Finneas O’Connell is currently very stressed out - it’s not only his first time in New Zealand, where he played his new song ‘I’m In Love Without You’ for the very first time, but he’s just been asked to create his likeness in self-portrait form with just one sharpie and a piece of white card, and he’s very concerned. “This is like my least favourite thing I’ve ever done,” he comments at one point, but much like the rest of his creative endeavours, his self-portrait is stunningly intricate - and it makes sense when his mother Maggie Baird tells us how Finneas had plans to be an animator when he was younger.
Following up previous work with his band The Slightlys, as well as co-writes with other artists - such as a song called ‘Come To Think’ with Gabrielle Current which featured on an episode of ‘Pretty Little Liars’ - Finneas' solo work feels like an honest and genuine outpouring of his heart, and in ‘I’m In Love Without You’ he ponders the aftermath of ending a relationship.
We spoke with Finneas while he was in New Zealand with his sister Billie Eilish, to discuss his new song ‘I’m In Love Without You’, the state of pop music today, and more…
The whole point is originality, and I think if there’s any reason for people to pay attention to you at all with so much music out, is the reason that you’re unique, and that your viewpoint is unique, and that people should listen to that. If you’re just trying to emulate an artist you love, it’s harder to do that. You should just really think about what you have to say and what you think is amazing.
COUP DE MAIN: I really loved your performance of your new song ‘I’m In Love Without You’ last night - was that your first time performing it? What was that experience like?
FINNEAS O’CONNELL: Yeah, that was the first time I’ve ever performed that song, and the first time I’ve ever done a song in Bille’s show. As Billie’s brother, and co-creator, I’m really aware of the fact that it’s really Billie’s show, and I want it to always feel that way, so I’ve never ever pushed a 'Hey, I wanna do a song’ kind of agenda on her. Even in that show, in preparing for these three shows, she said, ‘I wanna have you do that song,’ and I said, ‘That’s really nice of you, but if you’re not feeling it on the night of, I totally understand.’ So I never know if I’m going to do it or not, I just let her…
CDM: It’s just when she walks off stage, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s me now!’
FINNEAS: <laughs> Yeah, pretty much. She says, ‘My brother is going to sing a song,’ and I go, ‘Oh, I guess I’m gonna sing a song.’ It’s really fun, her fans couldn’t be nicer, they remind me of the way me and Billie are of other artists, which is deep-diving, I always know the songs they haven’t put out yet - their B-sides. So any fans that know my work collaterally, is amazing.
CDM: I love that she was sitting on the side, cheering for you.
FINNEAS: I kind of liked that. The theory is that if we played bigger venues we’d walk off, but the door last night was just to the outside. Especially when she did that song alone, I just liked being on-stage and sitting there, that was really fun for me too. It was a good happy accident, that we couldn’t leave the stage. It made it feel like you had to pay more attention. She didn’t leave and go to the bathroom, she stayed there and watched.
CDM: "How can you say there was nothing wrong with us?" you sing in the opening lines of the song. Do you think there’s a tendency in relationships to ignore the potential downsides/problems, in order to live in ignorance?
FINNEAS: Totally. I think also if you really want to get back together with somebody, you really start overlooking all the reasons you broke up in the first place. In that experience, in the relationship I was writing about specifically, the conversations we were having were really… That line really summed it up. She would say these things about our relationship, and I just didn’t feel like she was being honest with herself about how it was playing out, and the way we were both feeling about it. Obviously that’s the reason we broke up, and in that specific case it was fairly amicable, but it was one of those things where I think over time you remember all the good things that you no longer have, and you forget that there were a bunch of bad things about your relationship that were hard.
CDM: Because that’s what you want to remember.
FINNEAS: Totally. It’s what you miss, obviously. You don’t miss anything shitty. You don’t miss arguing, you don’t miss passive aggression. To me, it was always, ‘Be honest with yourself about the way our relationship was.’
HOW I FEEL ABOUT THE RELEASE OF ‘I’M IN LOVE WITHOUT YOU’…
CDM: You’ve only released two songs officially as Finneas, the other being ‘New Girl’, which is a bit more upbeat than ‘I’m In Love Without You’. Was it important to showcase the different sides of you with this second song?
FINNEAS: Yeah, I definitely was cognisant of that, and I just feel like those songs say really different things, but they felt… I write and produce songs for a lot of other artists, primarily Billie of course, and with my own project I wanted to make sure it felt like a cohesion. I feel like the most immediate way to do that was to be really honest, and to make sure that anything I was putting my own name behind was really authentic, even if it was sort of embellished or made up, the way that Billie and I make up stories. It still had to feel like, ‘This is really the way I’m thinking about this thing.’ So ‘I’m In Love Without You’ and ‘New Girl’ were both sort of diary entries in a year span of two different relationships I’d been in.
CDM: When can we expect to hear more music from you? Is there an EP on the way?
FINNEAS: I think an EP would be... I’m definitely shooting for that at some point next year. I think, a couple more singles [first]. This song specifically, we have a music video coming out for ‘I’m In Love Without You’ which I’m really excited for people to see, and yeah, more content along the way for that. But yeah, an EP and album, absolutely - I’ve written a lot.
CDM: How do you have time to do all this stuff?
FINNEAS: <laughs> It’s weird, it’s an ongoing discussion. I have a pretty imbalanced work/life balance, but the way I’ve always thought about it since I was 11 or 12 was that really all I wanted to be doing was making music. For me, writing songs, and producing songs, that’s the way I think a lot of my friends growing up felt about video games. They’d come home from school and they’d want to get their game on. And now that they’re all working, they’ll come home from Panera Bread and want to play video games, which is great, I think you should do what you really like doing. I acted when I was younger and I’d be on the set of a movie, which I think to someone else is probably their dream, but for me, I’d be in my trailer trying to finish a song. Or I’d be leaving the set to go home and write a song. Anytime I made any money making a movie, or being on a TV show, I would buy studio time and just go live in studios, and just record as much as I possibly could. I pretty much broke even, anytime I made any money when I was younger.
CDM: And you have your own studio set-up now?
FINNEAS: Still a bedroom in our parent's house, which because Billie and I work together, has been more and more convenient as we’ve gotten older. I go work with other people in their studios at their houses, but with Billie and I it’s so great to be centralised. And like in the case of ‘I’m In Love Without You’ and a bunch of other stuff she’s put out, a lot of that comes from me playing something in my bedroom, and her actually shouting out ‘what’s that?’ from her room. Then I’m like, ‘Come in, come check this out.’
CDM: You don’t have egg-cartons and soundproofing?
FINNEAS: Oh my god, it’s so not soundproofed. In fact, our neighbours are so chill about it. When they do complain, we're like, 'I can’t believe you didn’t complain sooner.' They’ll complain at like 3 in the morning, they’ll be like, ‘You’ve been making music for like 18 hours, stop.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is crazy, where were you at 11pm?’ It’s so nice of them. Billie and I have ordered them all vinyl of her EP, we want to bring it over - we can be like, ‘This is the song that you heard 600 times last month. You’ve heard every bad version of it before it was okay.’
IF I HAD A DAY OFF IN NEW ZEALAND…
CDM: You used to be in a band, The Slightlys - when did you decide that solo music was the way you wanted to go, as opposed to a band-situation?
FINNEAS: I think a lot of the time, bands are very symbiotic relationships. It’s an amazing guitarist and then an amazing drummer, and they kind of go, ‘Man, we sound really good together, let’s find a bassist.’ And then they find a bassist, and then there’s maybe a dynamo vocalist, and they come in and form this amazing-- I grew up listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, all these bands where everyone in that band is bringing so much to the table. I was in a band with my best friends at the time who are really wonderful musicians, and I think I felt like I would always bring everything to the table, I didn’t leave a lot of room for collaboration, which was my own fault, but I’d just come in and everything would be done. I’d have the drum-parts in my head, which is sort of the curse of being a producer in general, is that I’d come in and be like, ‘It needs to sound like this.’ And they were wonderful dudes and very good musicians and they were able to execute that always, but I think I eventually sort of felt like, 'These are my best friends, and my relationship with them as people is really important, and I’m sure they’ll all make music on their own eventually.'
CDM: Sometimes you have to put friendship first…
FINNEAS: Yeah, I did. Especially when Billie and I got really busy and have started touring, it’s really been important to me if I’m home in L.A. and I’m not making music, I need to go on a hike with my friend, and not the drummer in the band - where we’re always talking about the mix.
CDM: You have to get outside of the music sometimes.
FINNEAS: Yeah, it’s like dating the person you work with, you have to draw a lot of boundaries of, ‘When are we gonna talk about just human stuff, and not just work.’
CDM: How did you learn to produce your own music?
FINNEAS: It was pretty self-taught. I can’t speak to every programme, Ableton or Pro Tools, but I learned on Logic, and it’s pretty intuitive. I felt like I was young enough when I started that it did feel video-game-esque, you’d just figure it out. And I remember talking to a friend of mine’s Dad, who was a mastering engineer when I was younger - I wanted the song to be louder or something, and he sort of was like, ‘You know, there’s no right or wrong thing as long as you like the way it sounds. As long as you like the way it sounds, that’s good, and other people will like it too.’ I remember that being such a game-changing idea because then you can stop comparing yourself to other things, you can stop feeling inferior to other things, and you just have to go, ‘Do I love this?’ And I think a lot of the time you find out that you do, and then you’ve created something really unique. Obviously, as far as production, so many people are trying to chase a thing they’ve heard, and that’s really fun to learn, the way you might study Shakespeare or great literature. You might go, 'Wow, that’s so poetic, and what a great reference point…'
CDM: But you don’t want to recreate Shakespeare.
FINNEAS: The whole point is originality, and I think if there’s any reason for people to pay attention to you at all with so much music out, is the reason that you’re unique, and that your viewpoint is unique, and that people should listen to that. If you’re just trying to emulate an artist you love, it’s harder to do that. You should just really think about what you have to say and what you think is amazing.
CDM: How do you know when a song is complete?
FINNEAS: I’m kind of a structure-junkie when it comes to writing songs, it’s one of my favourite things about songwriting, 75% of the time, song structure is very mathematical, it’s ‘verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus’. There’s a lot of formulaic systems and within that you can be endlessly creative and take a lot of liberties, and I think that sort of self-illustrates - you get to the final chorus and you think, ‘Cool, the song’s done. I’ve said what I need to say.’ And then on production, the minute you start adding stuff and it starts sort of decreasing the momentum and the power of something, you’ve put another thing on - it’s like Jenga, almost. I heard Jeremy [Lloyd] from Marian Hill say that music production is like reverse Jenga, add too many things and it’ll fall over.
MY FAVOURITE THING ABOUT MY SISTER BILLIE …
CDM: How does your writing process differ from writing with Billie, to writing on your own?
FINNEAS: When I’m writing with Billie, whether it’s listening to a song she’s written 99% of and helping her with a line that she’s maybe stuck on, or it’s writing a song very 50/50 and starting at the same time, or if it’s writing a song that only I’m working on but it’s gonna be a song for Billie, to me, that has to always feel believable for Billie. She’s really not being an actress when she plays live every night, it’s her. I want to make sure she feels really authentic when she sings all those songs - even if it’s a song like ‘Bellyache’ where it’s sort of fantastical, but still a weird childish fantasy. If you’re really angry at someone, you might fantasise about robbing a bank and stealing their money, I think that’s just the way your brain works - you spiral out of control a little bit. But if I’m working on anything for Billie or with Billie, I want it to feel very authentically her, and I want her to be able to go, ‘That’s totally the way I’m thinking about this.’ I try to do the same thing for myself, if it’s a song I’m working on for my own project. I have to be really honest with myself, and I have to go, ‘Can I sing that line every night? Can I really mean it?’ That’s been a really good indicator of what’s obviously hers and what’s obviously mine.
CDM: Do you have a favourite song of Billie’s that you guys have worked on thus far?
FINNEAS: It changes a lot. When the EP was coming out, it would come out one song at a time, and every week I was like, ‘I think it’s this one.’ My favourite song that we’ve worked on together, I think, ‘hostage’ was a joy to write, and then ‘COPYCAT’ and ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’, Billie and I think about as one song because we wrote it in the same day. I felt like she really was broadening her horizons as a writer and as a self-examiner, which is a lot of songwriting, going, ‘How am I actually feeling? If I’m depressed, why is that? What’s the deeper manifestation of that?’ But I think ‘COPYCAT’ and ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’, that’s so authentically her. ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’ specifically, I think my girlfriend the other day said, ‘I wish I’d had that song when I was 15,’ because I think it’s a song about being self-conscious and having a lot of dysphoria about your body or your attitude. So much unhappiness is based on comparison to others, and other’s opinions.
CDM: You’ve posted photos on your Instagram of The 1975’s neon sign (‘Please Be Naked’), and live photos of LANY etc - what pop music / current music are you a fan of at the moment?
FINNEAS: I love LANY. I’ve seen them twice live, I think they’re so good live, I think he’s [Paul Klein] got such good hair. The best hair! We write really differently, but I love the way that Paul writes, and that they all write collectively. I think it’s so kind of text-Twitter / one-inch-punch lyrics, which I love. It seems like he cuts out all poetry in a lot of cases, which I have a great respect for, it’s almost like beat poetry, it’s exactly what he means.
CDM: His lyrics are great Instagram captions.
FINNEAS: Totally! I’ve been inspired by that too. I tweeted something the other day, ‘I’ve been paying God under the table,’ because it sounded interesting to me. I wrote a song about it the next day, and I think when that song comes out everyone will assume I wrote it and then tweeted it - but it’s the reverse. He [Paul] does that a lot too - I know he tweets a lot of stuff and then writes it. I love The 1975 a lot, I think they’re really good. I love Khalid, we’re homies with him - Billie and him got close last year.
CDM: They have a song together... on the way?
FINNEAS: I got to produce a song of theirs. It’s funny, when I work with Billie I think, ‘I’m such a good vocal producer,’ but really she’s an incredible vocalist and I’m hitting record. I felt like the best vocal producer in the world when it was her and Khalid, because I was just hitting record and it was just these two incredible singers. I felt super lucky. I think he’s doing something really interesting, and man, he has the most recognisable voice ever, you always know that it’s him. I feel like I haven’t heard that in ten years. The last voice you’d hear and you’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s this person,’ I don’t even know when that was. You always know it’s him immediately, which is so cool. Older stuff? Billie and I grew up on a lot of Justin Timberlake, ‘Justified’ era JT. I don’t know how this happened, but when I was eight or nine, I think I was in a car with a friend and we were listening to Radio Disney, and I heard ‘Potential Breakup Song’ by Aly & AJ. I listened to that song and I think a lot of the way I structure songs comes from this song.
CDM: Do you think that the state of pop music is getting better or worse?
FINNEAS: I think everything is in a constant state of transition, and I think stuff is getting more lawless, which I’m always a fan of. It’s the Wild West. I think it sort of started with artists like Kesha, they just started saying things in a pop song that became super commercial, and you’d be like, ‘You can say that? You’re allowed to say that thing in that song?’ I always love that. I think sometimes it’s misconstrued what pop is, and I think we almost need a different word for songs that are trying to be pop. Pop is ‘Humble’ by Kendrick Lamar, it’s ‘Black Beatles’ by Rae Sremmurd, it’s ‘Skyscraper’ by Demi Lovato from 2011. It’s everything that is incredibly popular and agreed upon as good. I think people get caught up in the notion that pop is Britney Spears, and whatever Britney Spears is making - I’d say Britney Spears is making 'Britney Spears music', and if she makes a song, it’s a pop song. I think people get caught up in, ‘Who’s a pop artist?’ It’s like, anyone is a pop artist. Frank Sinatra is a pop artist - the biggest artist of his time.
CDM: You’ve also worked with some other songwriters, like Wafia. Is there anyone that you’d love to work with that you haven’t already?
FINNEAS: I love Wafia, she’s amazing, and just brings such a unique perspective. We worked together a couple times in L.A. now, she’s always incredible, the new stuff she’s putting out this year is so good, I’m such a fan. People I haven’t worked with yet? I’d love to be involved in a Drake song, or a Bieber song. And I grew up listening to a lot of singer-songwriter, folk-era stuff, I love Noah Gundersen, he’s about to put out a new album. Ryan Adams is super cool. Especially with the Billie thing, one of the tougher things has been, she’s obviously still really on the rise, but she’s pretty well-known among other female artists her age. I try to purposefully avoid working with a bunch of other 15-20 year-old girl artists, because I want to make sure that Billie feels as unique as possible.
CDM: You know there are people out there at record labels being like, ‘We need to sign a Billie Eilish sound-a-like!’
FINNEAS: I got sent an ‘Ocean Eyes’ rip-off one time. I won’t name the label, but I got sent, ‘Hey, here’s a collection of instrumentals, if you want to write a topline over it, this is what all of our producers have been coming up with.’ One of them was exactly ‘Ocean Eyes’ with no lyrics, and they were like, ‘Yeah, this was pitched to Ariana Grande.’ I was like, ‘Whoah! I’m so glad she turned it down.’ We got it deleted, but to me, that’s the sincerest form of flattery. I felt like I’d made it. I was like, ‘Wow, someone’s ripping me off.’ But I want to make sure that everyone always feels unique, so I’m always excited to work with an artist that’s making a kind of music that I’ve never worked with. There’s so many great producers like that - like Jeff Bhasker’s always doing that, he’s done the new Harry Styles album which is amazing, and he did Kanye’s best album. Those couldn’t be more different albums and he crushed both. Ludwig [Göransson], who’s Childish Gambino’s producer, I read in an interview that he’d never made beats before he worked with Donald Glover - that to me is the dream.
FINNEAS’ single ‘I’m In Love Without You’ is out now - click here to purchase, and watch the music video below…