Shake the Vanity: How FINNEAS Took Pop by Storm from a Bedroom

By 
Bryan Parys
October 31, 2019

The wunderkind producer and songwriter discussed his sold-out solo tour, songwriting, and what it's like collaborating with his sister, Billie Eilish.

Finneas O'Connell giving a songwriting and production clinic
Finneas O'Connell talks on stage with Amanda Samii
A packed crowd in Cafe 939
Finneas O'Connell (aka FINNEAS) talked candidly with students about his meteoric rise to pop stardom during a recent visit to campus.
Alumna Amanda Samii '09 of Kobalt Music moderated the discussion with O'Connell, asking him about his journey to becoming a musician and producer.
The Red Room at Cafe 939 was standing room only for the event, with a line out the door, down the street, and wrapping around the block.
Image by Ben Pu
Image by Ben Pu
Image by Kelly Davidson

When Finneas O’Connell was in high school, he wrote a song called “Ocean Eyes” for his pop-rock band the Slightlys. O’Connell felt like the song didn’t quite work for his voice, later describing it as sounding like “a terrible cover of a Soundgarden song.” He asked his sister to try singing on it, and the two were happy enough with the result that they uploaded it to SoundCloud, primarily as a way to share the song with his sister’s dance teacher. The song got picked up by Hillydilly, a music discovery platform, and when the siblings woke up the next morning, the song had started to go viral. It wouldn’t be long before everyone in the pop world would know his sister’s name: Billie Eilish.

This was just one of many stories and career tips that O’Connell shared with students at a recent Q&A in a standing-room-only Red Room at Cafe 939. The event was organized by the Career Center in partnership with faculty member and Berklee Popular Music Institute founder Jeff Dorenfeld, and moderated by Amanda Samii '09, who majored in music business/management before launching her career at music publishing company Kobalt Music, where she serves as vice president of creative.

Over the course of two hours, O’Connell was a constant fount of the kind of wisdom you’d expect from an industry veteran, not a 22-year old, discussing topics ranging from songwriting—both for his solo work and in collaboration with Eilish—to life on the road, to finding the perfect piano sound. He even brought along the original stems to “Bad Guy,” his and Eilish’s first Billboard Hot 100 no. 1 song. The following quotes have been excerpted from that lively conversation.

On Writer’s Block and Writing on the Road

O’Connell recorded his debut solo EP, Blood Harmony, under the moniker FINNEAS, amidst an intense touring schedule supporting Eilish’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Many songwriters will share how difficult it is to write meaningfully while on tour, but O’Connell came up with a simple recording rig that he could bring anywhere:

“I’m definitely the happiest when I find time to [write songs], and one of those ways is to…be completely mobile. I had a studio built that lives in a road case that I can wheel around in all my green rooms, and that’s how I was able to do the Blood Harmony EP while I was on tour.”

“It’s always been really important to find a way to carve out time, no matter how busy I am, to write a song about whatever happened to me and what I’m going through.”

Despite his rolling setup, he’s not immune to writer’s block—he just doesn’t let it bog him down:

“There have been plenty of days where I’ve not thought of any particularly good ideas. The longer I’m alive, the more I try to put less pressure on those days. I’ve never been angry at myself and had that lead to a great song.”

Finneas demonstrating the the different tracks within the song "Bad Guy"

On Writing “Bad Guy”

For Billie Eilish’s first chart-topping single—which made her the first person born in this century to nab that number one spot—O’Connell explained that the initial spark of inspiration came from Eilish playing around with a beat in their family’s small L.A. home, back when she was just learning the production ropes.

“She made that [beat]…and had her speakers in her vanity set, like with her makeup and sh*t, and the whole room was like [makes whooshing sound]. When you don’t fully understand what you’re doing, you make the coolest stuff, because [the volume] was all in the red, but it sounded awesome.”

“That [initial beat] was back in 2017, and then it just sat around. It was one of those songs where it was like, ‘I don’t know how to write the rest of a song that could live up to that beat.’ A year later, I had this bass line…and it was clear that we were writing the rest of that song… [All the later production additions] were just a way to try to mimic the energy that playing it in this tiny bedroom way too loud had.”

On ‘That Bedroom Feel’

In many ways, it’s that “bedroom sound” that Finneas and Eilish are being credited with bringing to the mainstream. While that’s often understood as a DIY aesthetic, for O’Connell, it runs deeper than that—it’s about the sounds of your youth, and, unsurprisingly, about family. Here, he talks about his preference for the sound of a beat-up piano, versus a high-end baby grand:

“I grew up with my grandfather’s super old, super beat-up upright piano in my bedroom. I love that sound, and I think, if you’re a pianist, and you grew up with a piano in your house, I think that’s how you think a piano sounds. So that sound is how a piano sounds to me—cloudy and soft. When I hear an incredible Bosendorf or grand, it doesn’t sound right to me.”

After the initial blow-up success of “Ocean Eyes” in 2016, O’Connell and Eilish had the chance to work with megastar producers. And yet, the pair thought the songs weren’t landing in the territory they wanted to be in. For O'Connell, creation is ultimately about having the freedom create on your own terms. “For some reason, the chemistry that Billie and I have together when we make music is very ‘unsupervised.’ And that’s probably the best recommendation I can give for home recording, is being unwatched.”

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