Teenage sensation Billie Eilish has taken the music world by storm — with an album recorded in her brother's bedroom.
The excitement surrounding Billie Eilish's emergence as a global star has been palpable, because she sounds unlike anyone else. The music on her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? goes against the grain of almost all current trends, apart from its big bass. The productions are sparse to a fault, the minimalist arrangements often decorated with Foley effects illustrating the dark lyrics. The biggest single from the album, 'Bad Guy' (analysed in SOS July 2019's Inside Track feature by mixer Rob Kinelski), features just one synth, a few bass tracks, and drums and vocals.
In a big departure from mainstream pop production, the album is almost devoid of high-frequency content and reverb, both in the arrangements and vocals. The latter alternate between the fairly natural and the heavily distorted, while the Auto‑Tune effect ubiquitous in modern urban music is audible here only on a couple of tracks. Equally striking are Billie Eilish's idiosyncratic, almost whispered vocal style and the distinctive visual imagery that surrounds her. To come up with something as unique, innovative and fully formed as When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? at the age of 17 seems miraculous. It turns out that hers is, in fact, only half the story.
The other half concerns Eilish's older brother Finneas O'Connell, who has produced all of Eilish's releases to date, co-written all songs with her, and in some cases written her songs alone. An example of the latter is the duo's breakthrough song 'Ocean Eyes', which they first uploaded to SoundCloud in 2015, when Eilish was still only 13 and Finneas 18. Apparently, their aim was purely to share the song with a dance teacher, so they had no great expectations. But the song went viral on social media, leading to major-label interest, and they signed to Darkroom/Interscope in 2016. Re-released in November of that year, 'Ocean Eyes' has since clocked up 115 million YouTube views.
Finneas and Eilish don't only work closely together in the studio, but also on stage — together with a drummer, the two are on a world tour for most of 2019. Given how inseparable the brother and sister are, one wonders why they opted to present Eilish as a solo artist, rather than operate as a duo or a band.
"It was a deliberate decision to present everything under Billie's name," Finneas says, "because I don't think duos do very well. I can't think of a duo that has become as successful as Billie in today's climate. There are many duos that I love, but the press doesn't really know what to do with a duo, and also, Billie is such an iconic-looking person, it felt right that it's her project. Of course, while we're not a duo, we also will never break up! If we were a duo, she would eventually put out a solo record, and then I'd put out a solo record. Instead we are both solo artists who make music together.
"She's very involved in all the music that I make, and I am obviously entirely involved in the music she makes. But her record is totally her creative vision. We make the music together, but she comes up with the album art and visual ideas, also for the live shows. For me that's one of many reasons why it is her music. When I produce her music, I make sure that she is her own artist, and does not sound like anyone else. When I work with another artist and produce them, it has to sound right for them, and I will never let them sound like Billie. I am not going to make my own music sound like hers either. I want her music to be totally unique, and I want to make sure my stuff is unique too. The only music that really is of value is music that does not sound like other music."
The siblings grew up in Los Angeles, in a rather bohemian household. Home-schooled by their actor-musician parents, they were allowed to explore anything they took a fancy to, especially if it had an artistic dimension. One of the results was that Finneas enjoyed an acting career in his early to mid teens — he appeared in the TV series Glee, amongst other things — but decided that music was his true calling.
"My parents are super-artistic," Finneas recalls. "We grew up pretty much broke, and our parents never emphasised money. So we did not think that you had to have money to be happy. That was crazy important to us. Our parents are both like hobbyist musicians: they never made a living from it. My dad plays piano, and my mum plays piano too, as well as a little guitar. I had piano lessons for a couple of years, but didn't find that a lot of fun, and wanted to quit, until I asked my dad one day if he could teach me how to play a pop song on the piano. He did, and it turned out to be really easy, and I thought: 'This is fun, even though I'm not really good at it yet — but I could get really good at it.' It showed me that it can be fun to do something you're bad at, and learn how to become good at it.
"I also became pretty good at playing the guitar. At high school I was listening to bands like Green Day and the Strokes, and wanted to make music like that, because it was really exciting to me. While at high school I was in a guitar-orientated band called the Slightlys, but as I got older, I shifted into making music that really felt like my own music, that really reflects me. One important influence was a comment made by a mastering engineer who is a friend of my dad's, Dan Hersch at D2 mastering, who told me that if you like the way it sounds, then it is good. He said there was no right way to record drums, or vocals; if it sounds the way you want it sound, then that's the right way. I remember thinking: 'Oh my God, that is so crazy and true and cool.' I felt empowered by that advice."
To be able to make original music, Finneas nevertheless had to do his homework and learn the nuts and bolts of writing and production. "The main thing I love is music," elaborates Finneas. "I love listening to music more than anything and I never get tired of listening to music. I also have always been obsessed with how music was made, and where people record it, and have always wanted to do that myself. I started doing that when I was 13, when I got Logic. I put a lot of focus and energy into learning how to record, because it was so fascinating to me. I was really bad at it for a long, long time, but I loved trying and learning. Again, when you are bad at something, the most important thing is to have the energy to become good at it."
In a small studio in his bedroom at his parents' house, Finneas worked on his own songs as well as his sister's, with both searching for their own musical voices. He's generous enough to point to some of the influences that went into their breakthrough song 'Ocean Eyes'. "I don't want to take too much credit for the direction of that song, because it sounds a lot like other artists that Billie and I were listening to at the time, in particular a Norwegian artist called Aurora, as well as Marian Hill and Låpsey. Those artists were a heavy inspiration on 'Ocean Eyes'. As we made more music and got further into our careers, our inspirations became a little less clear, and our music became more unique."
While Finneas' and Eilish's music became more and more minimalist over time, Finneas' studio setup was minimalist from day one. "I moved to my own house early this year, and now work from a room there, but my setup is still pretty much the same as when we did 'Ocean Eyes'. I still use Logic, and at the time I had the Roland Quad Capture interface, a set of Yamaha HS5 monitors with a Yamaha HS8S subwoofer, and an Audio-Technica AT2020 microphone, which cost $80. Today I have the [UA] Apollo 8 interface and a Neumann TLM103, and Akai MPK249 and Nord Stage 3 controllers. I record everyone with the one microphone. Billie's vocals for 'Ocean Eyes' were recorded with the 2020, which sounds great. It's not quite as good as the Neumann, but I have never found a microphone that I like more than the 2020 that's less expensive than the Neumann. The 2020 is a really good starter microphone."
Finneas' original studio setup, which also features a tiny Akai MPK Mini controller keyboard, is probably as basic and cheap as it gets, and demonstrates that there's no need to fork out on expensive equipment to make it big. "I always encourage people not to think that they have to spend a lot of money on gear. The less stuff you have, the easier it is to make music. I also think it's really cool that people realise that Billie and I did the music, just the two of us, and that I am recording and producing all her stuff, because it may make them feel powerful enough to create their own music. I mean, to have that many writers and producers work on each song as is common these days, isn't it crazy? I just don't understand that, it just doesn't make any sense."
Unsurprisingly, given the sentiments he expresses, Finneas is as minimalist in the box as he is out of it. "All of the sounds on 'Ocean Eyes' were Logic stock sounds, which I tweaked a bit with EQ and layered. Now I have quite a few plug-ins, but honestly, I still feel like being very minimalist in my approach. The three plug-ins for sounds that I used the most on Billie's album are Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Keyscape and Trillion. They are very good plug-ins. Keyscape is amazing. I could not talk enough about how much I like that.
"For the rest, most of what I did on the album was play a lot of live acoustic guitar, live electric guitar and live bass. Quantising has had a really big impact on music, so I quantise pretty much all my drums and my bass synths, to make sure they are all locked in with each other. But I don't generally quantise synth or piano patches, and obviously when you are playing real instruments, it's much harder to quantise them and make them sound authentic. I'm a big fan of doing a lot of takes! I just play a part until it is right, even if it is a MIDI part. I think of that as my rehearsal. After playing a tricky part for hours, I am a better player!"
Finneas explains that songs for the album came about in many different ways, often starting with his sister yelling from the other room, "What's that? That sounds great!"
"That happened with the song 'Ilomilo', and also in several other cases. She hears a beat and feels it's right for her, and we then figure out lyrics and melodies together. Billie also is very involved in the sonics and the production. If it doesn't sound right to her, she lets me know. But songs come into being depending on how we are feeling on a given day, what we are inspired by. Sometimes I make a beat and she starts singing over it, sometimes I come in with an idea for a song with lyrics, sometimes she comes in and says, 'I want to write a song like this.' All those ways are fun."
Contrary to expectations, Eilish and Finneas write lyrics together, and hence are both responsible for the often dark subject matter. "There is no song we have written where we haven't both been involved in the lyrics. People assume she writes the vocal melody and lyrics, but that's not how it works in our case. I think the dark, minimalist thing is something we are both interested in. We are trying to make our favourite music, and we both have dark sensibilities when it comes to writing songs and lyrics. We have dark ideas and dark themes. Also, this is a dark time in the world, and there are lots of political issues in the United States especially, plus there are many planetary issues. We want to make sure we reflect the times we live in in our art. If we just made really positive and happy music, it would be very tone-deaf."