Rob Kinelski Talks Mixing For Billie Eilish, Working With Young Artists, and Keeping His Approach Simple
The praise for Billie Eilish’s chart-topping debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? has largely centered on Billie’s smart lyrics, eerie melodies and fully formed persona -- but the quirky, genre-bending sound of the album has garnered nearly as much acclaim.
New York Magazine critic Craig Jenkins tweeted that the record sounds “wild on the speakers,” while Billboard contributor Richard S. He called “Bad Guy” the “loudest ‘quiet’ track I’ve ever heard.” The sound of the album has become a phenomenon on its own with both amusing memes and thoughtful, technical analyses offering commentary on the record’s sparseness and creative use of dynamics. Much of that could be credited to Billie, as well as her producer older brother Finneas and his aggressively spacious approach -- but the final mixing was handled by engineer Rob Kinelski.
Kinelski’s career made him an appropriate choice for a genre-agnostic album: he went from producing rock records from an apartment recording studio to working as an assistant recording engineer on Beyonce’s classic 2006 sophomore solo LP B’Day and working in collaboration with producer No I.D, before going off on his own in 2013. After mixing LP’s worldwide hit “Lost on You,” that song’s mastering engineer recommended Kinelski to Eilish and her team. Beginning with Eilish’s single “Bellyache,” Kinelski has sonically shaped every Eilish release to date.
Speaking from a new studio space in L.A. -- which he says he needed after “this damn Billie record [got him] booked crazy" -- Kinelski tells Billboard about his process, his working relationship with Billie and Finneas, and what he loves about working with younger musicians.
Normally when an artist begins a project with a mixing engineer, the artist provides ‘reference’ music. What were the reference points for When We All Fall Asleep?
For this record, I referenced nothing. After [two years], you just build a rapport with somebody. If you have a relationship with the artist, the sound kind of becomes itself. When I mixed the album, it was right after my daughter was born, and I was just like in this surreal headspace, just tired and working at my house for a long time.
I listened to the whole thing after it was mastered and I was like, “Oh man, I love this.” But I was like “this is kind of dark,” and then I was like, "Oh man, I hope that I’m not going to be slammed on [audio engineering forum] Gearslutz or something.” But I really liked it, and Billie and Finneas really liked it.
When working on Eilish’s music, are you balancing final stems [pre-mixed groups of tracks], or do you receive raw files?
Finneas sends really nice stems, but they’re separate instruments. It’s not like I get a whole stem for the drums, but I get kicks, and usually everything is processed and dialed in already.
There are also goofier moments on the record -- how did you react when you heard The Office clips in “My Strange Addiction"?
I laughed! I love The Office and I knew [they were referencing] “Threat Level Midnight.” I watch that show all the time. I knew that they were big Office fans, so when they did that I was like, that's so badass. [Coming] from hip-hop, you kind of just work with what's given, right? And you make it work, and you don't have to overthink it.
I’ve read interviews with mixers that load their sessions with effects, but you keep your approach relatively simple. What inspires that?
When you're new at mixing, you're mixing with an ego -- you gotta add this, add this, and add this. As I got experience, I stopped adding and seeing, “How can I do this minimally?” Like back in the day, The Beatles had 4-tracks, you know what I mean? So [the thinking is], “How can I do this with the least amount of tools?”
I have my vocal chain and I have my master bus chain that I like to use. I use UAD, Waves and Soundtoys plugins. I just don't think I'd always have to always have to reinvent it for the [client], you know? With Billie and Finneas, they know what they want from the beginning, and I just try to take it into the end zone.
You also recently mixed Hypochondriac, by San Diego punk band The Frights -- do you approach every kind of mix the same way, or do you gravitate towards certain things depending on the genre?
I have one template that I use to start off every mix, but the direction it goes,is always kind of malleable. When The Frights they came to me, they were going for a Pet Sounds [meets] Weezer’s Blue Album kind of vibe. I love both those albums. [When I reference] I listen for certain nuances and it's always decoding, “What did they like from those albums?” Sometimes I'll ask them, “Well, what specifically do you like about that song?” Then, it's a matter of translating what you think they want.
As a mixing engineer, do you have any particular influences?
I really like Tony Maserati and Manny Marroquin, I think those guys are great. There are times I'll use some of their songs that to reference -- but for my own approach, I don't really reference. You assist at Sony for a long time, you kind of pick up a bunch of random things from everybody and you develop your own style.
In addition to working with Eilish you’ve worked with newer artists like King Princess and Alessia Cara, who are also fairly young. Do you view working with newer acts as a responsibility?
I think it's really exciting -- especially when you work with somebody from the beginning, it's cool because you become part of it, and it's exciting to be a part of that early. With established artists, it’s also exciting and it's an honor, you know? But new artists are fun because there's nothing to live up to - there's no expectations. What Billie did is fearless, you know? Anything like that really excites me. People who are not thinking outside the box but they have their own box and they’re taking chances.
What advice do you have for younger engineers?
Trust your ears, work hard and don’t take yourself too seriously.