“I got really lucky and had a sister who put a lot of faith and trust in me, and was very collaborative, and was willing to let me produce her entire album,” Finneas tells the Billboard Pop Shop Podcast (listen to the full interview, below).
Below are some highlights from our fun chat with Finneas – including what songwriters inspire him (he's "obsessed" with Sara Bareilles), the “hard-won process” of getting to co-write the title song of the next James Bond film "No Time To Die" with Eilish (it’s “a dream come true to us,” he says), how he’s at work on his first full-length solo album and more.
You're on our very special Grammy preview episode of the Pop Shop, so first off, congratulations on your five nominations this year, it must be amazing to have all those nominations.
It's very surreal. I mean, I feel really lucky and very proud of the work we did on this album, but it's very surreal. I don't think if you set out to make an album to get a bunch of Grammy nominations… you just have to set out to make an album you'll really love. You put all of yourself into it, you know? It's one of those situations.
Among those five nominations are nods for producer of the year (non-classical), and, you also earned a nomination as the engineer of Billie's album as well, for best engineered album (non-classical) (a nomination he shares with the set's other engineer, Rob Kinelski, and its mastering engineer, John Greenham). That's a fairly rare thing to do, so is it especially gratifying to be nominated for both of those awards?
Yeah, I mean, I think those make me feel really really good about myself. (Laughs.) You know, I grew up very self-taught. And I grew up learning everything I possibly could about all of the producers … and I'm sharing a nomination with several of them this year. … Production has always been a fantasy of mine, and I got really lucky and had a sister who put a lot of faith and trust in me, and was very collaborative, and was willing to let me produce her entire album. So, I just feel really lucky. But it's crazy to be nominated for those two categories. I think those were like career goals of mine in my like '30s and '40s, you know what I mean? I'll do whatever, I'll try to write songs for years and maybe one day I'll get to be a producer and maybe one day I'll get to produce a whole album. So I just got crazy lucky in getting to do Billie's whole album at 21.
I hear that you are in rehearsals, I think, for the Grammys right now.
We're figuring out every moment of the piece. 'Cause we just want to get this one really right. So we're being meticulous.
No pressure, because the Grammys continually promise once-in-a-lifetime performances.
I know! (Laughs.) There's a lot of like, high stakes involved that you get told about. I feel like the most common question I get asked these days, is like, 'do you feel terrified by the pressure?' And I'm always like, 'well, it sounds like I should!' (Laughs.) Like people expect me to.
What songwriters have inspired you, maybe in the past, or maybe right now?
I have always loved Ben Folds, he's like an idol of mine, a hero of mine. The last couple years I've been really obsessed with Sara Bareilles. I just think she is, bar for bar, unbelievable at her songwriting. She has a song, I don't know if you've heard it, it was on NPR. It was during (President) Trump's … campaign in 2016, and she wrote a song from the perspective of (President) Obama about Trump (“Seriously”), and then they had Leslie Odom Jr. sing it, from Hamilton. It was like the coolest thing I've ever heard. It's so good. I really was mind-blown by it. That's a real black-belt karate type song to write. Imagine writing a song from the perspective of Obama. That's so hard core. So I think Sara Bareilles is kind of like, (a) life-long inspirer. I've always loved Bill Withers. I've always loved John Mayer. And then, you know, I grew up on a lot of bands. So, The Strokes, Julian Casablancas' lyrics have always inspired me. I've always been inspired by My Chemical Romance's lyrics and melodies. There's just a lot of different stuff that I think comes together to make the canvas, tapestry of what has influenced me personally.
Staying with the Grammy theme, and trust me, this pivot is actually staying with Grammys … You recently announced that you’ll be joining an elite club of artists that have written a James Bond theme – which, a number of which have actually won Grammys… I know you probably can’t say jack about this, but…
…when did you guys first get approached about doing a James Bond theme (for No Time To Die)? How long have you been holding on to this secret?
Well, at the risk of saying something that hopefully I'm allowed to say -- hopefully this won't be a long bleep-out thing. We were not really 'approached' about it. We fought it out for a year. We've always wanted to write a James Bond theme song. And you know, it's a legendary franchise, so we had to convince a lot of people that we were the right choice. And then we had to write a song that everybody liked. So it was a hard-won process. But everybody that we worked with on it, Barbara Broccoli, the producer of the Bond franchise (alongside Michael G. Wilson), we got to work with Hans Zimmer and Steven Lipson in the studio — it was a real joy. But uh, yeah, it's so funny, 'cause some of the headlines have been like, 'Billie Eilish and Finneas are writing the James Bond theme.' And I'm so glad we're no longer writing it -- I'm so glad we wrote it a couple months ago, because, oh my god, if it was like, announced that we were doing it and we still had to write it, I would have such writer's anxiety, you know?
Absolutely. And I think people listening need to know that the James Bond theme is like a really really tough gig to get, and a lot of people … you know a number of artists will all submit a song and hope that it works, and sometimes they don't. Like Radiohead a few years ago, put out their version of a song that wasn't used for a James Bond film (“Spectre,” submitted for consideration for the film of the same name). So, you know, what Finneas and Billie did is probably what many other artists have done, where they're like campaigning for it in a way. Just to give some context there for people listening.
It's, in my experience, in my limited experience, as a songwriter and producer, it's the hardest playing field I've never been on. … There were so many points where I was like, 'I don't know, maybe we don't have this!' (Laughs.) Like, it's just like such a big deal. And you know … the whole pairing is very authentic to my and Billie's relationship with those movies. We've always loved James Bond movies. We've always loved that character IP (intellectual property). The songs in the James Bond franchise have always been significant in their own right, even down to 'Live and Let Die' and 'Goldfinger' and then through to 'Skyfall' and 'You Know My Name' by Chris Cornell and 'Another Way to Die' by Jack White and Alicia Keys. Those are songs that have bore real importance to our songwriting lives for years. It's much deeper than just kind of going 'this seems like a good opportunity' you know what I mean? We really wanted to do it. It's like a dream come true to us. … Again, (I) can't iterate, over-iterate … we just feel so lucky to be a part of it. We're just pumped. I can't wait for everybody to hear the song.
Amidst all this craziness, and considering all the people that you've worked with recently -- not just Billie, obviously, but Camila Cabello (producing two tracks on Romance) and Selena Gomez (additional production on "Lose You To Love Me") and Tove Lo most recently (he produced and co-wrote her two new songs) -- you also have your own thriving solo career, and you're finding time this year to play festivals on your own, including Hangout and Bottlerock, and probably some others that haven't been announced yet. What are you hoping new fans of yours will take away from your solo live performances this year. What are you hoping people walk away from those performances with in their minds?
That's an awesome question. I mean, I'm actively writing my first full-length album, so I probably won't do a ton of touring. Until then I'll just do some festivals, some one offs, which will be fun. You know, I think to me, I always put the songs above everything else. So the thing that has always been the most important is just that I have an audience that really engages with the songs, that is there to hear the songs. I don't try to make much of a fuss about anything before I write the songs. I think when I perform live, it's just about an authentic retelling of the songs. In my experience as an audience member (watching) shows that I love, with very few exceptions, I go to hear the songs that I listen to all the time in my car, performed live and to be engaged and to shout the lyrics back at the performer and to really just have that live kinetic energy moment. That to me, is always above anything else. I'm always going to be an audience-first performer. There's a kind of a certain element of live performers that, they kind introvert it on stage, and just sort of close their eyes and zone in on their own music. I totally respect that, there are artists that do that, that I love. But in my case, if I'm going to play live, it's about how can I have individual connections with (people in the audience).
Also on the Pop Shop Podcast, in addition to the interview with Finneas, the Pop Shop team dives into a discussion about the big four categories at the Grammy Awards: album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and best new artist. They make predictions as to who might win, and what to watch out for, with a little help from Billboard's awards editor Paul Grein.
The Billboard Pop Shop Podcast is your one-stop shop for all things pop on Billboard's weekly charts. You can always count on a lively discussion about the latest pop news, fun chart stats and stories, new music, and guest interviews with music stars and folks from the world of pop. Casual pop fans and chart junkies can hear Billboard's senior director of charts Keith Caulfield and deputy editor, digital Katie Atkinson every week on the podcast, which can be streamed on Billboard.com or downloaded in Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast provider. (Click here to listen to the previous edition of the show on Billboard.com.)