Blood Brother: FINNEAS’s Incredible Year
By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • October 6, 2019
Right now, FINNEAS is on top of the world. Just six months ago, this writer-producer-multi-instrumentalist-performer-all-around-musical-badass notched a #1 album in 20 countries, with the release of his sister Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, co-written and produced entirely by FINNEAS.
This summer, just weeks after FINNEAS and Billie earned the prestigious ASCAP Vanguard Award, he topped Billboard's very first Hot 100 Songwriters and Hot 100 Producers Charts, and held the #1 spot for nine consecutive weeks. At the end of August, Billie and FINNEAS’s single “bad guy” overtook “Old Town Road” as the #1 song in the country, right in the middle of Billie’s massively successful world tour – which featured FINNEAS as part of the backing band, and an opening act on select dates.
No rest for the weary: on October 4, FINNEAS released the gorgeous debut EP Blood Harmony, an album that showcases his expressive voice alongside his top-shelf songwriting and production chops. He's showcasing material from it during a solo set at this year’s Austin City Limits, and a short (and entirely sold-out) headlining tour starting mid-October.
We caught up with FINNEAS the day before Blood Harmony dropped, during the 15 minutes that week he wasn’t songwriting, touring or sleeping.
Happy Blood Harmony release week!
Thank you very much man, I appreciate it!
Blood Harmony is your first big statement as a solo artist, but you named it after the way that siblings’ voices can seem to lock together when they harmonize. So is that just irony? Or is there something else you’re going for?
Well I mean, that has a meaning per when siblings sing together, but also family members - your parents, your kids, the sound of people who are related singing together. I think I like that as a motif, and a theme - just because my whole life was my family, making music together. But there’s also just the simple fact that I like those two words together. I wanted a name and cover art that was tight.
One of the remarkable things about your music with Billie is that each song feels like it comes from the same alien universe. What goes into making the sound of your songs together so cohesive?
You know, I don’t always do the greatest job of that…I’ve been accused of being [too] eclectic a couple times. I think that’s a pretty fair accusation to make, frankly! The benefit is that a lot of records right now - and a lot of really good records, I’m not slamming any of these records - but a lot of records are made by like 30 people. I think that’s when it’s hard to make a record that sounds super-unified. So I think the fact that it’s just me and Billie experimenting in our bedrooms, that’s why it all sounds pretty unified.
Do you think recording in your bedrooms at home made a difference in the kind of music you wrote?
Yes, I think it meant that my music had an intimacy that wouldn’t have been achievable in a studio filled with professionals. Recording at home is a little bit like dancing around in your pajamas - you are your purest artistic self.
You’re writing and producing all the tracks that you create together. Are those roles of songwriter and producer separate for you?
I think it’s all part of the same creative process. They’re different tasks, so you can be a songwriter without being a producer; you can do one without the other. It’s good to figure out how to separate church and state in some way. Like if you wrote a song, and you’re producing it, look at the song and see how you can be better, and not be too precious about it, as a producer. You have to be experimental, try new things, get creative.
As you’ve started to write and produce for other artists beyond Billie, have you had to adjust your creative process at all to their working methods?
You have to be more polite, I guess. Billie and I love each other so much as siblings, but we can also be impolite - when the other one goes “I don’t like that.” That’s part of the deal. If she doesn’t like something that I’m trying on a song, I need her to tell me, and vice-versa.
When I work with other people, I have to have more manners, and be like “Yeah, that idea’s cool, but the music…maybe needs to be a little better.” It kinda wastes time. Ultimately, my goal always is to get to a place where I’m close enough with another artist where we can be totally honest with each other. And that happens the more you work with somebody.
Have you gotten to that place with any of your newer collaborators?
Not with the newer newer ones - I’ve literally worked with Camila Cabello three total days. But for example with her…she as an artist is comfortable telling people what she wants, what she needs. She already is there. Her willingness to be like “I don’t like the way this is sounding.” It’s so great. You’re like “Awesome! Let’s make it better.” She’s a pro.
Billie has such a distinctive voice. How do you decide when to electronically treat it, when to stack it, when to just let it be?
It depends on the lyric, almost always. Sometimes there are these lines I want to convey in a different way than just her singing it straight ahead. And then sometimes there are lines that the perfect way to say it is to have her sing it straight ahead. The example I could give is that there’s crazy treatments on her voice on the song “ilomilo.” That’s the one that has all this tremolo on it on the line “Hurry, I’m worried.” That was a line I wanted to feel kind of unsettling, kind of urgent. I felt like that was the best way to articulate that. It’s just supporting the lyric. I’m like “Okay, that lyric sounds a little thin here...how can I make it even more emphasized?”
Are there any songs on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? that went through a lot of changes before you hit on the final version?
I think the one that went through the most changes was “wish you were gay.” The hardest songs to produce are the ones that exist as just the song with a guitar and your voice for the longest. Because you can interpret them a million different ways. The easiest songs to produce are the ones that you start producing as you start writing. “wish you were gay” was written a year and a half before we started to really record it. We did many different versions of that song to try to get it right…We made a bunch of versions where we were like, “These are okay.” And then when it actually came out, we were like “Okay, we love this.”
Was that decision, “Is this okay, or do we love this,” a decision that you and Billie were making yourselves? Or did you play it for other people in your circle?
We always have to make that decision ourselves. Other people’s opinions are so secondary to your own, if you have a vision. So we always make sure that we love something before we play it for anyone else. Sometimes if you don’t love something, you play it for other people and they go “Actually, I love this!” Then you put out a song that you don’t like.
There’s a song right now that we’re probably gonna put out pretty soon, that is pretty close to done - pretty close to finished recording, and production, and no one has heard it, because we’re just not there yet. We need to make sure that we love it before anyone else gets it.
Back before you released “Ocean Eyes,” there were no expectations at all from the industry or from your fans. How did the success of Billie’s early singles impact the way you approached creating When We All Fall Asleep?
I think having people pay attention to you is a really exciting feeling, and it just makes you work harder. Not that we were this way with “Ocean Eyes,” but if you make music for a long time and nobody expresses interest, you might get a little careless. You might be like “Well, whatever, nobody cares.” I think the benefit of having so much attention on our music was that we were like “No no, people really care about what we’re making.” So we have even more of a desire to make something that we’re really proud of, that we really spent a lot of time on. We knew people would hear it.
Your music with Billie and your solo work have a pretty remarkable range of styles and sounds, way beyond traditional pop music. What kinds of music - or even specific producers - have inspired you the most?
The people that are the most versatile. People that you don’t always know what song they did, you just know that you like it. Like I think Ricky Reed is a super versatile producer - I don’t always know what he’s done, I just know that I’m a fan of it. I grew up loving Max Martin productions, loving John Feldmann band productions, loving anyone that was as versatile as possible. Then there are these albums that people really shine through on. Like DJ Mustard was really important to Anti, by Rihanna. And Skrillex was really important to Purpose, by Justin Bieber. I always think those are exciting, when the producer makes their mark on a great record.
Do you ever go through phases where you’re drawn to a specific piece of gear, or a sound, or a way of working?
Yeah, all the time. Every project, if I know that I integrated something new that I haven’t integrated on other things, even if it’s minor, that makes me feel like I’m evolving in some way. There’s this amazing plugin called RC Color, and it’s all over Blood Harmony. I never used that plugin before this EP, and even though it’s one little plugin, it’s nice to have something that you’re like “Yeah, this is new in my toolbag. I haven’t used this before.” And I’m always trying to look for new things, new sounds. Anything that excites you creatively - that’s the whole point.
It’s been such a whirlwind last couple years - what do you do to stay centered?
I guess the same things. I feel like my life in its occupational nature has changed so much that when I have leisure time, I try to change as little as possible. I go to all the same coffee shops, all the same places for dinner, hang out with my family, hang out with my close friends, you know? That’s about it. I feel like success can probably change your life in a day to day way that I try not to buy into.
What’s the most challenging thing you face as a music creator?
Just lack of time, you know? There’s not enough time in any day for me to get as much done as I want to get done. There are so many songs I want to write, so many songs I want to produce, and so many artists I want to work with…It always feels like I’m racing to get everything done, but there’s only so much time in each day. That’s kind of it. How to maximize time, produce songs on airplanes, work on tour, and how to make the most of each day.
Have your long term goals as a solo artist, producer or touring musician changed at all over time?
They have only changed because I’ve been able to reach so many of them already. I think now it’s more about longevity.
FINNEAS’s debut EP Blood Harmony is out now.
His sold-out first headlining tour kicks off October 15. Head to his website to see all the shows that you can’t get tickets to anymore.