As 2021 comes to a close, Finneas has much to be grateful about this year. On top of producing and co-writing for sibling superstar Billie Eilish‘s second studio album Happier Than Ever, which arrived in July, he also released his debut studio record, Optimist, in October. The year also welcomed his return to live performances, whether that be the North American leg of his Optimist Tour or supporting his sister throughout a variety of festivals and late-night show appearances — including a standout performance on Saturday Night Live’s Studio 8H stage earlier this month.
The prolific year has resulted in another haul of Grammy nominations for Finneas, bringing his burgeoning career total to 14. He was first nominated for his work on Eilish’s 2019 debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and he has since won eight Grammy awards, including for album and song of the year (for “bad guy”). This year’s nominations again recognized his extensive writing and production on Eilish’s latest body of work, but one also came as a complete surprise to him: A nod for best new artist, his first as a solo performer.
“I was driving home from somewhere and I was live streaming the nomination announcements,” Finneas recalls to Billboard. “I was like, ‘You know, Billie won this couple years ago, so she can’t get nominated again. And then they read my name third, and I was like, ‘Whoa!'”
Amid his mounting stature as a solo artist, it’s evident how invested Finneas is in Eilish’s career still, telling Howard Stern early last week, “Billie takes precedent over all, [she’s] first, always.” And listeners can’t seem to get enough, either: “Happier Than Ever,” almost five months since its release, still sits at No. 43 on the Hot 100 in its 20th week on the chart, after debuting at No. 11 in August.
A staple among many year-end lists, including No. 9 on Billboard‘s best songs of 2021, the five-minute song has been incessantly praised for its creative structure and colossal second-half explosion into a heavy rock ballad. “We just knew that it was important to the album,” Finneas says. “We found it cathartic. We were like, ‘Oh, this is definitely the title track.'”
Below, Finneas tells Billboard about the songwriting process with his sister that resulted in “Happier Than Ever,” its long-tail chart success, Optimist and how he felt about taking the album on tour.
How was “Happier Than Ever” created?
We started writing that song in the summer of 2019. We had a U.S. run, and we flew straight to the U.K. to play Glastonbury. We were in a town in Denmark called Middelfart, [and] we were super jet lagged. I had this little toy guitar that’s like a beginners’ kids guitar that I got at Guitar Center for $80, which is like, the cheapest guitar ever made. It just sounded really cute. I was sitting around with Billie, and we started writing that melody that was sort of the first chorus, the, “When I’m away from you, I’m happier than ever” part. It was correlated to what she was going through in her life at that exact moment. We knew that we liked that idea, but we weren’t in the period of time where we were like crunching down on an album, so we just put it in our back pocket and we’d write a line or two here and there.
Eight months after that, we were in lockdown and very devoted to making an album. We revisited that idea and loved it. That was when we sat and wrote what became part two. We also wrote that acoustically, which I think people wouldn’t expect from hearing it. We finished writing the song in May or June 2020. Later that summer was when we got the recording right. That’s a pretty long writing lifespan for songs — usually, songs are written pretty quickly. I think it’s a testament to how long and winding that song is in and of itself, so it was a really fulfilling process. I’m so happy with the way it turned out.
When you two finally finished recording it last year, did you know it was gonna be the hit that it has been?
I don’t know that we ever pretend to predict what’s going to be a hit or not. At the time, we hadn’t made the song “Male Fantasy” and I thought, “Oh, this is going to be the last song on the album.” And we knew that we wanted to close our show with it. So we knew all of those things, and we loved it. But I don’t think we pretend to know when something is or isn’t going to be successful, because the few times we’ve tried to guess, we’ve been wrong.
Even though you wrote the second half-acoustically, what inspired its eventual sonic direction?
That’s the stuff that we grew up on. More than anything else, I try to produce music the way that I feel the song deserves to sound. I just felt like the songwriting of that song deserved to be very dynamic, and I wanted to make sure that the production didn’t get in the way of her voice, but really helped propel that emotionality. Because the stuff she’s singing about in that song is so vulnerable. It’s embarrassing to admit that you’ve been so mistreated by somebody. But I think it’s brave to admit that, too.
What are some moments that stood out to you from the songwriting process?
Getting that guitar-vocal combo in the beginning of the song to sound perfect was a real challenge, because I wanted it to have a lot of vibe and texture — I used some cool plugins to get that right. Also, one of the best things I did on this album was I taught Billie how to calm her own vocal in [music software program] Logic, which is where you edit your best takes of every line together. She was already directing all of her own vocal performances before that, but I was the one that was sitting at the computer doing it. I would clean it up a little bit afterward, but she would make the choices, like “This is the take, I like this take the best.” She did that for this whole song. And my favorite moment of the whole recording process was all the screaming she does in the ending of the song where she’s literally yelling and screaming curse words.
The song’s been hanging steady on the Hot 100 since it came out, despite it not being a “conventional” single. Why do you think the song is resonating with fans as much as it is?
I just think it’s a further example of the fact that I don’t think listeners care about what is or is not conventional. Listeners just respond emotionally. They like what they like, they don’t like what they don’t like. So I don’t think it really matters to them, I guess. What matters to them is just how they feel and respond to something.
What was it like to perform “Happier Than Ever” on Saturday Night Live?
It was so fun! That song is really comfortable to perform in an environment like that. That’s really where that song is supposed to live. It’s not like when we made her first album — I feel like we made [When We All Fall Asleep] in a bedroom, so it was for people to listen to that album in their rooms. I feel like we made that second album for the stage. We made it to play in arenas and at festivals. I really enjoyed that.
You received five Grammy nominations last month. What was your reaction?
I’m very honored. The thing that’s the greatest honor is the recognition from the Recording Academy itself. I’m also very honored to be in the company of other nominees that I’m a huge fan of — I think that’s the other part of it that makes it so special.
You earned a best new artist nod, which is your first nomination as a lead artist. Who have been some of your favorite artists from that pool of nominees?
I’ll start by saying all of them. I’m very impressed and inspired by all of them, but I’ve had a personal chance to work with Arlo Parks a little bit. I’m a huge, huge fan of hers, and we’ve written some songs together, which is a treat. I’ve loved watching Olivia [Rodrigo]’s career blow up and take off. I think Arooj Aftab is super talented. I love that Saweetie is nominated and she’s super talented, and The Kid LAROI too. I mean, really, the only people I’m not mentioning right now are the people I’m forgetting right now off the top of my head. It’s a huge honor. [Finding out] was a total surprise. They read Baby Keem, and then me. I was shocked.
Let’s talk Optimist. Why was this collection of songs in particular right for your debut album?
I was writing them all as a body of work, so I felt they were very cohesive together. [Having a] common thread within a body of work is not everything — you should also be dynamic and diverse — but there was a real focus to it, and I was happy about that. It was just me trying to tackle why I feel the way I feel, as opposed to pointing at things that are outside of myself. It was more about being as inward as possible. I always felt that the way that you make people feel seen is you are just honest about your own shortcomings, frustrations and anxieties. It makes people feel seen, because they are also riddled with those.
In addition to your own work, you write and produce a lot for others: your sister, Arlo Parks, Kid Cudi, Justin Bieber. What lessons did you take away from putting together Optimist for yourself?
I learned a lot. It’s a really cool process making a full album completely alone in a room. I also worked with Johan Lenox on a string arrangement for the opening song, “A Concert Six Months From Now.” And that was really fun. I think he’s really, really talented. I’ve already written a bunch of songs for a new body of work, but I’m really proud of this record, and we got to do a North American tour right after we finished it. It was so fun to see the songs translate live and see which songs were most enjoyed by the audience. It was a super positive experience. I was really grateful to take it out on the road as soon as I made it.
Which songs from the album got the most reception from crowds on the road?
“The Kids Are All Dying” went great every night. “Only A Lifetime” and “Love Is Pain” were really fun to perform. But I didn’t have the song “Medieval” on the setlist when I started the tour, and people started to bring signs to the shows that said “Play Medieval.” So we added it exactly halfway through the tour and it just was so much fun. It was a surprising thing because if you don’t have that tangible experience of who’s in the room telling you what songs to play, you only know what’s streaming well or whatever. And those metrics aren’t as personal as people’s opinions — they’re just data points. So it was really exciting to have that personal engagement with people in the room.