On our latest podcast, we spoke with the producer/songwriter FINNEAS who is now making waves as a solo artist. In 2018, FINNEAS has released six single thus far, treating each song with its own story and carefully crafted cover art. He has also made music with talents like Khalid, Tori Kelly, Wafia, and of course, his sister Billie Eilish. We’ve taken a few of our favorite quotes from the podcast interview and broke them down below:
“I spent several years going to five or six auditions per week and most weeks I wouldn’t book anything.”
Finneas O’Connell spent years memorizing lines as an actor before letting loose in the studio as FINNEAS. He landed roles on Glee, Modern Family, and multiple motion pictures. For every part he played on screen, he received dozens of rejections. “No” is a word that became familiar. “I have a bunch of musician friends that haven’t experienced the same level of rejection that I have,” he says. “Being told ‘no’ as an actor helped prepare me to go through the same thing as a music artist.”
In his acting days, FINNEAS sat in cold, uncomfortable audition rooms surrounded by dozens of people vying for the same role. He spent years memorizing lines that other people wrote for him. We’re going in a different direction is a phrase he knows well. “As an actor, it’s like being a session musician,” he says. “You’re brought into the moment to execute a job that’s been predetermined for you with no guarantee of getting the offer.”
Through acting, FINNEAS has opened up more to the heartbreak elements of the music business. He has written hundreds of songs, many for other artists. “I can write songs for other artists that may not come out for a year and a half,” he says, “and other times that song may never see the light of day.”
Recently, FINNEAS worked with John Mayer. In the studio, Mayer told FINNEAS that his superpower is tenacity. He learns from the things that do and don’t work, but never feels disheartened. “It’s discouraging to pour your heart into something and someone says ‘I don’t like it,’” he says. “You have to power through shit.”
“At the top of 2018, I decided I’m going to put out a song every 6 weeks, all year long”
For years, FINNEAS has been writing songs for other artists. He has worked with talents like Khalid, Tori Kelly, Sabrina Claudio, and of course his sister, Billie Eilish. As a solo artist, FINNEAS considers himself new to the game. Instead of announcing his solo career with a full-length project, he decided to release singles as isolated works of art. Each song hits the listener with new life. “I wanted to let each song showcase who I am and the kind of music I’m interested in making,” he says. “I wanted people to get to know me.”
FINNEAS is building slowly, not overemphasizing any one track. He does not worry about a song’s individual performance, but instead focuses on crafting a long-term relationship with his audience. “I love watching each song build on the one before it. Each one does its own little thing,” he says. “Then, six weeks later everything starts over with a slightly bigger audience.”
In tandem with each single, he works with Luke Fenstemaker of Avis Designs for the cover art. He reached out to Luke over DM last year. FINNEAS admired the work Luke had done with other artists like Blackbear and Jeremy Zucker.
For FINNEAS, each song stands apart from the next. Luke designs cover art that mimics the minimalist, eclectic sonic palette of each track. “I’m obsessed with artwork and it’s such an important component to the music,” says FINNEAS. “I trust Luke’s vision and artistry, and I love his taste.”
For the recent single, ‘Hollywood Forever,’ Luke created fifty custom coins. Each coin contained an imprint of FINNEAS’ face on the front. A heart, a skull, and two interlocked rings emblazon the back. The coins are meant to act as tokens to enter the actual Hollywood Forever, one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles. “Bury me in Hollywood Forever," FINNEAS sings, as he recounts the details of a past romance. He explores youth and death side by side, with the token as the gateway.
“As a songwriter, it’s easy to slip into a facade of calmness and collectedness...not being honest with yourself.”
FINNEAS breathes confession into each song that he writes. The tracks that he releases as a solo artist are the most representative of himself. He started writing songs in high school for his best friends in bands. This led to his entry into the industry as a songwriter for other artists.
As a songwriter, honesty with oneself inspires honesty in others. Vulnerability can feel uncomfortable, but closing off emotions halts progress altogether. “Sometimes it’s ugly, and I’m ashamed to admit this is how I feel,” he says, “but this is the truth and I’m going to say it.” Often, others identify with FINNEAS’ honesty and share similar experiences, especially in the studio. “Most times, we try to convince ourselves that we’re okay...lie to ourselves,” he says, “but then I say something super vulnerable in a session, and an artist will share a similar experience right back to me.”
In the midst of creating for other people, FINNEAS would occasionally write songs in a manner that only he could appropriately express. “Sometimes these songs sneak out of me, and it doesn’t matter if my voice isn’t as good as another person. This song is who I am, my brain, my mouth, and it’s only true if I’m the one singing it.”
At first, the thought of performing alone terrified FINNEAS. He grew accustomed to playing with bands. But, some of the songs he was making did not fit a four-man atmosphere. He needed to step out on stage alone, under his own name. “At that point, I had never performed solo,” he says, “but if something truly scares you in life, you should probably try it.”
“It’s a little bit like any conversation you’d have with your sibling except me and Billie [Eilish] put chords under it.”
For over a decade, FINNEAS has been making music in some form with his sister, Billie Eilish. Now both professionals, they keep the studio atmosphere casual. Honesty flows with little pressure. They are open about what works and what doesn’t. They know each other’s story. “If you don’t like a stranger’s work, it’s commonplace to be polite about it...say something like ‘let’s try this a different way,” says FINNEAS. “As siblings, we’re not afraid to say ‘no’ or seem like an asshole.”
With other artists, FINNEAS tries to deepen the personal connection in the studio to reach that level of honesty. The first part of a songwriting session can feel like therapy. Lack of judgment streamlines the process of opening up. “If you leave people space to be who they are, most people are excited to open up,” he says. Whether with Billie or a stranger, FINNEAS maintains the integrity of the art even if that means stepping aside. “If I write a song that Billie sings better than me, that’s awesome,” he says. “I’ve written for so many artists with beautiful voices...if they sing it better, the song becomes theirs.”
“You can make a great song in a boring way and a boring song in a great way, and the great song will win.”
As a teenager, FINNEAS made records by imitating other artists. He studied groups like Two Door Cinema Club and Bad Sun, trying to echo their sounds. “Copying their sound didn’t feel as good,” he says. Gradually, FINNEAS incorporated more improvisation into his art. “The first time I made something truly original, it seemed incorrect,” he says, “but then you learn that it’s just the first time you’ve heard something sound that way.”
He embraces minimalism, composing the truth in its barest form. He started making songs with acoustic guitar, piano, and producing off of those elements. Often, FINNEAS does not discover the full potential of a song until he’s halfway through working on it.
Sometimes, reaching full potential means stripping away hours of work in seconds. For his latest single, College, FINNEAS slaved away on a vocal part with multiple moving elements. “I muted everything except the lead vocal and it sounded so much better,” he says. Despite working for hours producing the vocals, he ultimately chose the original, more stripped down recording. “It’s human nature to want to keep something just because you worked hard on it,” he says, “but a year from now I’ll only care about how a song sounds, not how much time I spent on it.”
Like a marble sculptor, FINNEAS brings a bunch of elements into play before he begins to sonically carve. He’s never been precious about the recording process. Using relatively inexpensive, accessible gear, he has sculpted smash hits like ‘Ocean Eyes’ and ‘lovely’ (with Khalid) in the privacy of his bedroom studio. “If you make music that’s interesting, good, and different, people will share it,” he says. “We are the gatekeepers of the songs we love.”