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Why Producer of the Year Nominee Finneas Wants To Make More Than Just 'The Billie Sound'

Finneas O'Connell
Luke Fenstemaker

Finneas O'Connell

Finneas O’Connell’s down-to-earth presence — he apologizes for running precisely “four minutes late” to meet me at a Highland Park cafe in Los Angeles — contrasts with the high-octane year he’s had: He co-wrote and produced the explosive debut album by his younger sister Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, then joined her for a world tour. And it doesn’t seem things will quiet down for O’Connell anytime soon. He’s nominated for three Grammys (album, record and song of the year) alongside Eilish, and scored two major nods on his own: best engineered album, non-classical and producer of the year, non-classical (for which, at 22, he’s the youngest solo nominee ever).

Whether or not he collects a statue, O’Connell is building a profile in the industry as much more than Eilish’s super-talented sibling. His debut EP, the moody Blood Harmony, came out in October 2019, and he recently expanded his circle of collaborators to include Selena Gomez (he co-produced her comeback single, “Lose You to Love Me,” which became her first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1) and Camila Cabello (he co-wrote two tracks on Romance). And then there’s his next big project: launching a publishing company. “When I started, I felt that there was this incredible amount of doubt of my ability as a producer,” he says, sipping something called a Mexi Mocha. “I know there’s some 17-year-old who is destroying out there, and I just want to help.”

The Grammy buzz around When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? has been enormous. What did you expect ahead of the nominations?

People surrounding us were like, “You’ll probably be nominated.” But it was really stressful because I’m like, “Does this mean that if we’re not, people on our team are going to be disappointed?” The night before was like going to sleep on Christmas Eve. [I was] always like, “Listen, if we get nominated, it’s a big deal to me, and if we won, it would be a big deal.” I just want to be honest because some people act like they don’t care.

Do you think any producers got snubbed?

Producer was the one [nomination] I was sure I wouldn’t get — I produced one record this year. Super-producers do like six albums. I’m a little shocked to not see Louis Bell in the category. If you talk about year-defining sounds, he’s one of them.

Do producers get the recognition they deserve these days?

I was just talking to Benny Blanco about this. We both felt like when we were growing up, there wasn’t much emphasis on producers, but now, there is. I think it’s because the internet has evolved to where we can see a lot of credits, so people are more interested. Kids have tools to do what I’m doing.

After years of working in relative isolation with Billie, how do you approach working with new artists?

What I really didn’t want to do is work with other people and have them go, “Oh, Finneas just does that sound for everybody.” The Billie sound is only Billie — I’ll only do that for her. I love Camila, and the fun part was getting to make a Camila song. I don’t feel that anybody would know [that I produced it]. I mainly try to foster long-term collaborative relationships. Even if we sit in a room and have no good ideas for seven hours, and we just talk about our lives and get coffee, it’s all part of the process.

What are you expecting from your first-ever Grammys?

Going in, I’ll just be wide-eyed about everything, which I think is healthy. One of the most fun parts of the community we’re in is that we’ve gotten to know a lot of people. I love Lil Nas X, Lizzo and Ezra [Koenig] from Vampire Weekend. There’s no competitive spirit. It takes away all the nervousness — like, “Cool. I get to see my friends.”

This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.

2020 Grammy Awards