In the quiet suburb of Eagle Rock, 15 minutes east of Los Angeles, a forward-thinking family, the OʼConnells, decided to home-school their son and daughter so that they could pursue their interests in life, free from the rigidities of the traditional school system.
From those home music classes taught in the mid-2000s, two major artists would emerge 10 years later: Billie Eilish and her bother Finneas. Seemingly oblivious to sibling rivalry, they work together on music, lyrics and production.
Billie Eilish was the first of the pair to attain success with her 2019 debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, hitting number one on the charts in both the US and the UK. Her new record released earlier this year, Happier Than Ever, reached number one in 25 countries and just received six Grammy nominations.
Following Billieʼs success, Finneas has become a sought-after producer. He often works off his laptop and is known to be able to produce songs on a one-way LA-New York flight. In October 2021, Finneas released his first full length solo record, Optimist. A mix of piano ballads and alternative pop songs, the record showcases his soulful voice and producing talent.
During this new cycle of his career, Finn, as he likes to be called, now 24 years old, seems to have a newly found self-confidence. Gone is his quasi Harry Potter look. He now sports long hair and had no hesitation when posing for photographer Nigel Parry in front of an impressive New York skyline. He was playing a concert in that city the same night, before going back to his home in Los Angeles a few days later ‒ but not without first taking the time to chat with AugustMan.
A big brother having the patience to work with his little sister… When and how did you first think “hey, I could work with Billie?”
I think it was to me more about her desire to work on something together, than mine. It was when she was about 13 years old that the idea of working with her big brother started sounding fun to her. Once she was ready, I was like “letʼs make some stuff together.” I always thought she was talented. I didnʼt want to force my younger sister to “do labour.” I never really saw her as my “little sister,” I always saw her as a sibling. Listening to her desire and trusting her instincts.
You and your sister were home-schooled. What were the benefits of that?
Certainly, I was afforded the luxury of time. I could follow my passion, I could follow my dream.
What were the main principles of song writing taught by your mom?
It depended. There was no structure to it. I was obsessed with it, in the same way a lot of kids are obsessed with video games. I would just sit at my piano and play music all the time. But there was no structure, there was no “you have to do this per day.”
Your mom should do a masterclass. After all, she taught two great songwriters, Billie and yourself.
I love that you said that I’m going to tell her, that’s very sweet. It’s true, she’s a great songwriter and an equally great song writing teacher, which is even more challenging to me. Iʼm proud of my song writing, but I don’t know that I could teach someone how to write songs. Her teaching philosophy was “there’s no wrong way to write songs, but let’s identify this and that about songs, let’s listen to songs you love, let’s pick out the choruses, let’s find out what the rhyme scheme is, what the chord progression is. You learn about it like you’re analysing an art style. There’s no wrong way to make a painting but you need to learn from what the greats did, you can try to imitate it. It’s fun.
What are your musical influences?
The Beatles, above all else. Ben Folds. Sarah Bareilles. Rob Dickinson. Green Day. Glen Hansard. Bon Iver. Tom Odell.
I hear some jazz influences in both the way you and Billie sing.
For sure, yes. We both love Nat King Cole, Julie London, and Frank Sinatra. Ray Charles. I love Dizzy Gillespie.
Did people say “you guys are too young?” There was a mini controversy when Billie said she didn’t know Van Halen.
It makes sense that generations before you listen to different stuff than you do. I think it’s a funny bit to make it about age, but it’s not surprising. The age difference just means there are a million little references to make that older people won’t get. We know a lot of stuff, but there are areas that we donʼt know. I feel that “lucky us, we get to make music, listen to music and discover new things”. Some music might be hugely famous, but you weren’t exposed to it and it’s so fun to discover it.
Do you both write music or lyrics, or is there a “work division”?
We both write everything.
Is it easy for a guy to write relationship lyrics from a female point of view?
I don’t think of them from a gender point of view, I think of lyrics from a vulnerability point of view, whether it’s from myself, for Billie, or for anyone of any gender. I’m trying to be vulnerable. It’s what’s compelling, it’s what we relate to.
How did going back on the road feel after Covid restrictions eased?
We were all careful the whole time, we were tested very frequently. We’re all boosted, we all wear masks all the time. The audience all had to have been vaccinated, the audience all had to wear masks. Kids are so incredibly grateful. It’s such a thrill.
Is it hard to go solo and be “the guy” – do you miss Billie on the road?
I really miss her. I love getting to travel with my family. That’s just the truth of it. It’s a privilege to be on the road with the people that I love most. I love our crew, too, but I don’t love anyone as much as I love my sibling.
Your music has more organic instruments than Billie’s (acoustic guitars, piano, live drums in concert). Is that a deliberate choice?
I thought it wouldn’t be very interesting or impressive if I was making the same thing than what Billie was making. Her sensibility… we’ve got to be very electronic together. It’s very cool, fun and interesting. I feel my song writing calls for a more traditional instrumentation. For Billie, it makes more sense to have synths, and bass, and percussion sounds you’ve never heard before. Both are cool, both are fun, but I want them to be very distinct.
There’s an instrumental called ‘Peaches Etudes’. Is that a Chopin reference? Is piano your main instrument?
An Etude is a short compositional piece played on one instrument that is designed to make a person get better at playing the instrument. Itʼs like a practice routine. That’s definitely true for me. That’s a hard piece to play for me. I’m a bad pianist! I thought “Etudes” is the perfect name for this. And “Peaches” is my dog’s name. [laughs] I’m self-taught. Learning “Peaches” … that’s challenging for me.
On your new record, there’s a fantastic song called ‘The Kids Are All Dying’. It’s almost a political song. Do you see yourself writing more songs like this in the future?
Yeah, hopefully. I definitely enjoyed writing that one. I’m really proud of it and we’re going to do a video for it. I wrote another song, ʻWhere The Poison Isʼ [anti-Trump single released in 2020], that was a version of that. To me, I just write songs about what I’m thinking about.
I feel your new record is bitter-sweet. Would you describe it this way?
I called it Optimist because it’s about trying to be optimistic when your default is not optimism. I’m not a naturally optimistic person but I think it’s important to try because the alternative is being pessimistic and think everything’s going to end horribly and that’s not an acceptable way to live.
Do you miss the ‘90s? You didn’t really live through them.
That was the last analog period of time. I miss the predigital age. That’s what the song Theʼ90s is about. It’s about lamenting the fact that we’re now in a place where we’ll never go back to a period without cell phones, Instagram and Facebook. All that stuff has good things and bad things.
We did have cell phones in the ’90s, but they were almost as big as a brick. [laughs]
That was almost analog right there. [laughs]
Rather surprising you would choose the ’90s over the ’80s.
I don’t like ʼ80s music or ʼ80s fashion. I like grunge. All the cool… the birth of the boys bands in the early 2000s. I made the song keyboard heavy to say “look, I’m trapped in this modern period with synthetisers” whereas the ʼ90s had guitars, live drums, etc.
What makes a good music producer? You could be a producer full time, but you’ve chosen to be a performer…
It’s hard, I don’t take either for granted, I love both. What happens is you have to pick and choose, sometimes you get to do one thing and not the other. You can’t really do everything all at once, at the same time. You have to figure out when you’re going to do something and then commit to it.
You are into fashion. Can you describe your personal style?
I’m always trying to wear stuff that isn’t going to look like it’s dated. To me, it’s about the staples, the classics. Jeans and T-shirt when I’m casual. Black and white blazer and dress shirt if I’m being formal. I want to wear stuff thatʼs going to look really good 30 years from now, and that looked good 30 years ago.
One of the elements for Billie’s success was her unusual look. Could you see yourself do this kind of transformation?
Time will tell. I don’t have an answer to that right now.
What are your plans for 2022?
I got a lot of shows to play, got a lot of music to make. I’m very grateful that I get to do both.
(Main image: Sweater, Balenciaga; Tank Louis Cartier and Clash de Cartier ring, Cartier)
Photos Nigel Parry; Styling Anton Schneider; Grooming Erin Anderson; Location Somewhere Nowhere at the Chelsea Hotel