Innovative production can be made or broken by the mix — and in Rob Kinelski, Billie Eilish's team found the perfect foil.
Billie Eilish's breakthrough naturally drew attention to those responsible for the ground-breaking musical direction and sound of her recordings. Eilish breaks the mould on many fronts and this is one: many contemporary albums feature dozens of writers, producers and mixers, but only four people are credited on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? They are the singer herself, her brother Finneas O'Connell, mixer Rob Kinelski and mastering engineer John Greenham. In contrast to the two new kids on the block, Kinelski and Greenham are both dyed-in-the-wool professionals, but neither is part of the select studio elite responsible for the vast majority of today's hit records.
Being one quarter of the small team that has taken Billie Eilish into the stratosphere therefore had a huge impact on Kinelski, who is suddenly enjoying a surge of interest. He still has an air of slight disbelief when discussing what happened. "After I finished mixing the album," he comments, "I listened to it in its entirety, and I thought: 'Wow, this is a really dark album!' There is no high end in it, apart from a couple of songs with high synthesizers. I was imagining being slammed on gearslutz.com. I loved it, but I wondered how it would translate to the world."
The answer, as it turned out, was 'amazingly well': and Eilish's astonishing success has not only been life-changing for the 17-year old singer and her brother, but also for Kinelski. "The phone hasn't stopped ringing," he acknowledges. "It's been crazy!"
Kinelski was first introduced to the music of Eilish and O'Connell early in 2017, not long after their breakthrough song 'Ocean Eyes' was re-released on Darkroom/Interscope. "Finneas had mixed 'Ocean Eyes', and once they were with Interscope they were looking to hire a mixer," Kinelski recalls. "I'd just mixed the Lost On You album by LP, which John [Greenham] had mastered, and he recommended me, saying I'm good with low end. I think they wanted to find someone with an urban background, because Billie is a big hip-hop fan. But they also wanted a mixer who could do more than just urban. The first song I mixed for them was the follow-up to 'Ocean Eyes', a song called 'Bellyache', as a trial. They loved it, and called me again for the next song, and just kept calling. Then I did their EP, Don't Smile At Me [August 2017], and eventually the entire album.
"I haven't really spent much time with Billie or Finn. I met them before we did the EP together, because they wanted to get to know me, and we had some discussions about me and about what they wanted. But really, we quickly got to the point where they just send sessions to me, and they know what they're going to get from me. I know they want the low end to be massive, but also not overwhelm other things, they want the vocal to be super-present, and I found out that any unusual things in their sessions tend to be deliberate. For example, the song '8' came in with a kick that was off-centre, and I made it mono and centred it. Initially they liked this, but then Finn asked me to put it back where it was. On the song 'Xanny' there was a debate that possibly the chorus vocal was too distorted, which was intentional by Finn, but I managed to find a happy middle ground, blending a clean vocal in with the distorted vocal. They know what they want.
"Our way of working is always the same: they send me a new song, and I take a day to mix it, depending on my schedule, and I'll send over my first mix pass, and then they come back with comments, usually very quickly. Sometimes they send me a new stem to swap for an old one. Finn sends me great stems, with the vocal production already dialled in, including all distortion and other effects. I usually do not know what treatments they have added to the stems, but everything is really thought-out. Billie also is heavily involved, though generally I communicate with Finn. It was funny: for the album they sent me voice notes for the revisions. They'd be talking into their phones and send me the messages they recorded. Sometimes Billie would sing the vocal parts she was referring to. It was very cool."
The first thing Kinelski does when he receives a...