Billie Eilish: Fueling the Phenomenon

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Billie Eilish, “Ocean Eyes” by Finneas

It all started with a song. A beautiful one. He wrote it, and knew nobody could sing it more beautifully than his little sister. He tried doing it first with his own band, but it wasn’t good enough, he said, “because my band sucked.”

It was “Ocean Eyes.”

He brought it to her and she sang it, as she sang everything, like an angel. An angel with a lot of soul. 

He engineered and produced it. Together, they finessed it; she spent endless hours perfecting her layered harmonies. It was music made in his bedroom, as they would later tell the world. She recorded her vocals while sitting on the bed. 

They spent what felt like forever recording her multiple harmony parts, obsessively matching the exact phrasing and inflection of each until it felt immaculate. It was that same level of intense diligence which they brought to “Bad Guy” and others to come. The impression that this music was easily thrown together in a bedroom is far from reality. Like any great album, it was the result of a lot of hard work.

But though it felt torturous at times, never did Billie Eilish shy from the job at hand. Not for long anyway. As Finneas says, she knew what she wanted and she was going to get it. There were times he felt she had nailed the part and suggested moving on, and she disagreed, saying, “No, I didn’t get it. I know exactly how it’s supposed to sound. Let me try again.” 

“Ocean Eyes” had its feet in two worlds at once, which contributed to its remarkable popularity. Simultaneously brand new and old-fashioned, it was unapologetically romantic, achingly melodic and sung with the soulful authority and quiet, focused grace of a seasoned vocalist. 

Understanding that it was the poignant purity of her singing that brought this song to the world, Finneas was careful to not get in the way. He framed the production around the warm hypnotic sound of Billie’s soulful vocals caressing the song’s sumptuous melodics. As in the songs that followed, instead of a wall of sound, he built an open window which lets in the light. 

They posted it on Soundcloud in November 2015, and it quickly started to explode. She remembers the call from Finneas informing her their song was blowing up.

Dude,” he said, “we got one thousand listens!” That was enough; they felt like they made it. But that thousand quickly rose and surpassed 50 million streams. “It just kept growing,” she says, “and then it got really big.” 

Billie & Finneas, “Ocean Eyes” live at the Lounge, Chicago

Soon it became pretty obvious that there was something about this song that seemed to resonate with a whole lot of people in an expansive way. And suddenly, this thing – at first so unexpected as to be undefined – blossomed. It came to be known as the Billie-Finneas phenomenon. 

“That song gave me my life,” she says. 

Thirty years before Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas won the Best Song Grammy for “Bad Guy,” Paul Simon won that same award for “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” now a modern melodic standard. By 1988, however, responding to the increasing prevalence of non-melodic Top 40 hits, he predicted the extinction of tuneful songs. “We are long out of the age of melody,” he said at the time, “and we probably won’t be going back. Something literally earth-shattering would have to happen for us to change direction … Who will be the melody writer? Where are they going to learn it from?”

When Billie and Finneas won their Grammy for “Bad Guy,” it was a win which gave old-school songwriters some hope that songwriting artistry still mattered. Although “Bad Guy” is actually less melodious than most of their songs, these two Angeleno siblings have been ushering in a new era of rich melodicism.

But as the Best Song Grammy is awarded for the writing, not for performance or production, their win also signaled a victory for the artistry of songwriting itself, which many feared was fading fast and being forgotten in this digital era. Finneas’ productions of Billie’s songs are also distinguished by modern grooves, found sounds and inventive sonics. The difference is that their hits are all founded on the power of real songs. Take away the production, as they have in live acoustic renditions of “Bad Guy,” and the song still soars. Anytime you hear it or any of their songs, including his solo work, you always hear the spirit of the songwriter there, exulting in boundless creation. And it’s a joyful sound. 

So the question arose in boldface: How? That an artist as young as Billie could possess such mature confidence and create music at this level was simply hard to fathom. How did these two kids in their bedroom create one of the biggest albums of all time? 

Some felt it was some lucky fluke of nature, unexplainable. Or one of those rare human miracles, like Mozart, perhaps divine. Others assumed it was a sham, and Billie was just the singer, if that, while it was the guy who did all the work. (Even funnier was a friend who asked, “Doesn’t her husband do all the work?” Finneas found that hilarious: “Husband? With a 17-year old bride?”) 

But the answer is simple, and important for people to know now more than ever. Their talent and creative confidence was no fluke. Both were born with great musical talent. But talent alone doesn’t propel everyone to this realm. 

The secret ingredient, though not new, is somewhat rare in modern times: great parenting. Billie and Finn are the children of two exceedingly artistic souls, Patrick O’Connell and Maggie Baird, who raised them in a house of art and music. Instead of sending them to school like all the other kids to learn about things someone else chose, they home-schooled them with the freedom to discover what most compelled them. Pianos, guitars, ukuleles and other instruments were always part of their family fabric, as was a love of learning – learning to make art, to be artists, to play, to sing, to write songs, to record. All of it.

And the soundtrack of their existence was one filled always with great melodies and the timeless artistry of songs. Both parents are musicians too, and exposed them to every kind of music, from Broadway to The Beatles and beyond. The first song Billie sang and played on uke was The Beatles’ beautifully tender ballad, “I Will,” written by Paul McCartney. (And she sang it like an angel.) It’s no wonder her music always was shaped by powerful tunefulness. 

“Dude, the Beatles were always playing when I was growing up,” she says, “but we grew up on kind of all types of music and all types of artists. It was really nice to be exposed to every genre, all over the place, because there are a lot of people I know that don’t know The Beatles or don’t know Frank Sinatra songs.

“My dad used to make us tapes of all the stuff that he likes and we would listen in the car. It was half The Beatles. It was all over the place. It was The Beatles and Avril Lavigne, a lot of big stuff from when my dad was kind of growing up as well. And also stuff that was current at the time when we were little, but it was all over the place again. It was all sorts of different music, totally different genres and totally different worlds of artists. It was great.

“It shocks me so much because I feel like I’ve gained so much inspiration from that stuff and especially the things I grew up on, especially The Beatles and Frank Sinatra. Those melodies are like no other. Melodies are really important to me.”

In addition to sharing a rich diversity of music with their kids, O’Connell and Baird were wise to the budding artistic sensibility, which can be resistant to anything imposed. So rather than insist they learn to play music, they allowed Billie and Finneas to discover it on their own, and made it easy for them by having tools to make music always at hand. 

“We had everything we needed,” Billie says. “We had piano, guitar, ukuleles, every type of everything. That was what was great about the way we grew up. It really makes a difference to have a piano in the home. I feel like everybody, even if you don’t play the piano, you should have a piano. Every time I go into a house and it doesn’t have a piano, I’m like, what are you doing?”

It was their mom who introduced them to songwriting. She gave songwriting classes that both kids attended. Neither needed much besides the basics; they digested those quickly and began writing. They already had that thing which is more important than technical knowledge: a love of making art, connecting with the joy of creation.

That went a long way. Art, in this home, was not separated from life, or deemed less important than the usual exigencies, such as bedtime, homework and school. They had a golden stipulation: Neither kid was required to go to bed at bedtime as long as they were making music. When asked if this applied even if she was just “messing around,” Billie says, “Yes, that’s what making music is.” 

This freedom to make art, even at bedtime, was not abstract, but based on the practical reality of being an artist. 

“Sometimes inspiration doesn’t hit you for months on end,” Billie says, “and what if it’s four in the morning and suddenly you have an idea for an entire song, or two or three? Or an idea for a movie plot or an idea for a book? Then an idea for a shirt that you want to make, or an outfit? 

“Inspiration comes whenever it wants to. If you don’t let it happen, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. So I think that was our parents’ thing, which is even if you should be asleep, if it’s late, if you are writing, if you are creating, that’s what matters. It doesn’t have to be music, as long as you’re creating. Because it only comes when it comes.”

Music, of course, was central to their souls. But their parents taught them all art is one, and encouraged creativity in all directions. It was dance, even more than music, that first entranced Billie. Finneas took to acting, and got roles on several TV shows, including Glee.

Their parents also instilled another defining quality as exceptional as their deep musical talent and accomplishment, and that’s the generosity of their love and support of each other. Unlike the dynamics between most siblings, for Billie and Finneas there’s no rivalry at all. In fact, there’s the inverse; both are much more comfortable singing the praises of the other than basking in any self-glory. And both get much more upset when the other is attacked in the media, whereas direct attacks on them don’t have much impact.

Much of this came directly from the example, more than any words, provided by their parents. Their house has two bedrooms, and they wanted each kid to have their own room. So the parents let Billie and Finneas have their rooms, and they slept on a futon in the living room. That in itself says so much. The unspoken message was always there. This is what love means. 

That purity of that love has shaped both of them profoundly, and is forever reflected in their lives. Though Billie is on hiatus from doing any press, she spoke to us for one reason only — to celebrate Finneas. Their loving generosity towards each other has been there since the start and articulated often, as at the Grammys when Billie ended one of her acceptance speeches by extending her love and gratitude to “my brother and my best friend.” 

She echoed that sentiment with us. “Finneas is an actual genius at writing music. I’m not even trying to be nice, I’m just being honest. He’s the best songwriter ever.

“When I was growing up with him, I felt, and I still feel, like I’m a terrible songwriter. Just because he’s so good that anything I do feels like garbage, even if it’s good. Even if he has writer’s block, he writes more than I ever have.”

His diligence, high standards and palpable joy when making music inspires her always. From him, she learned to write songs which could stand on their own, separate from production ideas. To get there, to the very essence of the song, instead of working with a track, they worked with a song played on an instrument. It’s how they wrote all the songs on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

As to how they write songs together, she says, “It’s really, really different every time. Let me give you an example. I guess a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a verse to this song. I came up with these chords and I wrote like two verses. I only had that and I had nothing; I couldn’t think of anything else. I came over to Finneas’ house and I played it for him and he loved it. He said, ‘OK.’ “I always try to explain it and every time I can’t really,” she says, “because it’s so natural. I wish I could explain exactly how it goes, but it just flows. It feels like you’re writing it yourself. I feel like every song that we’ve written together, we both feel like we wrote the whole thing because it was such a give and take.”

When asked if she felt songs would always matter to people, she ponders the question for a moment, and then says, “It’s a good question. I think music will always be there. I think as long as we are alive, music will be there. I think there’s going to be good music forever. I don’t think anybody’s holding back the good music. I really do.”

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