. “I don’t know that anything could get [as] strong as our creative bond,” he reasons.

Finneas has been working with Billie from the very beginning of her journey and been a mainstay by her side ever since. Together, they made her world-conquering 2019 debut album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’, which forever altered their lives, making Billie an instant icon that everyone wanted to look and sound like. Her second album ‘Happier Than Ever’, released in July, saw a household name throwing everyone a curveball, stripping away the eerie darkness of her debut in favour of more vintage sounds.

“I like working with anyone that you could list that I’ve worked with,” Finneas says. “I haven’t had a terrible experience working with anybody. But I think just the intimacy of a relationship with a sibling is impossible to replicate or duplicate.”

NME Cover 2021 Finneas
Credit: Matthew Salacuse

Finneas is aware that being pop’s chosen one won’t last forever. It’s something he references on the long-time-coming Optimist’. “I could tell you what happens to the new king when he goes out of fashion,” he sings ominously on the shadowy ‘Medieval’. “It’s hyper-temporary,” he says. “There were artists I loved growing up where you turn on them psychologically – as a 12-year-old, they’re your hero and you turn 18, 19 and you’re like, ‘That band is lame now’. We love to love things until we’ve decided to hate them suddenly. You can’t be the important one for very long.”

Being a music industry darling, NME ventures, is similar to being a politician, elected to a seat of power but with only so long to remain in that position. “Absolutely,” Finneas agrees. “We have politicians who we’re all very hopeful about every couple of years and then they get in power and disappoint everybody. It’s just inevitable when people have high hopes – even when we’re well-intentioned, it’s easy to disappoint people.”

“Finneas is a modern man. He makes records in a modern way. He’s seemingly always inspired” – Johnny Marr

[‘Ocean Eyes’] opened all the doors,” he reflects now. Famously, he and Billie uploaded it to SoundCloud one night so that Billie’s dance teacher had it for a show – and woke up the following day to find it had gone viral: “It gave us something from nothing, which is so unbelievable. So I always have this profound gratitude for that song – obviously, our careers have been built on different moments since then, but that was the thing without which we never had anything.”

Now, Finneas is in a position where icons are falling over themselves to give him praise. When NME asks Johnny Marr about working with the pair on ‘No Time To Die’, he is full of praise. “Finneas is a modern man,” the legendary guitarist says. “He makes records in a modern way. He’s seemingly always inspired. He’s created some really classic songs and there’s no naivety there. Let’s put it this way: [he and Billie] would have been able to hold their own in any era.”

‘Optimist’ should build on this momentum, cementing Finneas’ status as one of pop’s brightest acts, outside of the context of his relatives or anyone whose songs he’s credited on. Lyrically, it presents the many facets that make up the man behind the music. There’s the hopeless romantic and optimistic lover (‘A Concert Six Months From Now’), the person dreaming of a better time be that in the past (‘The 90s’) – or the future (‘What They’ll Say About Us’) – and the music obsessive coming to terms with the side-effects of success and fame (‘Happy Now’). Even the record’s title gives us a little portal into his mindset, although a positive mental attitude isn’t something he’s naturally disposed to.

NME Cover 2021 Finneas
Credit: Matthew Salacuse

“It’s definitely something I have to work at,” he says. “Maybe some people are really naturally optimistic, but to me, it’s a choice that you can make. The most pessimistic version of me works the least hard and is the least hopeful and helpful because I think things are going to fail. The version of me that I wish I always was is the optimistic, helpful, positive me, which is aspirational for me. There’s a lot of reason to be pessimistic in the world but you can still choose to be like, ‘We shouldn’t really give up on this.’”

Giving up and the regret that comes with it is a theme that pops up on ‘The 90s’: “All the time I should have been so happy I was here / Wasting it on worrying just made it disappear,” Finneas sighs on the tune. The track also begins to unravel his feelings on some aspects of his position as a reluctant celebrity. Since becoming a globally known star, his sister has had to get a restraining order on a stalker, is constantly hounded by paparazzi and has constant commentary on her body forced on her – whether she wears baggy clothes or not. Finneas’ experiences might not be exactly the same as Billie’s, but he can still feel the heat from the flames.

“You could sign me up for a world without the internet,” he sings at one point, noting how easy it is for people to find his address and invade his privacy. Of his relationship with the internet, he says today: “I still spend too much time online and less time in the present. It’ll bring me some joy at times – especially when I travel so I can stay connected with my girlfriend and my friends at home. It’s been the reason that Billie and I have the careers that we do and I’m very grateful for that, but I think there’s a lot that’s detrimental to it.”

“I couldn’t be more excited [about] ‘No Time To Die’ – and for everybody else to see it.”  – Finneas

Recently, a number of artists have pulled back from social media. Lana Del Rey has deactivated her accounts, while Lorde and Billie herself have handed over their passwords to some or all of their pages for their teams to manage. Given the toxicity online, is it better for artists to go off-grid?

Finneas isn’t so sure that will change anything. “Even if you’re not on social media, you’re gonna see what the internet is saying about you,” he reasons. “I forget whose quote this is but somebody said, ‘Celebrities will spend millions of dollars on security systems for their house, live in gated communities and hire bodyguards, and then they’ll Google their own name’. It’s really true. We need to protect ourselves because we’re not meant to hear what everybody thinks of us all the time.”

On the deceptively bright ‘Happy Now’, Finneas nods to the sensation of having everyone’s projections of who you are onto you. “With everybody talking about you, you won’t remember who you are,” he sings. Regardless of whether those perceptions are good or bad, he explains today, you “just have to not believe any of it”.

“If [your relationship with fame] starts out positively – which ours did – they’re saying nice stuff about you,” he explains. “You want to believe that you’re a genius, or important, or handsome. But if you choose to believe that, then you’re probably going to also believe it when they say you’re ugly and your songs suck, or that you should kill yourself or whatever the internet is deciding to say.”

NME Cover 2021 Finneas
Credit: Matthew Salacuse

While backlash might be inevitable in our digital age, Finneas hasn’t let the haters dilute the opinions he pours into his music. Last year, he took aim at Trump and his administration on the single ‘Where The Poison Is’. ‘Optimist’’s ‘What They’ll Say About Us’, originally released last September, looks forward to a better time where America’s 45th president is but a distant memory.

“These things happen slowly,” the 24-year-old says of how he feels about the US since Biden took over the White House. “For a long time, I felt like we were headed in the wrong direction, but, with a lot of luck and upholding promises and pledges, I don’t think we are anymore. Hopefully, we can speed up our progress because we don’t have all the time in the world at our disposal.”

Like most people his age, Finneas is still concerned about the state of the world and cites climate change as the issue that’s the most important to him “on an immediacy level”. He explains: “That’s the thing that if we don’t handle that, by default, we won’t be able to handle anything else. In America, gun violence is really important to me, but the overarching one is the climate and sustainability. If we don’t hold corporations, the government and big business accountable, we won’t really be able to do anything else to begin other progress.”

NME Cover 2021 Finneas
Credit: Matthew Salacuse

As the commotion of airport noise grows in the background, conversation turns to the reason why Finneas is standing at the gate ready for his first transatlantic flight in nearly two years. It’s 19 whole months after his and Billie’s No Time To Die theme tune was released, and it must be quite strange to release a song for such an iconic movie series but for no one to be able to see how it fits into the 25th Bond film itself.

“It sucks, dude!” Finneas groans emphatically. “I couldn’t be more excited to see the final version and for everybody else to see it.”

The musician and his sister wrote the song after being given the first 20 pages of the script, but the commission wasn’t confirmed to be theirs until after producers had heard what they came up with. “Honestly, I couldn’t believe it,” Finneas says of the moment they found out that, yes, they were now official Bond soundtrack artists. “It never seemed like a sure thing so up until the day it was announced, I genuinely didn’t [accept it was happening].”

“We need to protect ourselves [from the internet] because we’re not meant to hear what everybody thinks of us all the time” – Finneas

Teaming up with Johnny Marr and Hans Zimmer was “unbelievable!” he says, adding: “I was prepared for them to boss us around before I’d ever met them. They’re so experienced and I just thought, ‘We’ve never done this before, they would have a right to go, ‘Listen, we’ve done this a million times – this is how you do it’.’” The reality, though, was much different. “At every turn, they were generous and they were excited to hear our ideas. It was just a real joy.”

Joy is something that also permeates Finneas’ debut album, despite some of its commentary on life. After all his success so far, the record adds another sphere for him to dominate, this time with himself firmly in the spotlight. Being in vogue might be “hyper-temporary”, but ‘Optimist’ should only elongate his time at the top.

Finneas’ ‘Optimist’ is out October 15

CREDITS

Hair and makeup by Erin Anderson at Exclusive Artists
Photo retouching by bluespace