After years helping others find their muse — and picking up eight Grammys along the way — Billie Eilish’s big brother Finneas is ready for his close up.
At 24, he’s already won 8 Grammys for writing, producing and engineering with his kid sister Billie Eilish. He produced a number one song for Selena Gomez. He appeared on Glee. He performs his own music too. His anticipated debut album Optimist is about to drop. Meet Finneas.
Who do Justin Bieber, Halsey, girl in red, Kid Cudi and Billie Eilish all have in common? Finneas Baird O’Connell. The 24-year-old musical polymath (who goes by Finneas professionally) has produced smash hits for all of them — most notably as a close collaborator with little sister Eilish, having produced and co-written her stratospherically popular oeuvre from “Ocean Eyes” to this summer’s “Happier Than Ever“.
If the eight Grammys he earned for his behind-the-scenes work creating the new sound of pop music weren’t enough, turns out he’s got a killer voice too. The former Glee actor (he was a regular on the last season) is ready to drop his solo album and take his radically honest ballads on tour. His bold yet masterfully simple sonic style is indicative of a larger personality trait: Finneas is at peace with his ego, making him comfortable both baring his most vulnerable emotions through song and yielding the larger spotlight to his globally famous younger sister.
“I didn’t think lightning would strike twice. I was pretty surprised that I could go on my own tours and have my own career as an artist. I thought I was lucky to get to do it once,” he says of performing with Eilish on her tour. “I feel like I’m getting to do it twice.”
As we sit in our side-by-side Zoom windows chatting, he’s busy signing covers of his upcoming record, entitled Optimist. He’s only got 7,500 to go.
“I have to sign a million of these,” he announces, lightheartedly laughing off the daunting task. I have a feeling this is a microcosm of his diligent work ethic — it would explain how he managed to work on Eilish’s new album while also producing his own.
Since 2016, he’s put out a couple dozen solo singles and an EP that racked up over a billion streams with his hook-happy anthems and lovesick lullabies alike. Though he’s the architect of his sister’s eerie and textural pop-noir sonics that catapulted her to fame, Finneas’s personal sound errs on the more classic side of pop music production.
Love is his specialty. He croons in arrestingly rich tones over cinematic soundscapes of gentle piano chords, lush strings and bass beating like a heart. It’s enough to make you clutch your chest, feeling the heartbreak he just sprung on you — had he not been seven years old when The Notebook came out, there’s no doubt one of his songs would have made the soundtrack.
“When other people are like, ‘Oh, you’re so romantic.’ I’m like, ‘Word … you don’t love your girlfriend that much? That sucks,’” he quips, as if everybody is capable of expressing themselves with such devastating beauty. “I’ve always articulated how I’m feeling. I’m not the kind of person that doesn’t talk about it.”
That articulation doesn’t just apply to love — it applies to darker feelings too. In the Apple TV+ documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (R.J. Cutler), their mom, Maggie Baird, says to the camera: “People are like, ‘Oh, Billie Eilish’s music is depressing.’ It’s like, no, kids are depressed … There’s a lot to be depressed about right now.” She continues, “You’re in a political climate that is terrifying, racist, hateful. It is a horrible time to be a teenager.”
Though he could hide away in the plush hills of L.A. and ignore the problems of the world, Finneas stays plugged in to the headlines.
“I spend too much time on Twitter. Pretty much all I follow are journalists, it’s all news — but I’m hyper informed. I look up from my phone and tell my girlfriend about world events; she definitely doesn’t have to do any of it because I’m telling her all of it. I can’t imagine she doesn’t think I’m pessimistic just because I’m aware of what’s going on in the world. And the truth is, I’m not. I’m paying attention to it. I’m not turning a blind eye. And I’m seeing it for what it is.”
His vision is in full colour.
“Some artists act holier than thou with their synesthesia,” he says, addressing this mystical sixth sense that allows those with the condition to see colour, shapes, textures and even feel temperatures when they hear music. Artists from sister Billie Eilish to Lorde to Stevie Wonder claim to have it. Illustrating its effects with songs from the new album, Finneas explains, “A Concert Six Months From Now is white. ‘The 90s’ is a bright, orangey, tomato red. Love Is Pain is a very dark, muted red. The only interesting thing about it is I didn’t decide any of this,” he says self-deprecatingly.
So, what compelled the headline-binging synesthete to call the new record Optimist?
“I am a hopeful person,” he asserts with conviction. “I hope the future is bright and sustainable. I don’t think you have to be like, ‘Oh, everything’s fine.’ To me, that’s being a denialist. Yeah, there’s a lot of bad stuff happening at a frequent rate, but I’m optimistic that we’re smart, we’re compassionate, we can figure it out.”
Enter his newest single off the album, The 90s. It’s an electro-pop ballad that hums with fuzzy, tasteful autotune à la James Blake and a romanticization of the world pre-widespread internet.
“I wouldn’t have a career — or at least the same career — without the internet. It does make me feel hyper connected to people. I’ve made friends and met my girlfriend because of the internet.”
“You could sign me up for a world without the internet / hate how easy they can find me just by looking at my mom’s address,” the lyrics wistfully muse. It seems like a paradox — the internet plays an integral part in the very pop-star fame machine of which he is apart. Billie Eilish has 90 million Instagram followers; Finneas himself has a few million; and his girlfriend, Claudia Sulewski, is a popular lifestyle vlogger with 2.5 million YouTube subscribers. It’s a way of interacting with fans, teasing new music, staying top of feed and, therefore, top of mind. Though on the surface it might seem hypocritical to claim internet aversion when your career relies on it, it goes deeper than that: it’s a golden handcuff.
Finneas describes his relationship with the internet as “challenging.” He continues, “I wouldn’t have a career — or at least the same career — without the internet. It does make me feel hyper connected to people. I’ve made friends and met my girlfriend because of the internet. I have a lot of respect and appreciation for it.”
He contrasts, “During COVID, the internet was the main course. It can be a much healthier machine if you’re having an experiential day, getting to go places and socialize with your friends. Then, the internet is this à la carte element of your life.”
Friend and fellow trailblazing producer James Blake recently cast Finneas as the star of the video for Say What You Will, a single off of Blake’s new album. The video is a parodic story in which Finneas’s booming career is the object of Blake’s shoegaze jealousy and longing. It starts with Blake holding up his Grammy proudly, then feeling deflated as he sees Finneas swagger down the red carpet with two arms full of them. The video ends with a Teddy Roosevelt quote that’s gained relevance in the internet era: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
There’s a parallel to Finneas and Eilish here. Though he’s begun to earn acclaim for his solo career, it’s nearly impossible to eclipse Eilish’s star power. Does he ever get a little jealous?
“I felt like the success was so shared, you know?” he says, still signing away at those album covers. “Because we were sitting there writing the songs together, and I was producing them; it wasn’t like my sister went off completely alone and had this career that I wanted. It’s more fun to share moments like that than to go through them alone.”
“If I didn’t tour with Billie, I wouldn’t see her most of the year. I love hanging out with her — our excuse is working together.”
Finneas then proceeds to flip the script and ask me a question: “Do you have a sibling?” I’m surprised by his interest, and by the timing — I had just returned the night before from a trip to visit my own big brother across the country. It was the first time in two years I’d seen him, and he’d just become a dad.
“Congratulations, that’s awesome,” he says earnestly before hitting me with some truth. “Your siblings are people you love more than anything. And your life isn’t really set up to see them all the time.” Spoken like the eloquent songwriter he is.
Though their massive creative output would make it seem otherwise, Finneas and Eilish don’t get to spend quality time together all that often either.
“If I didn’t tour with Billie, I wouldn’t see her most of the year. I love hanging out with her — our excuse is working together.” When they do get to chill, it’s usually relaxing after a studio session with some Mexican or Thai food and bingeing a show — The Office, Fleabag, Killing Eve, The Undoing and Big Little Lies are all favourites. “So much good TV, it’s insane,” he enthuses.
Despite the shared joy the siblings have for their career successes, Finneas does acknowledge the discrepancy between the crowds they draw.
“I’m not playing arenas. Being an arena headlining artist, which Billie is — that’s an athlete. It’s really intense to captivate 15,000 people at once. It’s been so fun to play those shows with her. I’m captivating, like, 1,000 at a time — if I ever am lucky enough to play arenas; I’m certainly not thinking about that right now. I’m just thinking about what I have coming up and enjoying that like it’s the biggest it’ll ever get.”
As Finneas flies solo, it’s yet to be seen if he’ll land the arena show one day. Either way, he’s not too fussed: the level-headed mega talent is content to be right where he is. Let’s just hope that’s not still sitting at that desk signing album covers.