Pop star’s secret weapon Finneas takes center stage

LOS ANGELES – There’s a ghoul hanging out around Finneas’s house. A dark shadow streaked past the window of his otherwise sunny and calm music studio. “The way he moves, he catches your attention at the wrong time,” he said. It scares him.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Finneas, 24, the multi-instrumentalist who won worldwide audiences – and eight Grammys – as a producer and songwriting collaborator for his teenage sister Billie Eilish, is a little gothic. As siblings, their work is often not only gloomy but haunted, even deviant. Finneas’ debut studio album as a solo artist, released on Friday and titled “Optimist” (“that’s ambitious” he told me) contains a track called “The Kids Are All Dying”, followed by little time by “Love Is Pain”. With his voice at a ballad tone, he is imbued with generational and personal anxiety, as well as the brilliance of romance.

So it was with the ghoul – Halloween decor, set up by Finneas’ girlfriend, social media personality Claudia Sulewski, while he was out of town. (He was puzzled that it hadn’t scared her.) Finneas isn’t a prince of darkness, but he does talk about his fears. Emotionally unfiltered, denominational: “It’s kind of like I am, on and off the mic,” he said.

The studio is where he works these feelings. With the exception of the subtle violin and cello of the first track, he wrote, played, arranged and produced “Optimist” entirely on his own, playing all instruments (bass, guitar, piano, synths, and programming the drums. and sound effects). “It was like, why would you build your own house if you were a carpenter,” he said, sitting barefoot and cross-legged in a wheelchair in his studio here recently, in ripped jeans and a headboard. “Why hire someone else to do something I can do and can do myself?” And it’s also a lot of fun.

Ever since he and Eilish broke with their album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” in 2019, Finneas was increasingly in demand as a producer. One of those Grammys was Producer of the Year, non-classical; at 22, he was the youngest to win in this category. He has recorded with Selena Gomez, Camila Cabello and a handful of other artists, many of them young women.

Cabello said she wrote “Used to This”, widely understood to be the start of her two-day relationship with musician Shawn Mendes, with Finneas. “It was like I was downloading with a friend,” she said in an email. “He’s so detail-oriented in his own music, and his lyrics are so about little things, like my favorite poetry, that he really influenced the direction of the writing.”

After the shoot, Finneas “wrote me a long text explaining his production choices,” she said. He added atmospheric touches like the whoosh of a cart before the song mentioned San Francisco, “the tequila glasses clink, the guitar solo when I say the line ‘calluses on your fingers’,” Cabello wrote. “He really is like a painter or a poet, and he captures those huge feelings by focusing on the little details.”

Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo worked on two tracks with Finneas in 2019. One was the hedonistic pop song “Bikini Porn”, the other was an introspective and quirky ode. “I find him really good at finding the ‘nerve'” of a song, “she wrote in an email. It’s “not so much about the format, but the feeling you want to get in the song next. He is also not afraid to go to an unexpected place without losing the feeling of it all.

She added that Finneas’ work with his sister gave her confidence that her own point of view would be heard in the studio. “It was such a cold energy, and I felt very comfortable dismissing any idea that came through my mind without thinking too much about it first,” she said.

Like his sister, Finneas – born Finneas Baird O’Connell – started playing music as a child, encouraged by his parents, Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, everyday actors who educated their children in home, favoring a creative family life. “For my third birthday, I asked for a Charleston cymbal and a conductor’s baton,” said Finneas. Her parents gave birth. “And we were on the middle floor of a triplex.” (Sorry, neighbors.)

He fell in love with songwriting when he was around 12, and his mother, a singer and guitarist herself, offered a sort of songwriting boot camp. As an exercise, she had the children write from the perspective of a different person – a TV character, say. “I really think it sculpted us both, and especially him,” Eilish said in a phone interview. “Writing songs is about truth and honesty, but it’s also about telling stories.”

As a teenager, Finneas learned production on his own. Now there is an infrastructure to learn studio skills at home, and 5 year olds are making beats on TikTok. But back then, in the hazy days of 2014, Finneas said, his biggest resource was “guys on YouTube who run church worship groups.”

Although he described himself as “religious,” at 16 and 17, he stayed awake all night in his parents’ room in Los Angeles, learning to record a bassline or compose a voice in Logic, the software. audio, Christian rockers. His first group, the Slightlys, gave a few local concerts with the Warped Tour; he and his sister had also spent years singing in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus – “the school of harmony,” Finneas called. This was the extent of his formal musical training. In 2016, he and Eilish had their first viral hit, “Ocean Eyes”.

They have what he called a “creatively monogamous relationship”. He also co-wrote and produced his second album, released this summer, and toured with her. She says he’s her best friend.

Returning from an event in Temecula, Calif. This spring in the family minivan, the whole clan heard “Optimist” for the first time. “We stopped in and had burgers” – vegan burgers – “and he played us his album,” Eilish said. “We listened to it twice, and it was very touching – I love it. Finneas is the most talented person I know.

“It’s funny to me that he made an album with only a few songs,” she added (there are 13 songs!) “Because the guy writes so much. And everything he writes, it’s so good, it really upsets me. Because I’m not a quick writer and I’m not an easy writer. It takes a lot of time and effort, and it feels like it’s so easy. It’s maddening.

An old microphone that Eilish records at attention in the Finneas home studio; smiling Murakami pillows followed him from his childhood bedroom, where he and Eilish made their groundbreaking album. The studio is otherwise not very ornate – a stack of platinum album plates wanders, unhooked, in the bathroom. A fountain in the courtyard outside audibly sizzles; Finneas did not deliberately isolate the studio from outside sound (the hum is there, very faintly, on several of his songs, he said). He recorded about half of “Optimist” at home, before a burst pipe flooded the space and forced him into a rental studio. No problem: his philosophy as a producer of Gen Z laptops is that “you can do stuff anywhere.”

Outside of tours, he’s pretty domestic: Sulewski, his girlfriend of three years, YouTubes their seemingly healthy relationship (they’ve already spent two hours making a gingerbread house). noted. “I made some heartbreaking songs that I love as a very happy person.”

His love for his pit bull, Peaches, for which he named a non-lyric, piano-only study on his album – the kind of track that could be cut if there was another artist to answer. “When I produce for other people, including Billie, whatever I have to say, I care about theirs the most, and they feel like owners, and they love it, you know?” he said. “And so, it’s really rewarding to do something exactly the way I want it to be and then release it and live with it. It’s just me on this album. shares oxygen.