Genres are restrictive. Sure, they allow listeners to identify music characteristics easily, but that pegs melody creators to a specific style. For Finneas O’Connell, it’s the least of his concerns and this stance has prevailed so far.
As the mastermind producer and co-writer for younger sister Billie Eilish’s double-platinum debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, O’Connell marched to his own beat and presented a sound that wasn’t anything like the others on the current official music charts or radio. Weird-pop, Gothic- pop, Avant-pop, Art-pop. These definitive terms by critics can’t pin down O’Connell. Or he simply rejects the notion.
Bolstered by the success of Eilish’s debut and strong positive reception of his earlier-released singles, O’Connell stepped out from the production shroud and into the solo limelight with his first seven-track EP Blood Harmony.
But neither this nor being Eilish’s producer was his first exposure to public attention.
A true blue SoCal who was raised in East Los Angeles, California by actor-musician parents, O’Connell entered show business as a child actor. From the Cameron Diaz-headlined Bad Teacher and his mom’s (actress Maggie Baird) Life Inside Out to comedy favourite Modern Family and musical TV series Glee, the 1997-born elder sibling knew not to let his personality get in the way of his acting role.
In a Skype interview with Esquire Singapore, O’Connell explained that his actor guise exists “only when playing the assigned characters and Finneas the musician is purely him as it’s the songs he’d written about his life and experience encountered”.
Talent definitely runs in the family. O’Connell’s fondness for music was instilled in him from a young age. “I always thought it was cool and thought the people who made music were cool. And I wanted to be a person who made music.” And the legendary Beatles were one of his top musical influences.
Without any formal training, O’Connell picked up songwriting through Baird at age 12 and explored producing songs with a Logic Pro. While acting, he discovered that this stint was an asset to creating music too. “It helps to figure out how to make other people feel believable. Thus, it’ll remind yourself what is believable and true for you. Things like that are really important when you’re trying to write a song that people can empathise with and put themselves in your shoes. So, you have to make sure that it’s something that feels truthful, which is similar to what acting is. It’s akin to trying to be truthful, even though obviously, you’re not really the character that you’re playing.”
On Glee, O’Connell knew what it took to be professional that resulted him to be mature beyond his age. “Being professional as an actor is important despite its unpleasant long hours. It feels unmeasurable how long our days would be because we would start with a dance rehearsal in the morning. And then we would go to the set to film the sequence. After that, we’d go to the recording studio and record the song for the next episode.”
Between filming for shows, O’Connell fronted The Slightlys, an alternative- rock band he formed with three other like-minded high schoolers who met at a ‘battle of bands’ contest at Club Nokia in 2012. Losers in the past, but the winning crown was theirs to claim in 2014.
‘Ocean Eyes’, one of Eilish’s earlier viral tunes, was actually meant to be for The Slightlys. O’Connell penned the track but thought Eilish’s vocals were a right fit too. Initially submitted onto SoundCloud at the request of Eilish’s dance teacher, who asked the duo to compose a song for original choreography, the mid-tempo piece reached out to other listeners and eventually caught the interest of Interscope, which signed Eilish. The rest is history.
O’Connell remains independent while producing all of Eilish’s musical releases and was recently presented the Songwriter of the Year award with Eilish by Apple. He was also nominated for the Grammy Award for Producer
of the Year for his work on Eilish’s debut album. O’Connell think all this recognition “probably makes him feel more pressure”.
“But I feel pressured anyway, because I really care about the music that we make. And I really want to make music people love and [that] people feel connected to and so I think the pressure is ever-present. I think in this case, I want to make sure that I never disappoint anybody, or even myself.”
Now with Blood Harmony out, comparisons are inevitable even though both are entirely produced by O’Connell. Tabloids are just hungry for a news angle. “I know people compare us and I understand that because we’re related and I produced both records. But I think what’s funny is if I weren’t related to her, the music that I make and the music that she creates wouldn’t be compared because they’re so different from each other. The last thing I would want to do is to make music that sounds just like others. I mean, I want to make it sound like my vision. She wanted to do the same thing.”
Blood Harmony veers away from darkness and amps up on organic instrumental chords. But there are still hints of Finneas’s signature distorted hooks and nuances, which appeared in Eilish’s songs too. “I write all of my own songs, usually sitting down at a piano or with a guitar. So, there’s usually an element of that on my songs, but it’s always about what serves the song best. There’s a song that I produced for [Eilish] titled ‘I Love You’. And that song is incredibly acoustic and doesn’t sport any crazy electronic stuff."
“I think sometimes when [Eilish] and I sit down to make music, we’re experimenting and trying out different things. Oftentimes, that’ll lead to different sonics created, but it really varies. For example, when my record is spinning, it’s not always going to be instrumental-based and with [Eilish’s] stuff, it’s not always going to be electronic.”
O’Connell’s audio streams on Spotify can be easily tallied by the million digits. His debut single ‘New Girl’ crossed the 10 million mark, while the love-driven radio-friendly ‘Let’s Fall in Love for the Night’ has 48 million plays so far. On the brooding and deeply personal single ‘I Lost a Friend’, O’Connell belts out the pains of ending a long-term friendship, demonstrated on its glorious chorus.
The EP’s title was happened upon while he was touring in London with Eilish. “I heard the term [blood harmony] for the first time when we were in London during Winter 2018. And I interpret that term to describe what it
sounds like when siblings sing together. Because [Eilish] and I sing together and I’m sort of, in essence to her career, her blood harmony and I’m related to her. That’s the literal meaning for me.
“But I think it’s also a term that’s ambiguous and I don’t think it has only one meaning. I feel if people interpret that as just the meaning of the word, ‘blood’, which is, if you bleed for something, you work hard for it, you might sacrifice yourself for it. And then something being harmonious. Meaning that it works well with other things.”
Besides Eilish, O’Connell has gone on to produce for Ashe, Bruno Major, Camila Cabello and Selena Gomez. Undertaking Gomez’s ‘Lose You to Love Me’ transpired as she happens to be on the same label. “I felt really lucky to do that because I love [Selena’s] music and I’ve grown up watching her movies and TV shows.”
Not forgetting his acting roots, O’Connell uses film to depict the current music climate and expressed that with single-only releases. “They are comparable to a blockbuster movie— poised to make a profit.
“[Music singles] are like movies made by film studios to carry the independent films and I think I’m more interested in making music like my favourite independent films. There’s Avengers music. Even though I think Avengers is great, my favourite movie isn’t Avengers. It’s The Social Network. I’d rather make music that feels kind of like that.
“I pretty much make music very selfishly. I only make music to satisfy myself and I hope other people will like it. If I just make music that satisfies myself, then I’m making myself feel happy because I don’t have to worry about how well it does commercially or what the reviews say. I know that I made music that has always made me feel really good. So, I think you should always make music for yourself. That’s kind of the way that it should go really.”
Finneas is staying full-time with music now, preparing Eilish’s sophomore album and his own LP while experimenting and learning more production ideas and sounds. But O’Connell the actor will not turn down acting gigs if an ideal role is offered.
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