Songwriter U: The Truth About Songwriting, Part 3

Featuring Finneas, Billie Eilish,
The Beatles & Buddha
On how limitations create possibilities

This is Part 3 of a three-part series.
See Part One here.

See Part Two here.

“The doing of it,” said Carole King in Part Two, “must be the reward.”   

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s a truth which extends to this moment. Though writing a hit song is often projected as being akin to winning the lottery or a game-show, songwriters know it isn’t that at all.

It’s one of many reasons why interviewing Billie Eilish and Finneas was so heartening. The subject of our recent cover story, they are, of course, the brother-sister team who won all the major Grammys this year for songs written and recorded at home. Billie was 17 when it was released. Finneas, four years her elder, was 21.

Surely, many people assumed – they must have had some trick – their parents must be crazy wealthy, or they have some serious connections or more – to have done this at this age with this album they made in the bedroom.

The truth is that they did it the same way Goffin & King did it. With true talent, tireless diligence, and love and gratitude for the doing. The process itself was the reward.

Billie & Finneas at the Grammy Awards, January, 2020

When Finneas was asked what his first song was, he said “Ocean Eyes,” the beautifully melodic ballad that he wrote and she sang that started everything.

But it is a perfect song. He actually started with that one?

Not really. Fortunately, he was joking.

“I wrote hundreds of bad songs before I wrote that,” he admitted,just as Goffin & King did.

He also learned every instrument he could learn. Piano and guitar were first, but also many others, all of which expanded his musical artistry for years before he wrote a classic song.

But he was in love with the doing. Even before he and his sister were given every award and honor big and small for their music, his rewards were plentiful. Every day, if he wanted to, and he did, he could live inside the music.

Even his production chops and thoughts about how best to translate a song into a record did not arrive full-blown overnight. Their record of “Ocean Eyes” was not his first attempt at recording that song. Four years older than Billie, he had his own band and was serious about music back before Billie was. She always loved music, and was a great singer always, she loved many forms of art, as she still does.

Finneas explained that the reason his first attempt at recording the song failed was, as he said “because my band sucked.” He learned to be a great producer in the same way. He made a record of it that he knew did not match the impact of just playing the song solo, one voice and guitar. He wasn’t sure why that was. But it was in the searching for the answer, and loving the search, that he grew into one of today’s greatest producers.

He would not agree with that estimation, as he’s a humble guy. But he won Grammys not only for Best Song, for co’writing “Bad Guy” with Billie, but also for Best Producer and Best Engineer. [He is the first person in the history of the Grammy Awards to win Best Song and Best Engineer both. Even The Beatles, after all, didn’t do their own engineering.]

But he’d be the first to say there are better engineers and producers than him by far.  But he’s the only one saying it.

“The mind that perceives the limitation
is the limitation.”
– Buddha

In fact, he’s a real genius – as Billie confirms – as a songwriter, producer and engineer. Because although their music was made in a bedroom, as he often mentioned, and though he did not have access to much of the gear used in major recording studios, that doesn’t negate the fact that he is a great producer. It confirms it.

Because in the production of records – the translation of a song into a record, specifically – as in the writing of the song itself, the mission is to create something within the limitations of the form which is limitless. Although a song is only three minutes or so – which is an extremely brief passage of time in which to create something which is completely realized – a songwriter’s brilliance comes in how they transcend those limits.

The only true limits to a song – or a record – are those we invent ourselves.

Buddha, who as far as we know didn’t write any hit songs, still understood this concept well. “The mind that perceives the limitation,” he taught, “is the limitation.”

Krishnamurti rephrased it slightly: “Limitations create possibilities.”

Mark Twain explained that no work of art appeared on its own. Every famous book, painting and song didn’t exist at all until someone created it. They did so despite all the evidence which existed through history that this art is not in the world, and probably with good reason. Although there might have been a hundred reasons for him not to write Huckleberry Finn, or for Beethoven to not to write his Fifth symphony, or Bob Dylan to write “Like A Rolling Stone,” all of them did it anyway. And now we see they were right, and the world wasn’t exactly wrong. But not helpful.  

Or as Mark Twain wrote about great artists who made great art, “They did not know it was impossible, so they did it.”

So any perceived limitations on Finneas when co-writing or producing Billie’s album – such as their age, or recording in his bedroom – to them were not really limitations at all. They were invitations to be creative. They would be blessings in disguise, except there was no disguise. To them it was obvious.

Because it is true they recorded all of her Grammy-winning album in his bedroom. She did her vocals sitting on his bed. But recording there, as both explained in our interview, was the perfect place for them. Yes, there were limitations when compared to the major recording studios in L.A., which are among the greatest ever and have the greatest of the old technology (such as Capitol’s famed echo chamber) and the new.

But these limitations inspired both of them to become more ingenious with the songwriting and production, and discover new, previously unheard, sonic solutions which had never been used before. His production is ingenious not only for the sounds they discovered and used, but for the rich and dynamic soundscapes created because of the search itself. Had they no limitations, there would be no new discoveries. Just mastery of the old ones.

Or as the author Esther Hicks wrote, “Attention to what is only creates what is. Look around less, imagine more.”

The Beatles, as you might already know, recorded their albums without Pro-Tools on analog tape. They had multi-tracking but it was limited to just a few tracks. Sgt. Pepper, remarkably, was recorded on a four-track.

And as Beatles lovers the world around know well, almost all the innovative production on their records was the result almost always of an accident which sounded cool, but required breaking a conventional rule (such as using guitar feedback or backwards recordings.)

It also meant their music – the songwriting and production – was all about the doing. John’s beautiful “Because” has nine separate vocals parts. To record those, since they had three tracks only to use, they could not record each part individually. John, George and Paul had to sing three parts all together, in perfect three-part harmony, as nothing could be changed afterwards. If it wasn’t perfect, they had to do it over and over until it was.

And they had to do this three times, for a total of nine parts. It wasn’t easy at all. Though George Martin was there at the piano giving them each their harmony notes, it still required endless takes to perfect. This took so long, in fact, that Lennon got frustrated and yelled, “I wish I didn’t write this fucking song!”

But listen to “Because” now. All that effort created a thing of great timeless beauty. A thing which could only achieved in the doing. No shortcuts.

Even in the bedroom, Finneas and Billie had way more tracks than The Beatles did at Abbey Road. And they had that same drive to get it right.

Doing it at home was a key ingredient. At home, they were free from any pressure from others, and from any time constraints. And spending endless hours on perfecting layered vocals, as Billie did, would be very costly in a real studio.

But this level of perfection, this diligence, this tireless compulsion to get it right, and this trusting patience all came from their parents. Lest anyone ever wonder how valuable encouragement and education in the arts can be, and how much is lost without it, look at Billie and Finneas. As discussed in our original story, they were home-schooled in a house of love and art. It was the perfect combination.

Their parents are both songwriter-musician-actor-painters for whom all art mattered. They knew what to do and what not to do. Unlike those well-intentioned parents who forced piano lessons on kids who came to hate them, their parents kept it cool. They didn’t impose art on their children; they simply made it available. In this way, they allowed both kids to discover the art on their own, but made that easy by having every kind of instrument around, as well as the paints and brushes and tools for other arts.

They also surrounded them with great songs. Asked if The Beatles mattered much to her growing up, she answered with gusto: “Dude,” she said, “The Beatles were everything.” No wonder she has a natural gift for real melody, as does he. She heard and learned and sang great ones. The first song she ever performed, accompanying herself on the ukulele, was The Beatles’ liltingly melodic “I Will, “ by McCartney.  

Their parents offered a golden stipulation that was simple, yet profound. If either Billie or Finneas was in the middle of making art, whether writing a song, recording a vocal, taking a photo or any other expression, bedtime was suspended. Art comes first.

Can you imagine? It not only allows, it encourages one to dive into that zone of doing. To do it and keep doing it until it is fully realized. And to understand there is joy in the doing.

At home, she could work for three hours layering vocal tracks, doing take after take late into the night, so as to get the phrasing to sound immaculately matched with the others on a single line.  She was going for that sound only she could hear. Even Finneas, who is, by far, the musician she most respects in this world, would tell her she nailed it, but she knew she hadn’t yet, and would keep going.

That is the actual method they used to write and record the songs for this album that won six Grammy awards all in all. It was not Autotune or Pro-Tools that aligned and perfect every layer of Billie’s vocals to create the rich, singular sound they achieved. They did it the same way they write songs. The old school way. By working hard.

It wasn’t a fluke, or for random reasons that this music created such a vast and enraptured impact. Yes, it starts with true talent. Genius, even. There’s that.

But that alone doesn’t write a great song or make an album. It comes from hard work. It comes from years of developing and expanding one’s own artistry. It takes a lot of diligence and devotion to the task at hand. It comes from not giving up, not being derailed, not taking shortcuts or settling when realizing the song or record to its full potential. It comes from seeing perceived limitations, and using those as challenges to discover brilliant solutions.

Instead of simply surveying a library of sound effects when he wanted to hear the lighting of a match, he’d go into the bathroom – with those tiled walls so great for recording sound effects – and record himself lighting many matches till he got the perfect take.  This is called “old school.” Also known as the College of Musical Knowledge.

Even for Billie and Finneas, whose home-made music made a mass global impact, there was no secret, scam, shortcut, or trick. They did it with genuine, real-time souls of art. But that only goes so far. They did mostly by doing it. And doing it over and over until it’s great. And then doing it again until it’s greater. It’s not about if it’s easy, or not. If it’s easy you’re after, look elsewhere, not to songwriting. It’s about greatness. And greatness is never easy. But it’s great.

This is Part 3 of a three-part series.
See Part One here.
See Part Two here.

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Songwriter U: The Secret Truth About Songwriting, Part 2