‘Awards Chatter’ Podcast — Billie Eilish & Finneas (‘No Time to Die’)
This week’s guests on The Hollywood Reporter’s awards podcast, siblings Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, have only been on the scene for the last six years and are just 19 and 24, respectively, but they are already, in the words of NPR, “two of the most influential artists on earth right now.” Their songs — most of which were recorded in O’Connell’s childhood bedroom, were co-written by the two, feature vocals by Eilish and were produced by O’Connell — have been streamed literally billions of times and broken pop chart and Grammys records. Now, for the first time, they are in Oscar contention, having co-written a hit Bond song, “No Time to Die,” which Eilish also performs in No Time to Die.
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You can listen to the convo via this audio player. The article continues below.
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Eilish and O’Connell’s unlikely rise to mega-stardom started with “Ocean Eyes,” a song they uploaded to SoundCloud in 2015, which went viral and led to a deal with Interscope. Then came the 2017 EP Don’t Smile at Me and subsequently two albums, both of which debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart.
The first was 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. At one point, 12 of its 14 songs were simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, along with two others by Eilish, for a total of 14, besting (by one) Cardi B’s record for most songs from a female artist’s debut album on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album’s fifth single, “Bad Guy,” became her first song to top the Hot 100, dethroning Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” after it spent a record-breaking 19 weeks in the top spot, and making Eilish the first artist born in this millennium to have a No. 1 song and the youngest female artist to do so since Lorde with “Royals.” Just a year after its release, the album was ranked among Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The second album, released in July, was Happier Than Ever. Six of its 16 singles cracked the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, the highest-charting being “Therefore I Am,” which reached No. 2.
Eilish, who is still just 19, has been described by The New York Times as “one of the planet’s biggest pop stars,” by The Guardian as “a strong contender for the voice of her generation” and by V magazine as “the new pop archetype, arguably the Britney Spears of Generation Z.” No less an authority than Elton John has said, “I don’t think there’s ever been such a young pop artist to write songs that are so personal. Billie Eilish’s songs come from within her. She reminds me of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan — a totally old soul from a vocal point of view. She doesn’t sound like anybody else today.”
O’Connell meanwhile, is now 24, and has been described by The New York Times as “a pop star’s secret weapon.” Lately, he has been producing for not just Eilish, but others, too, including Camila Cabello and Selena Gomez. And November brought the release of his debut album as a solo artist, Optimist, which he wrote, performed, arranged and produced entirely on his own, save for the first track’s violin and cello.
The duo have been major players at the Grammys since 2020. That year, Eilish won five awards and O’Connell won six. He became, at just 22, the youngest-ever winner of producer of the year; and she became only the second person (after Christopher Cross), the first female and the youngest person ever, at 18, to win in all four main Grammy categories — best new artist, record of the year, song of the year and album of the year — in a single year. Her album of the year win also made her the youngest-ever winner in that category, breaking Taylor Swift’s record. At the end of that ceremony, O’Connell said, “We wrote an album about depression and suicidal thoughts and climate change… We stand up here confused and grateful.”
In 2021, they each picked up two more Grammys, one for the non-album single “Everything I Wanted,” which won record of the year, making Eilish the first solo artist since Roberta Flack in 1973 and 1974 to win that category two years in a row; and the other for “No Time to Die,” the theme song for the 25th Bond film of the same name, which was recognized as the best song written for visual media. (A quick side note: the song’s inclusion in the film made Eilish the youngest artist ever to write and record a Bond song — and people clearly liked it: it debuted at No. 16 on the Hot 100.)
And on Tuesday, O’Connell was nominated for five more Grammys — including in each of the big four general field categories, with the best new artist recognition coming for Optimist — and Eilish picked up seven more noms, all for Happier Than Ever, including record of the year, song of the year and album of the year. On Jan. 31, 2022, she could become the first artist ever to three-peat in the record of the year category.
This year, though, the two find themselves in contention for not just Grammys but Oscars too. Indeed, their Bond song is the tune to beat in the best original song contest, having already been recognized as the year’s best original song at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards. And a vérité film about their rise to prominence, R.J. Cutler’s Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, is very much in the mix for a best documentary feature nomination, too.
When Eilish, O’Connell and I connected last week, we discussed their close relationship, their differing approaches to songwriting, why writing a Bond song was always a dream of theirs, and much more. A lightly edited transcript of our hourlong conversation follows.
Where were you guys born and raised? And what did your folks do for a living?
O’CONNELL: We were born and raised in Highland Park, which is an area in Greater Los Angeles. Our parents were actors — and also a teacher and a carpenter to keep food on the table during our childhood.
What was the earliest sign that there was a musical chip in you guys?
EILISH: Music’s been such an essential part of my life. I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t like 90 percent of what I did in my daily activities. As a child, I was always singing or we were always coming up with stuff — music was never not present in our household, especially singing. I just never shut up.
Billie, I read that you had written songs of your own by the age of four?!
EILISH: Hell yeah, man. I mean, they were terrible, but we were writing songs as kids. If I watch home movies now, it’s funny to see because I just was making up songs constantly all through the day. I guess there are lots of kids that don’t do that, but I thought it was super normal. I would just walk around the house and sing about everything that I saw and felt and did — that was just what I knew.
O’CONNELL: Our car rides with our parents, when we were sitting in the back seat, would be singalongs, always. And it wasn’t until we were driving around with friends that that would be pointed out to us. They’d be like, “Oh, you guys are always singing when you’re in the car.”
EILISH: We definitely had no awareness of how much music there actually was in our lives until other people would say, “Why the hell are you guys always doing that?”
I understand that your mother, as part of your homeschooling, taught you about the process of songwriting?
EILISH: Yeah. Our mom has written songs. I don’t know when she exactly started, but she was writing songs our whole childhoods, and before that, and made recorded music. It was no joke. I remember going with her to her recording sessions for her music and having lots of fun and hiding under the desk because I was scared of the engineer.
O’CONNELL: It was a person that my mom knew through her time at The Groundlings in Los Angeles — I want to say the music director, or maybe just the keyboardist. We talk today about the “bedroom producer,” and he really was a bedroom producer. We’d go with our mom to his house, and in his converted garage he had a computer and he’d put up foam walls. It wasn’t Henson Studios or Conway; it was like a home recording setup. So we have always been indoctrinated into home recording. To us, “the studio” is a home studio.
Billie says that as far back as she can remember she was gravitating towards singing. Finneas, I wonder if it was seeing that guy’s operation, or something else, that made you particularly interested in instruments and producing?
O’CONNELL: I always gravitated toward bands. I idolized bands as a child, and I always wanted to be in a band with my friends, and I was in bands in my teens. The first time I saved up enough money to hire a producer — a guy who had done a band called Bad Suns — to do a song or two, we were in the studio, and he’d been working with another band that I thought was cool and I looked up to before that, and then we were about to leave — I’d run out of money to pay for studio time, and the next artist was going to come in — and I remember thinking, “What a cool life this guy has, that he’s just always here, and artists come to him, as opposed to I’m the guy in the band, and we save up the money and we go in.” So, I always was like, “I want the keys to the car. I want to be able to do this.” That was really the moment. That was when I was 17-years-old. I was like, “I want to learn how to produce.” Well, I started learning how to produce at like 13, but that was when I was like, “Oh, this is the coolest.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s kind of important that you came along at the time in history when you did because, for most of it, technology and equipment wouldn’t have been available to somebody just working out of a bedroom, right? I mean, you were able to teach yourself a lot of stuff on the computer…
O’CONNELL: This is absolutely true. I mean, it’s a very Outliers book-esque time period we grew up in. You’re totally right. Even down to the summer I got the application Logic Pro X, which is what I used to produce music — that summer, they discounted the price, and suddenly I could afford it. I was 13 years old and was saving up to pay for the more expensive one and hadn’t saved up enough, and then suddenly it was like, “Hey, I can afford this!” They changed it from like $800 to $200, and I was like, “Oh my God, I saved up enough. I can do it!”
History could have been very different if they hadn’t done that…
O’CONNELL: Yeah. God bless Tim Cook, man.
Billie, I want to ask you about the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. You’ve said people might assume it was something you resisted being a part of because there were some strict rules and requirements, but you loved it…
EILISH: I loved it. Finneas and I were both in the choir at separate times, just because of our ages and his voice dropping. But yeah, it was the closest thing that I’ve ever had to school and rules in a classroom because we didn’t go to school, so we didn’t have uniforms or homework or have to sit still for hours and hours and learn stuff, and choir was that. It was really intimidating for me at first because I was like, “What the hell? I’ve never done anything like this.” I’d never really had a teacher that was like, “There are rules in the classroom.” So it took a second for me to get used to homework and stuff. But those years of being in that choir are to date my favorite times in my life, and especially lately, I don’t know why, I’ve just been emotional about it. I really miss it. I think it’s the holidays because we always had—
O’CONNELL: Christmas concerts.
EILISH: Yeah, Christmas concerts. We would all sell poinsettias to earn points and make money for the choir. I don’t know. There’s just so many things I miss about it, and I learned so much from it, and I got all of my best relationships and friendships from that choir.
O’CONNELL: This is a very goofy thing to say, but it was scholastic, in a sense. Billie and I didn’t go to traditional school. We were homeschooled, and as much as we loved the choir, the rehearsals were very strict. You’d talk in your 10-minute break in-between parts of rehearsal, but other than that, a lot was asked of you. You were expected to sit there and look at the teacher and study and be focused, and there was something about that kind of stricture — there was an element of that stupid childhood angst — that we really enjoyed. Also, beyond the fact that the friendships were invaluable, et cetera, et cetera, we were held to a high standard as kids by these really talented directors. The standard of singing was just really high, and the pieces we were getting to sing were beautiful. We were getting to sing anything from Brahms and Beethoven to new composers like Nicholas Nicassio, who would do Emily Dickinson poetry.
EILISH: Yeah. The music was incredibly beautiful and so memorable. I teared up many, many times in rehearsals. Music is so beautiful and powerful — it’s really crazy how powerful it is, especially when you are putting it out into the world and you’re the one singing it, and especially with harmonies and with 60 kids singing all different parts. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing, and you can’t get it anywhere else. I have strived for that beauty of being in a choir and hearing the beautiful parts for the first time. You’d practice your part a bunch of times, and then when you all sing together it just becomes — literally, it’s spiritual.
Do you think that being homeschooled together cemented your close bond? My siblings and I, and most people I know who have siblings, couldn’t work together because we just bicker too much…
EILISH: We bicker so much, you would not believe it. People say that all the time, and I feel like you just have to try to do it. Since we were babies, we fight all the time like siblings do. We’re so annoyed by each other and infuriated by things. But we also get along really well, and literally, no one on the earth makes me laugh the way that Finneas does.
EILISH: I think that that part is probably the part that people say they don’t have with their siblings, which makes me sad because it’s the most amazing part of my life.
O’CONNELL: You’re right, we spent a lot of time as young people together because we were homeschooled and it was sort of a family unit, as opposed to Billie off at one school and me off at another one. Then, right as our adolescences hit, when I was 18 and Billie was 13, I started acting. I was on a season of the show Glee, and Billie was getting more and more involved in dance classes — she was in a dance company at the time — and we were spending less and less time together. Then we were like, “Let’s make some songs,” that kind of casual thing turned into this more serious thing, and so we had this excuse to see each other all the time. Most of the people that I’m closest to have a really close relationship with their siblings — I think that’s why I identify with them — but they just have no excuse to see them, you know what I mean? They talk once a month on the phone if they live in separate states. When Billie and I finished her second album, between the second album being finished and coming out, we saw each other half as much as when we were making the album because we just didn’t have— We’d done the thing, and then Billie was making music videos for it, I was producing other artists, and you’ve run out of your excuse to hang out all the time. And so I think that’s the other thing that has cemented our closeness, is just we have this excuse. It’s part of the reason I love going on tour with Billie — I have this excuse to get to spend months at a time with her.
EILISH: Yeah. I totally, totally second that. I have seen TikToks where people are talking about how sad it is that they’ll never be able to live with their sibling again. They don’t hang out the way they used to, their lives are separate, they live in different states, and it’ll never be the way it was — and it’s so sad because it’s true. I think that unfortunately, me and Finneas, if we didn’t have music, making music together, we would probably be like that. We would live separately and we wouldn’t see each other — we’d see each other when we’d have family get-togethers. But luckily, like Finneas said, we have this thing that keeps us having to see each other, which is really nice.
Let’s go back to a major turning point in your lives. Finneas, you were in a band and come up with this song, “Ocean Eyes.” This is right when Billie suffers an injury that ends her serious involvement with dance. And at that very moment is when Finneas asks Billie to collaborate on a song for the first time.
EILISH: I mean, it’s really interesting that you say that because it is true that thing after thing happened that made it all happen when it happened, and it’s so weird how life is like that. I don’t necessarily think that everything happens for a reason or that everything is meant to happen, but it is really fucking interesting how things happen and why and how they lead to other things, and if this hadn’t happened, that wouldn’t happen. Yeah, at the time, I was planning on having dance be my future, and wasn’t really as involved in making music as Finneas was. I loved it, but it was not the thing I was focused on. It was dance all the time. And I got injured, couldn’t dance anymore, was stuck at home — a very, very miserable girl. And yeah, music just kind of came in and swept me up and took me away. Without that injury, who knows, but I probably wouldn’t have made music and had any sort of career at all. It’s really weird.
Finneas, why was that the moment or the song that made you reach out to Billie? You knew she was interested in singing before that, and you’d made music before that…
O’CONNELL: Well, before that specific song, we had already dipped our toes into it. We’d already thought it would be a cool idea to make some stuff together. And the thing about that song was, I don’t want to use the word “femininity” about that song, but there is a fragile quality to “Ocean Eyes” that I was not succeeding at executing in my band. I was belting the chorus. We had huge drums and guitars. It wasn’t fragile enough. So I either knew that I was going to have to redo it myself as a very delicate thing with me singing it, or— I just could hear Billie’s voice on it. And also, that’s not a song that is specifically about my life, and so that was the other reason that I could hear Billie on it. I write a lot of very personal, autobiographical songs, and that wasn’t one of them, so I was like, “This would be a great one for her to sing,” and she just murdered it immediately. That was kind of the a-ha moment of like, “Wow, this is as good as I could hope for.”
It was November 2015 when you put that on SoundCloud, and it took on a life of its own. Billie, you were just shy of 14 at that point, and you have said that you spent the entire year when you were 14 in meetings with all different kinds of people, starting with a meeting with your manager that was really like a fork in the road. ..
EILISH: Gosh. Well, “Ocean Eyes,” which is the song we put out on SoundCloud, which is what Finneas was just talking about, came out six years ago today.
Oh, wow, happy anniversary!
EILISH: Thank you.
O’CONNELL: Yeah, it just celebrated its anniversary.
EILISH: Which is really so strange and makes my skin crawl a little bit. Six years ago! It’s very weird. But yeah, I was 13 and then turned 14 a month exactly later. And the entire year, man, was meetings and meetings and meetings. The first one? I had choir afterwards, so it had to be really short. My mom and I drove to—
O’CONNELL: The Coffee Table in Eagle Rock.
EILISH: Yeah, The Coffee Table, which was across the street from where we used to do aerial arts, where my mom used to teach, so we would spend a lot of time up there. And my mom drove me up there, and she was like, “Okay, we’re having this meeting with this guy, and he’s the manager for this person, and Finneas knows him, and I don’t know what we’re really doing, but, whatever, he seems nice.” We went to this back patio, and there was one other person back there, and me and my mom were sitting there waiting for him, and he was late, of course — he’s been late every time we’ve done anything ever since — but he showed up, and he’s a very small man, in a leather jacket and some sunglasses, and I was like, “Oh, that’s a very small man.” He just happens to be short. I’m just rehashing what happened, and that was my first thought. He came over and we met and I shook his hand and my mom shook his hand, and he just sat down and talked about nothing, and then we kind of got into what do I think is cool, what do I want, do I have plans, and I was just like, “I don’t know. I’m just going through life.” I had just turned 14, mind you. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he said something like, “So, do you actually want to do this? I want you to think about it.” It’s so fucking annoying to be asked that when you don’t even know what “this” is. Oh boy, the amount of times that I’ve thought about that moment and been like, “Did I really want to?” I don’t know. But I guess I’m glad that I did. I don’t know. It’s just, life is weird, and good things come with bad things, and bad things come with good things, and I am very grateful for the life that I have had and for the career that I have. It’s pretty unbelievable and surreal that it is my life. I kind of am in shock sometimes. But it’s funny to be asked that question when you don’t actually know what it is that they’re asking you if you want. I was up for anything. I was like, “Hell yeah, are you kidding me? I think I do.”
O’CONNELL: Some things are a slippery slope. Several years later, another thing happened, and I’ll compare the two. In 2018, so I guess three years later, R.J. Cutler came over to our house to talk about directing a documentary about our family and Billie specifically. And in 2018, Billie and I both were like, “Why are you filming a documentary about us? We’re not important enough for a documentary.” The reason I bring that up is in 2015 when somebody goes, “So, do you really want to do this?” you’re like, “Sure, I want to do this. Isn’t ‘this’ playing a show to 30 of my friends at some point and putting out some songs online?”
EILISH: Yeah, I did not, by the way, consent to what I got. I’ll just say that. I said I wanted to do “this,” meaning what Finneas just said. I wanted to put music out and make music and make videos and go do shows.
O’CONNELL: If you planned for international superstardom, you certainly wouldn’t get it. It’s only by accident.
EILISH: It is only by accident.
O’CONNELL: I think what happened to us was we didn’t know that was on the table. We said ‘yes’ to the sort of small fries thing. A label signs a kid and in their head they’re like—
EILISH: “You’re going to be huge.”
O’CONNELL: That’s so rare and doesn’t happen to 99 percent of people.
EILISH: And also, you don’t want that. You just don’t. You think you do, and I know that people think they do, and they think that they think that they’re right, right? It’s how you feel when you’re young and people are like, “You’ll understand when you’re older,” and you’re like, “No, I won’t. I want to understand now because I’m old enough now.” But you just aren’t. You just don’t know. That is kind of a problem in the world of this — people sometimes start to do this because that’s what they want the end goal to be, and that really bothers me because, first of all, why would you want that? Second of all, it’s really hard and hard to achieve, and if you really want to achieve it that bad, you’re going to be really impatient which means you’re going to let yourself get it in some weird ways, maybe. That just worries me with people.
In the rest of that year of meetings, you were figuring out who else you were going to surround yourselves with. You end up now signing with Interscope. And I wonder if you guys can talk about if or how it changes things when you go from writing music because you want to, to essentially having to deliver a product at a certain amount of time. I mean, you’ve both said that the process of putting together the original EP, Don’t Smile at Me, which was “just” six songs, was horrendous…
O’CONNELL: It was horrible, man. I was so inexperienced and was doing everything the hardest way and learning at the same time, and Billie was having to deal with a person who was so inexperienced and so worried about doing a good job and living up to whatever my own expectations were. And Billie and I were fighting a lot. She was doing a bunch of stuff at the same time.
EILISH: It was horrible.
O’CONNELL: I’m so grateful to Billie for putting up with me back then. I feel like every project we’ve made since then, it’s 50 percent easier every time. Now it’s just easy for us to make stuff. But it was just like the first time we were doing anything, and we were young as hell and I was nervous. And, I mean, it’s funny too because I also felt like the stakes were higher — and I really think they were.
EILISH: I think they were.
O’CONNELL: I really felt back then that the difference between having a career and no career was making some good songs. Now, the ball is in motion. We just get to kind of keep rolling with it and make stuff we’re proud of. But back then, I was kind of terrified because I so desperately wanted to make music that we were proud of and that we felt really passionate about. I’m still really proud of those songs — I didn’t know what I was doing at all, but I’m still really proud of them. I had to work harder than I have to work now to get the same results because of experience. It’s like if you had to build a house today for the first time. Even if it was awesome, it would be so hard. But if you’d been building houses for 10 years, you’d be like, “Ah, I know exactly what to do.” Fixing your own mistakes is what takes so long.
Right. So six songs for the EP, then 13 for the first album only a year and a half later, and I guess, as you say, you just kind of get better or more efficient as you go along…
O’CONNELL: Yeah, you get more experienced. You get more confident, get more experimental. And then same deal with the second album. The second album was a level up from that. It was a 16-song record. Yeah, I mean, it’s been easier and easier and more and more fun. Especially the most recent project, Billie and I had a blast making it. I would go back in time to make that same album again, I had so much fun making it.
O’CONNELL: It was not torturous. It was fun.
Do you approach songwriting in different ways? Finneas, I saw a quote of yours, “I definitely don’t think your best work requires tension or struggle. I’ve made heartbreaking songs that I love as a very happy person.” But then, Billie, from watching the documentary, I got the sense that you want or need to feel what you are singing about. Do you feel that that is a difference between the way you guys come to the process?
EILISH: Interesting question. Well, I don’t know if that’s the difference. I think that really, it’s just that Finneas is a wunderkind about songwriting. The difference is that I am a regular songwriter, and Finneas is kind of a genius songwriter. I think that if he were to take tests that test your brain power, he would be considered a genius, musically. I’m not joking at all.
O’CONNELL: It’s very sweet of you. I don’t feel that way, but that’s very sweet of you.
EILISH: Of course you don’t. But anyway, I think that’s the difference. But no, I definitely don’t need to feel or go through something to write a song or make art about it at all, really. I think that it’s just that you can do both. I also, at the same time as not needing to, do go through a lot of experiences that are bad and go through a lot of emotion, and then I write about those things as well. So it’s not like I can only do that. It’s that I can do that, and then I can also create art out of nothing. I can do it all.
O’CONNELL: Yes, I’ve written songs about stuff that I went through years ago that I’m not going through that feels current, or a song about something that I’ve never gone through but I can imagine it. But what a blessing, if you’re going through something unpleasant, to get to write a song about it and have an outlet, a communication tool or vessel. I just had something happen to me recently. I have this charmed, happy life, but a tragedy happened to somebody that I’ve known my whole life, and it was a tragedy to me because I’d known them my whole life and I loved them. The song that I wrote because of that, even if it never comes out ever, I’m so glad I had that song to write because it helped me process all the emotion that I was feeling from this event. Do you know what I mean? What I didn’t think was, “Oh, I’m so glad I have an inspiration for a song!” It was like, “How do I process what I’ve just been through? Well, I’m going to write a song about it.” And then even if I put it in a box and no one ever hears it, I know how I felt because I was able to write these lyrics about it.
Well, you anticipated exactly where I wanted to go next. I was going to ask, do you guys find songwriting cathartic? Billie, we don’t have to rehash everything that led to “Everything I Wanted,” but did you feel better after doing it?
EILISH: Yeah, totally. I think that the thing for me that feels the best is what Finneas has just said. The song that he’s referring to, I’ve heard it — it’s not out or anything — but that was so specific to a situation, whereas “Everything I Wanted” was very broad. There were a lot of things that happened within two years that led to that song, so it wasn’t really about a specific situation. That song wasn’t super like, “Oh, my God, thank God I got this song out of my system, it’s really helping me cope,” because it wasn’t a specific thing that happened. But the second verse of that song absolutely felt like a coping mechanism and a very satisfying cathartic thing, but then that’s just specific lyrics. I also tend to be much better at writing about things that happened, not things that are happening. I tend to not really know how to write about stuff that is happening. Me and Finneas actually talk about this a lot because it’s really hard to know what the hell is going on right when it’s going on, and to articulate it. If somebody asks you how you’re feeling, you’re like, “I don’t even know, but it’s a lot of stuff.” And then when it’s over, then you can think back and go, “Oh, okay. That makes sense. I was feeling like this because of that.” And so for Happier Than Ever, our album we just put out, the writing of that was all things that had happened in my life a year-plus ago that I had finally been able to think about and actually look at from a rational person’s point of view, which I hadn’t done before.
You got to process things.
EILISH: Yeah. It opened up this huge creative bubble in myself.
The documentary captures an interesting conundrum for an artist. Finneas, I guess there was some communication from the label: “Focus on writing a hit.” And you knew that Billie would not like that. But how do you guys balance artistic and commercial considerations? If you were only interested in making songs that appeal to you guys, that’s one extreme; then there’s the other extreme of only making things that you think other people are going to go for. How do you navigate where you land in the middle of those two extremes?
O’CONNELL: Well, I can tell you this. I feel like I’ve learned from experience that you never know if you’re going to make a hit, so it’s not super worth trying to make a hit. What is totally valid and valuable is — no matter how big or small your audience is — knowing your audience and making something and thinking along the way, “They’re going to love that line,” even if you thought about yourself first. I would say that Billie and I are making music that we love, but also in the thought-process is the enjoyment of people listening to our music because, I think from years of playing shows now, that’s such a tangible feeling. You just know these moments in your show where you realize that these kids are screaming these lyrics. I mean, it’s happened. We’ve done a bunch of festivals this year with Billie, and the way kids sing the song “Happier Than Ever,” I was like, “I knew it! I knew they were going to sing this part of this song that way.” And so I think I’d rather spend the rest of my life thinking about the audience than sort of the song itself being a hit, and that to me is enough, as long as I’m also thinking about whether I like something too. It’s just those two things. And I guess the reason the duality of that is important is our attention span with ourself and our own art can be pretty short. If I was truly only making something for me in private, maybe I wouldn’t repeat a chorus or something because I wrote it and I heard it and I don’t need to hear it again — but the audience, it’s absorbing it for the first time, and they want that tasty, itch-scratching thing again. And so, it’s like, “Yeah, here it is again.” It’s kind of giving the people what they want. It’s, to me, what I’m always aiming to do.
Well, can we tackle a case study of that? Almost every single from the first album made the Hot 100, but the one that clicked the most, for whatever reason, was “Bad Guy.” Would you have predicted that when you guys were making the album?
EILISH: No, no.
O’CONNELL: No. But we loved it, and our dad ran in the room when we were making it and was bopping around, and I should have known that it would be an earworm — it just stuck in your head instantly the first time you heard it, the way Billie’s singing it. Now, in retrospect, I listen to it and it’s not a mystery to me at all. It’s just that you don’t know what you have until you know what you have, you know what I mean? But now I’m like, “Oh, this totally makes sense.”
EILISH: Yeah. But I mean, I loved it. We loved the song. But again, you don’t know. You really have no clue what the hell is going to be liked. I mean, it’s so weird. You always go into this and you’re like, “Oh yeah, the fans are going to love this one.” And then they’re like [makes a deflating sound]. No, they don’t do that, the internet does that. But it is true that you think, “Oh, this’ll probably be good” or “This will be big,” and then the ones that you don’t think that about get big. It’s just so funny. Music just is loved the way that it’s loved, and I love that about it. People like it if they like it and you just have no idea why. But besides that, we loved the song. I mean, people did tell us that it wasn’t a hit, but we liked it so it didn’t really matter.
Do you trust anyone as a sounding board, aside from each other?
O’CONNELL: Just each other.
EILISH: Yeah, we’re a little annoying about that.
O’CONNELL: Billie can second this if she wants to, but I don’t like criticism and notes for no reason. I like people to feel allowed to give their opinion if they have it, but they don’t have to make up an opinion. Artists that I’m friends with will send me some song and they’ll be like, “What do you think about it? What would you change?” And I’m like, “Just send it to me, and if it’s missing something I’ll say, ‘Hey, you should add this.’” We have team members, we have managers and stuff who are consistently good at that. We don’t ask what they think, but they tell us what they think and it’s helpful — and a lot of the time they don’t. They go, “We think it’s great. We don’t have any notes for this.” And I really am grateful for that.
EILISH: We are pretty annoying about it. Anyone could say, “Oh, that’s so cocky of them” — I literally couldn’t give less of a fuck. I don’t. I was literally saying this the other day to somebody: There are times when we would like constructive criticism — that’s when I don’t know how I feel because I don’t have a strong yes or no in my gut — so what I’m going to do is text this person and say, “Hey, what are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with me? Do you not agree with me? Be honest, whatever.” Those are the times when I want to know because I don’t feel like I really know myself in that moment. But then there are times when you have a strong gut feeling and you want it a certain way and you don’t ask people. And so, in not asking people, you don’t want to know. I don’t want to know. If I want to post a picture on my Instagram and I don’t know if it’s good, if I can’t really tell if people are going to like it, if I feel worried about this or that, I will send it to Finneas or Laura [Ramsay, Eilish’s day-to-day manager] or a friend or somebody, and I’ll say, “Is this worth posting?” And they’re like, “Yes,” “no,” “whatever.” Otherwise, if I don’t want to know, I just post it, and I don’t want to hear one word about anybody’s opinion about it — I posted it because I wanted to post it. And it’s kind of like that with music. We don’t do it to be like, “Oh, we’re better than everyone.” We just trust our guts. I, like Finneas was just saying, don’t want to hear notes for no reason when we don’t feel like they need them, I guess.
To connect the dots from the release of that album to you guys becoming involved with Bond: two weeks after the release was Coachella, then there was the In Memoriam at the Oscars, all the Grammys, and just a lot of insanity that I’m sure changed your lives in a major way. But somewhere along the line, somebody calls you and says, “We’d like to know if you’d like to do a Bond song”?
O’CONNELL: Here’s what happened. We have always wanted to do a Bond song. That’s a thing that we’ve always thought about and fantasized about. And we have team meetings once in a while for very tactical reasons — “We have this coming up, what song are we going to do?” et cetera, et cetera, really practical stuff. But sometimes they’re aspirational. They’re like, “What’s a fantasy goal?” And at some point, Billie or I said, “We’d always love to do a Bond song.” At the time it was like, “Are they making another one? Are they going to make another one in a couple years? Let us know who we could tell that we’d love to do that and just make that known.”
Why did you guys so want to do a Bond song? Is it that you love Bond movies or previous Bond songs?
O’CONNELL: That’s a good question. Sometimes when you’re writing a song, you accidentally write kind of a Bond song. You write this chord progression and you think, “Oh, that sounds kind of like a James Bond song!” And if you do a James Bond song, you have an excuse to write a James Bond song! So, that’s really why. But also yes, I love Jack White’s, Alicia Keys’, Paul McCartney’s and Adele’s, and so does Billie. And so the company you’re in is exciting, and the movies are just cool, man. This franchise? The Daniel Craig series were some of my favorite action movies. So we met some people at MGM and sort of said how much we loved it, and they were lovely to us. Then we got word that Barbara [Broccoli, who co-produces the Bond films] was going to fly to see a show of Billie’s in Ireland in the middle of a shoot — they were shooting a movie, but she would fly from the shoot to come visit us. She came, we met with her, and I think her son was with her too, and they were both lovely. And that meeting basically ended with her saying, “I’d be interested to see what you come up with. Here’s the first—” I think it was about 20 pages of the script, and that leads up to where the song goes in the movie. What never happened was, “You’re hired.”
EILISH: “You got the job.”
O’CONNELL: “We’d love for you to do it.” It was always like—
O’CONNELL: “This is a big deal. We’d be eager to hear what your take on this is, but no promises.” And ultimately, as stressful as that was, I think it was kind of great to have it be an audition because we knew that we had to make this song. We had to win. You know what I mean? It was like, “We have to really deliver on this song.”
Did they ever say, “There are certain parameters beyond the script. For a Bond song, we need X, Y, and Z.” Or is it literally just, “Go and come back with what you want to show us”?
O’CONNELL: They gave us none of that, really. All of the parameters that we had to live within were our own. Our favorite songs in the franchise are the title of the movie, right? “Goldfinger” and “Skyfall.” So, we wanted it to be the title. And then, even if someone has never heard of us and they don’t know that it’s in this movie, the first thing we want everybody to think is, “This sounds like a James Bond theme song!” You know what I mean?
Did you approach it differently than any other song you guys have worked together on? Is there something unique about crafting a Bond song?
EILISH: It definitely was a different process. We put a lot more pressure on ourselves because it was really something we wanted to do. It was almost the most we’ve ever wanted to do anything, I feel, and it took a second because we were so worried because we were like, “Oh my God, it has to be right.” And the problem is once I start writing a song — and this is a thing that I have happen a lot when I write, which I should get over and figure out how to deal with better — I’ll start writing a song and I’ll write a melody and I’ll write a lyric, and then I’m like, “Actually, I don’t want this song to have that kind of melody. I want it to be way cooler than that.” So, then I’ll just give up instead of just changing it. It’s really stupid. So with Bond, it was kind of weeks of occasionally being like, “Okay, let’s sit down and write something,” and then we’d write a melody and we’d be like, “That’s not it.” And we’d kind of stop for a sec because we’d be worried because we didn’t want to write the wrong thing. We wanted to be really proud of what we wrote and satisfied. We were Texas doing a couple shows in-between ACL in 2019 and we were like, “Okay, we’ve got to do this. Let’s figure this out.” And Finneas had a studio set up in his green room — which he does at every show, which is actually really nice — and we were just sitting there coming up with stuff. We were so paranoid. We were just like, “It has to have the right melody, and we’ve got to have it be about the script and about the movie and whatever.” Finneas, didn’t you start with either the chorus or the intro? I don’t remember which one it was.
O’CONNELL: Started with the piano.
EILISH: Yeah, that’s what I thought.
O’CONNELL: I just was like, “That feels real.”
EILISH: That was the go. We were like, “Oh, okay.” And from then on, it was the same way we write anything except just much more, I guess, determined, and with more deadlines in our own heads because we really wanted to get the part. We were auditioning, so we were doing it on time. That was the main difference between anything else, I think.
Billie, I’ve heard you sort of bristle when people liken your singing to whispering and ASMR. When you did the In Memoriam for the Oscars, singing “Yesterday,” I heard you wanted to make sure the camera was on you when you were really belting it so that people saw that you can really sing. With “No Time to Die,” I feel like they get that chance again. Was it important to you to show people with this song that you can really let it rip?
EILISH: That was probably one of the main things I was excited about in terms of the song, was just that I was like, “People are going to hear that I can sing big!” Also, I bombed “Yesterday,” by the way. I did not do a good job singing that.
I was there and I thought you were great!
EILISH: Thank you. I’ve never been more nervous in my life.
O’CONNELL: Hey, Billie, side note: I just read Dave Grohl’s autobiography. He did “Blackbird” at the Oscars I think two years before we did “Yesterday,” and he’d been playing arenas for 20 years, and he said he’s never, ever, ever, ever been more nervous for anything than during that.
EILISH: Dude, the Oscars is so cool.
What is it about the Oscars that is so intimidating? Is it just that it’s the biggest award show?
EILISH: Film is so much cooler and more intense than music. It’s really funny how different actors are than musicians. Musicians are all over the place — they wear stupid shit, wear stupid clothes; they’re goofing around all the time because it’s their way of expressing themselves; they show up late to stuff and say weird stuff and don’t ever have a speech planned. And the Oscars? Actors are just, they’re so on time, and well dressed, and well kept, and well put, and well everything. They all had speeches planned, and were very well spoken, and it was just unbelievably intimidating. I was just like, “Wow, these people are so good at this.”
O’CONNELL: We got announced by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was like, “Billie!” Every part of it was very cool.
EILISH: It was cool. It was so, so scary, and cool. And also, it’s also just intimidating to be in a world that’s not your world. That’s not our world. We are in music. It was so scary.
Well, I know that you guys really revere movies — “When I Was Older” was inspired by Roma. And it’s funny because movie stars want to be—
O’CONNELL: Musicians, yeah. Oh, yeah. Being a musician is way more fun than being a movie star.
EILISH: It’s definitely more fun, for sure.
O’CONNELL: What do you think sounds more fun, Scott: crying all day pretending that your brother died, or everyone in an arena chanting, “Scott! Scott! Scott! Scott!”? What is more fun for you? That’s not hard.
I take your point.
EILISH: But yeah, I was very excited for people to hear that I am capable of singing not in a “whisper.” I will say, it’s very funny the way that the internet and society works, because they decide things about people and artists, and then those are the things that they think of that artist forever. And so they decided things about me as an artist when I was 14 and then stuck with it, like, “Oh, she’s an artist that sings like this, and her voice sounds like this.” And I’m like, “Well, it did when I was 14. Please tell me what your voice sounded like at 14. I would love to know so that I can determine who you are.” So, that bothered me too because I was like, “Every year and every time I make music, my voice changes — because I’m a growing girl!” Christ.
Well, just one other note about movies. It was just announced today that you guys are doing three songs for the next Pixar movie, Turning Red.
O’CONNELL: That was so fun, man. I’m so excited that that got announced because that’s been our little secret. We made the songs during the pandemic.
EILISH: Yeah, we saw the storyboard of the movie in the beginning of 2020, maybe end of 2019.
O’CONNELL: Yeah, that was such a fun process.
EILISH: So fun.
O’CONNELL: And the director is really so talented — her name is Domee Shi. She’s incredible, and it was just a really cool process the whole time.
For those keeping score at home, the chronology of all of this is pretty crazy. You’re saying you heard about Turning Red in early 2020. As for “No Time to Die,” you guys released the song on Feb. 13, 2020. Then the pandemic hit, so the movie was delayed forever. You won the Grammy for best song written for visual media before anyone had even seen the visual media. The whole thing must have felt surreal.
EILISH: Yeah, pretty crazy.
Billie, Finneas has been producing for other artists in addition to you — among them, Camila Cabello and Selena Gomez. Is it weird to have to share him?
EILISH: It is, in theory, but he doesn’t work with anyone else the way that we work, I feel. I mean, I talk to him about it. It’s very separate. It’s in the realm of when I make videos. It’s other people working with me, but it’s very different.
O’CONNELL: Yeah, it’s very different, and I don’t work on anything that sounds like Billie. That’s the other thing, and that’s a very, very conscious choice. What’ll happen sometimes — not with the artists that you just named — is you work with somebody that’s already successful and famous, and you think, “Oh, this will be great. I get to work in their world.” But they’ve kind of hired you to do your thing. And I’m like, “No, you don’t understand. That’s Billie. I’m not going to rip Billie and me off for this.” All the work I do has to be differentiable. My fantasy with anyone else is that you just go, “I like the song. I wonder who did it?” And then you’d look it up and it was me. I don’t ever want them to be like, “Oh, I bet that’s Billie’s producer!”
There was just a documentary about the Bee Gees which was kind of like that. I had no idea they wrote all of these great songs later in their career for other artists…
EILISH: So cool.
Finneas, in October you put out your debut album as a solo artist, Optimist, and I know you’re now touring with it. Do you feel you have a better understanding of what it’s like to be Billie?
O’CONNELL: Yeah. I mean, I have a better understanding of how grueling it is. I’m learning to take care of my voice better, and I’ve been in some physical pain on this tour from jumping around on stage and jumping off my piano and stuff. I’ve always had respect and admiration for it, but now I have a tangible understanding of how it feels to do it.
Billie, you have spoken about the terrible effect that social media has had on you at various points. Do you still use it? And do you think other young people should?
EILISH: I do use it. I feel like I’m forced to use it, somehow, except that I’m the one that picks up my phone and looks at it. The internet is this weird thing. It’s like a poison. I don’t think anyone should use the internet. You know what I really think? I think that nobody in the public eye should use the internet. I think it is not meant for us. We are not supposed to go on there, I don’t think. And if the rest of the world wants to use it as a place to talk about us and our entire self, maybe we shouldn’t be on there. But it sucks because it’s like, I want to see funny videos too just like you idiots — I just want to see horses running around and jumping over stuff and dogs and pit bulls being cute and people falling!
In a sentence, what do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
EILISH: Jesus. I mean, everything — literally everything. And I say that just because you just don’t know anyone unless you know them personally. That’s it. And I say that about me as a fan, as well, and me as a hater, as well. There are things I think are lame and I’m like, “Well, why? I don’t even know about this.” You know what I mean?
O’CONNELL: I have a really short answer to this question. The Internet says I’m 5’5″. I’m six feet tall. That’s just unaccepted.
They’re confusing you with the manager Billie was talking about.
O’CONNELL: That’s right, man. Yeah, they’re pretending that our manager is six feet tall. He’s 5’5″. I’m six feet tall.
EILISH: But I do want to finish my sentence just real quick just because it’s really important. When you’re a fan of something or when you know a lot about something, you feel like you know it personally, and you just don’t. The things and people that I’m a really big fan of, I feel like I know them and I can run up and hug them, and I’ve always felt like that since I was a kid. And we have to remember that we are all strangers to everyone. The internet has no clue who I am at all, literally has no clue. And I’ve learned this even more by meeting people that are other artists and being like, “Oh, I had no idea this was who you are,” and that means that neither does the world, because everybody is a stranger always.
If you woke up tomorrow and realized that the last six years had been a dream — that you hadn’t uploaded the song to SoundCloud, let’s say — how would you feel?
O’CONNELL: I hate that idea.
EILISH: Yeah, that’s a horrible question to think about because I don’t know. I would be really, really fucked up by that, and really upset and depressed, because it’s not just like this is my career — this is my entire life. There’s nothing in my life that doesn’t have to do with the career I have. That doesn’t mean my whole life is all about music and Billie Eilish. It’s that it’s become part of everything in my life.
O’CONNELL: We’re so lucky, but in addition to all the luck, it’s the six years straight of just working our asses off and getting to accomplish the things that are our lifelong dreams. So it would really just be getting all of the best parts of our life taken away, is what it would really be like.
EILISH: But then getting a lot of better things, though, also.
You’d have anonymity.
EILISH: Uh-huh. Lots more freedom and privacy and maybe some more joy, a different kind of joy. But I enjoy my life so much now, so I definitely wouldn’t want it — but I would feel a little bit relieved. But also very, very, very depressed.
Finish this sentence: “When I think about the future, I…”
EILISH: When I think about the future, I get anxious.
O’CONNELL: Am pessimistic.
About the world?
O’CONNELL: Yeah. I’m not that hopeful.
And finally, one other crazy time-travel question. If you could go back in time, with the benefit of hindsight, to that moment right before you uploaded “Ocean Eyes” to SoundCloud, and give yourself a piece of advice about how to handle the next six years, what do you wish you would’ve been able to say?
EILISH: Geesh. It’s so good that we can’t actually go back in time because, oh my God, what would I say? I would say, “Are you sure?” Or just, “Be yourself,” I might say, because I think that I was not really myself for a few years there, just because I thought things were cool and I wanted to be those things all the time, constantly, as any teenager does. But it’s funny. There’s a scene in New Girl where Nick and everybody thinks that he might have cancer or something, and — this so stupid, but I reference shows all the time because they make sense in my life — Schmidt says, “If I could trade bodies with you, I would do it in a heartbeat. You know, I really would.” And then he’s like, “I’m also glad that I can’t.” I will say that.
O’CONNELL: I would go back and tell myself and Billie — and I feel like I tell people this now — to enjoy everything as if it were temporary. I think that’s the thing. Enjoy the years of anonymity, in terms of talking to Billie, enjoy being able to go everywhere and not be chased, enjoy all that as this temporary thing. I think we spend a lot of our lives waiting for our lives to change, but you should enjoy the period of your life before it changes because if it does change, you can’t get it back. So, I guess, yeah, enjoy your regular life.