He’s always been her protector and champion. “My first memory,” he says, “was her teetering into my room in a diaper and putting a marble that I had on the floor in her mouth. And me reaching my hand down her throat and pulling the marble out.”
He is forever ready to extricate another marble at any moment. Or he could help her in other ways, such as keeping his promise to make her the biggest pop star in the world.
At the most recent Grammys, Finneas and his sister, Billie Eilish, won seven awards including Best Song — the biggest songwriting award — for “Bad Guy,” their hit single from her first LP, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, released in 2019.
“This is a really, really big deal,” he said, accepting the award. “I don’t know what to say; I didn’t think we would win this at all. I loved every song on this list. You know, we just make music in a bedroom together. We still do that. They let us do that.”
To that declaration, the audience began to cheer and applaud. On TV, there was a cut-away to the audience, focusing on a red-haired woman with an incredulous smile. It was their mom, Maggie Baird, whose eyes were sparkling with utter disbelief, like someone who had just been informed she had won the biggest lottery ever.
And in many ways, she had. Along with her husband — their father, Patrick O’Connell — they were the ones who, as Finneas said, let them make music in their bedroom. Both parents are artist-musician-actors and well-versed in the rebellious nature of the artistic temperament. So they knew better than to insist their kids make art. Instead, they simply made it easy by providing the knowledge, the tools, the time and the freedom so Finneas and Billie could fill that time as they chose.
Understatement: It worked. Rather than force their kids to put away childish things like guitars and ukes to focus on algebra and other stuff that matters, Baird and O’Connell home-schooled their kids in a house of art, where all art was equally important. The results of this are undeniable. At 17, their daughter became one of the biggest and most compelling pop stars in the world, sweeping up all the major Grammy awards for an album produced and co-written by their son. This didn’t happen randomly.
Finneas and Billie were both born with a bounty of musical talent, which is obviously part of the equation. She sang like an angel her entire life; he learned to play every instrument he could get his hands on and started writing songs — a lot of them — from early on.
The common assumption about their remarkable success is that the parents were either super wealthy, super connected or both. How else? In fact, it’s not true. O’Connell and Baird were working artists who both did a lot of acting, but neither were stars. O’Connell also worked construction, while Baird was a teacher.
But their priorities were their children, always. They slept on a futon in the living room because they wanted Finneas and Billie to have their own rooms in the two-bedroom house. That generosity of love was the bedrock on which this entire enterprise was founded.
The bond between Billie and Finneas is a powerful one, built on love and genuine respect for each other. Given that Finneas is four years older and had been playing music and writing songs long before she started, his contribution to her career is remarkable. He wrote and produced the haunting “Ocean Eyes,” which, as she says, changed her life forever. And then he devoted himself for years to co-writing and producing her music, with the aim, as he promised, of making her the biggest pop star in the world. But he had no secret agenda. He loved being the guy to fly with her quietly into the pop stratosphere.
Both Finneas and Billie have been utterly perplexed by the deluge of misinformation in constant circulation about them. Maybe because the truth of their bond, based on love and mutual respect, seems impossible to most people. Yet it’s an equation that works as their individual talents perfectly complement the other. She’s an amazing singer, and one who has evolved into a singularly compelling performer. He enjoys the spotlight, but it’s not what compels him. It’s music that matters most — writing songs, producing, engineering, playing every instrument there is and writing every kind of song there is to write. He likes performing and is great at it. But he’s happier, it seems, being the guy standing to her side making the music.
“I don’t think Finneas cares about being famous,” Billie says.
“We’re both very protective of each other,” he says. “She hates the internet making fun of me way more than she hates the internet making fun of her. And I’m the same way, inversely. If the internet’s trashing her, I’m devastated. But if the internet says something mean about ‘my eyes divorcing each other,’ I couldn’t care less. I think it’s so funny.”
Asked what his first song was, he lies at first and says “Ocean Eyes,” as if he started with a masterpiece. Then he tells the truth, which is that he wrote “maybe 300 bad songs first.” That’s an important message for budding songwriters to hear: Finneas didn’t get this good without effort. Like all the great songwriters, he spent his time in the trenches acquiring real artistry the only possible way — from doing it. A lot.
He’s a humble guy who is more at ease deflecting praise and minimizing the immensity of what he and Billie created than singing his own praises, as if it were a happy accident. At the Grammys while accepting the award for Best Song, he said, “You know, we just make music in a bedroom together. We still do that.”
In truth, making music in their bedroom was hardly a disadvantage. After the colossal success of their first single, the haunting “Ocean Eyes” which he solo wrote and produced, they could have decamped to a real recording studio. But they knew not to. The constant access to recording at home meant they could both feed their obsessional hunger to work around the clock without racking up enormous studio bills, and no one would get in their way. It meant that they could record countless takes to get it right and then do more. Or they could experiment with odd ideas away from anyone’s judgment but their own. They were equally as passionate and ambitious in production and as singular and fresh as the songs themselves.
“It’s what makes us such a perfect duo in terms of writing and making music, because it’s a perfect give and take,” Billie says. “Everything that I can’t do well, he does perfectly. And everything that he’s not so strong at, I’m strong.
“(Finneas) grew up thinking he was a bad singer because of me,” she continues, “and I grew up thinking I was a bad writer because of him.” They were both wrong.
Regarding his lack of desire to steal any of her thunder, she says, “Yes. I think about that all the time. Because he really genuinely doesn’t have any jealousy or envy. It’s kind of crazy. I feel like I would, if I were him. But I don’t think he wants to be famous. When he sees what I have to go through, he sees it is really hard a lot of time.
“He does not want the crazy same thing that I’ve got going on, and I love that about him. He makes his art because he loves it; he wants people to hear it because he wants people to hear it. It’s nothing beyond that. Which is really rare I think. He’s just a genius dude, he’s really unbelievable.”
For Finneas, it’s always been about the music; it’s his source of joy and sustenance, separate from fame, sales or other considerations.
“I love music,” he says. “It’s the thing I’ve always wanted to do. If I were uninvolved in her music, I would be openly and honestly jealous of it. I’d feel she is getting to live out all the dreams that I’ve always had. But we’ve done them all together, so there’s nothing for me to be jealous of.”
“Some people think that I would be jealous of her,” he continues, “for the level of attention she receives, or the notoriety. But I couldn’t be less jealous of that stuff. I hate photo shoots. I hate people. I hate not being able to go out places. I love the feeling of anonymity of sitting down at a coffee shop. I love that stuff.
“And every couple of days, somebody says to me, ‘Hey, I really like your production,’ and that’s super nice. But she’s at that level where she can’t go out anywhere. She just can’t. She can’t go out in public without causing a scene.”
Her electric green hair, he admits, doesn’t help her go unrecognized. “She’s not made herself look very subtle. Whereas I have every white person’s face, which is to my advantage. I just look like every guy. Which is great. I love the luxury of not having it take over my life.
“It’s been funny,” he says, “how many wrong ideas there are about us. There are people who say, ‘Finneas doesn’t get any credit,’ which is not true. I get plenty. Then there are people who give me too much, and people who say, ‘He gets all the credit.’ And neither of them are true.”
The truth is, as he says, “It’s a collaboration as all things all. It’s very 50-50.”
Finneas and Billie have acquired a bounty of wisdom about making music long before most ever consider it. Perhaps it stems from their artistic upbringing, never attending the place where conventional wisdom gets taught. But it also comes from innate brilliance in recognizing complexities too complex for most to decipher. Such as the puzzle of how to give life to a song on record without sacrificing its essential dynamic purity.
“If you’re thinking of it as a producer,” Finneas says, “and as an inventor and an innovator, it’s not as simple as leaving well enough alone. Though some producers pretend it is, and say, ‘Don’t touch it. It’s perfect. It’s simple.’ Sure, in some ways, yes. But if you’re not innovating, then you’re not giving it as much credit as it’s due as a song. You owe it to the song to be sonically inventive and to be creative.’
“Billie’s song, ‘When the Party’s Over,’ was like that. We wrote it, and we toured it, unreleased. We did a year of shows where we played that song before it came out. We sat down, I played the piano, and she sang every night. And it was great just like that, with just her voice and the piano and my harmony.
“But to get it as a recording to be as interesting as it was live took all of this reimagining. We had to add layers of vocals and sub-bass, and we didn’t even come in with the piano until halfway through. It’s just because we knew the feeling that you got standing in an audience, and we had to make that feeling as exciting and profound as when you’re just sitting in your car listening.
“It’s complicated. More than I wish it was. It would be nice to just record the guitar and the vocal, and you’re done. But, no, you have to actually make it new.”
This is only true, he emphasizes, if it’s a powerful, fully realized song. “A song played solo is almost always more compelling than a produced record,” he says, “if the song is great. If the song is only good, the production usually is part of its success. But if a song is great, it’s at its very best when it is sung and played by one or two people, in my opinion.”
Unlike so many current hit songwriters who build great tracks first and then write the song to the track, Finneas almost always writes the song first. Occasionally production ideas will trigger a song, but usually he uses the tried-and-true method of songwriters from Cole Porter to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and beyond — to fully realize the song and all it can be before translating it into a record.
Although he is serious and diligent about writing songs, he’s more practical about it than precious. When asked whether he felt songwriting was a connection with a spiritual source, he says, “Not really. It feels more spiritual after the song is out and people connect with it. Singing onstage and having the crowd shout every word is incredibly spiritual. Better than any moment I’ve ever had in a church.” Writing songs for himself or for Billie is the same process, he says. “The only difference being that it’s her singing them so the language has to feel 100 percent authentic to her. She has to belong in the song.”
Finneas exults in great melody. Growing up on a good diet of Beatles, classic rock, musicals and current hits, he and Billie both were drawn to a powerful tune. It was his haunting “Ocean Eyes,” with its poignant melody, that changed their lives forever.
His own songs are created not as tracks or productions, but as songs. That distinction is at the heart of his own songs, such as the stunning sophistication and swagger of “Let’s Fall In Love For Tonight.” Unapologetically romantic with an exultant, expansive melody, it’s very much about now, but timelessly romantic.
He’s great at mixing the language of old love songs (“let’s fall in love for tonight …”) with the vernacular of modern times (“so fuck that noise”), and effortlessly propelling it with a beautiful yearning melody. It’s an ingenious song that resonates like a standard and is as beautiful with his voice and guitar as with full production. Everything is baked right into the song. That timeless tune, propelled by a gentle, quasi-bossa nova groove, wed to funny, romantic lyrics.
As if to answer that old school songwriter question — “can you do it with just one voice and guitar?” — he delivers both in the same song. It begins rhythmically rubato, just voice and guitar, introducing its aching melody. Then the groove kicks in, and the curtain lifts on the big band. At the end, he does this in reverse; after the big production, suddenly it’s just Finneas and his guitar again. And that song.
“I write everything usually long before I’m recording it,” he says. “I sit at the piano and I write it. There’s a song that probably will be the name of my album, it’s the title track of the album, and it’s totally written. I could sit and play it for you, but there’s not a note of it recorded anywhere. Partially because I’m intimidated.”
Intimidated? Why? He is a Grammy-winning producer-engineer, after all.
He laughs, and then reveals the river of worry that flows beneath the confidence.
“This happens all the time where a song is in its pure form absolute to me,” he says. “There’s this bell curve of when I start producing it, and it gets so bad. Then by the time I finish it, it’s only as good as it was at the beginning, which is how I feel about ‘I Love You,’ the Billie song. It’s always a process of wondering, ‘Why is this so bad?’”
His allegiance to this kind of songwriting is affirmed by the artists who have impacted him the most. Of these, Cohen is at the top of the list, exemplifying the fully-realized song foundation more than most, given the years he’d devote, literally, to the writing and revising of songs.
Finneas is also familiar with the wisdom of Cohen and others about this elusive art. Yet his own attitude about writing songs is much more joyful and playful than the arduous, endless labor which Cohen described. He appreciates Cohen’s dictum that being a songwriter is like being married to a mystery, yet finds the source of song to be neither spiritual or mysterious.
“The source of songs,” Finneas says, “is living.”